Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda gives the impression that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were nothing but a blood-curdlingly, savage race. To focus on the 150 years of rivalry for the fur trade is to miss the finest attributes of a society so evolved and able to handle the complexities of life that it directly influenced the creation of the United States Constitution.
Pre-European Haudenosaunee were farmers and hunters who lived in permanent settlements. Women within their society held different but equal powers to men. Most decisions, be they within the family, village or nation, were made with unanimity.
The rise-fall-and-rise-again history of the Haudenosaunee in present day Canada is inextricably tied to the history of the United States where at the time of European contact some 10,000 to 15,000 resided south of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. There were also Haudenosaunee living along the north side of the St. Lawrence River. When explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535, the villages of Stadacona (today’s Quebec City) and Hochelaga (today’s Isle of Montreal) were well-established. However when Samuel de Champlain came to the area in 1603, Hochelaga had vanished, as had many of the settlements further up the St. Lawrence River. The present day communities of Canadian Haudenosaunee were established by those who were later displaced from the United States.
Prior to this time the five nations that made up the Haudenosaunee were frequently at war. Oral tradition has it that over a thousand years ago a man called Peacemaker had a vision of unity which he took from village to village of the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga. The resulting Haudensaunee Confederacy led to a method of peaceful governance which lasted until the Revolutionary War tore it apart in 1775.
Then, every nation but the Oneidas and the Tuscororas (who had joined the Confederacy in 1722) sided with the British who subsequently lost the war. For the part they played in fighting the Americans, George Washington ordered a scorched earth campaign of all Haudenosaunee lands. Everything, absolutely everything of the Haudenosauee’s was destroyed. Two thousand of those who survived the campaign fled to Canada. On the Grand River in present day south-western Ontario, all six nations cleared the land they were granted, erected log cabins and began farming in pioneer fashion. Due to the productivity of the soil along the river white settlers soon began squatting on their territory, dividing one nation from another. The government pressured them to sell their land and relocate to a “consolidated reserve”. So that’s what they did leaving behind their cleared fields, log cabins and other improvements and started again! From the sale of this land (despite the government’s ill-fated investment of their funds in the Grand River Navigation Company), the Grand River Haudenosaunee became the wealthiest band in 19th century Canada. From their band fund of some $800,000 they paid their own doctors, teachers, forest warden, interpreter and superintendent. With the adaptation to “modern farming methods” the reserve became a “show-case reserve”.