Yuman Tribes of She Gila River


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The Iroquois have furnished an excellent illustration of the manner in which a confederacy is formed by natural growth assisted by skillful legislation. They resided in villages, which were usually surrounded with stockades, and subsisted upon fish and game and the products of a limited horticulture. In numbers they did not at any time exceed 20,000 souls, if they ever reached that number. . . . They were first discovered A.D. 1608. About 1675 they attained their culminating point, when their dominion reached over an area remarkably large, covering the greater parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and portions of Canada north of Lake Ontario. . . .

When the confederacy was formed, about A.D. 1400–1450 . . . the Iroquois were in five independent tribes, occupied territories contiguous to each other, and spoke dialects of the same language which were mutually intelligible. Beside these facts, certain gentes were common in the several tribes. . . . In their relations to each other, as separated parts of the same gens, these common gentes afforded a natural and enduring basis for a confederacy. . . .

It is affirmed by the Iroquois that the confederacy was formed by a council of wise men and chiefs of the five tribes which met for that purpose on the north shore of Onondaga Lake, near the site of Syracuse; and that before its session was concluded the organization was perfected and set in immediate operation. At their periodical councils for raising up sachems they still explain its origin as the result of one protracted effort of legislation. It was probably a consequence of a previous alliance for mutual defense, the advantages of which they had perceived and which they sought to render permanent. . . .

The general features of the Iroquois Confederacy may be summarized in the following propositions:

1. The confederacy was a union of five tribes, composed of common gentes, under one government on the basis of equality; each tribe remaining independent in all matters pertaining to local self-government.

2. It created a general council of sachems, who were limited in number, equal in rank and authority, and invested with supreme powers over all matters pertaining to the confederacy.

3. Fifty sachemships were created and named in perpetuity in certain gentes of the several tribes; with power in these genres to fill vacancies, as often as they occurred, by election from among their respective members, and with the further power to depose from office for cause; but the right to invest these sachems with office was reserved to the general council.

4. The sachems of the confederacy were also sachems in their respective tribes, and with the chiefs of these tribes formed the council of each, which was supreme over all matters pertaining to the tribe exclusively.

5. Unanimity in the council of the confederacy was made essential to every public act.

6. In the general council the sachems voted by tribes, which gave to each tribe a negative upon the others.

7. The council of each tribe had power to convene the general council; but the latter had no power to convene itself.

8. The general council was open to the orators of the people for the discussion of public questions; but the council alone decided.

9. The confederacy had no chief executive magistrate or official head.

10. Experiencing the necessity for a general military commander, they created the office in a dual form, that one might neutralize the other. The two principal war chiefs created were made equal in powers. . . .

For all purposes of tribal government the five tribes were independent of each other. Their territories were separated by fixed boundary lines, and their tribal interests were distinct. The eight Seneca sachems, in conjunction with the other Seneca chiefs, formed the council of the tribe by which its affairs were administered, leaving to each of the other tribes the same control over their separate interests. As an organization the tribe was neither weakened nor impaired by the confederate compact. Each was in vigorous life within its appropriate sphere, presenting some analogy to our own states within an embracing republic. It is worthy of remembrance that the Iroquois commended to our forefathers a union of the colonies similar to their own as early as 1755. They saw in the common interests and common speech of the several colonies the elements for a confederation, which was as far as their vision was able to penetrate.

The tribes occupied positions of entire equality in the confederacy in rights, privileges, and obligations. Such special immunities as were granted to one or another indicate no intention to establish an unequal compact or to concede unequal privileges. There were organic provisions apparently investing particular tribes with superior power; as, for example, the Onondagas were allowed fourteen sachems and the Senecas but eight; and a larger body of sachems would naturally exercise a stronger influence in council than a smaller. But in this case it gave no additional power, because the sachems of each tribe had an equal voice in forming a decision, and a negative upon the others. When in council they agreed by tribes, and unanimity in opinion was essential to every public act. The Onondagas were made "Keepers of the Wampum," and "Keepers of the Council Brand," the Mohawks "Receivers of Tribute" from subjugated tribes, and the Senecas "Keepers of the Door" of the Long House. These and some other similar provisions were made for the common advantage.

The cohesive principle of the confederacy did not spring exclusively from the benefits of an alliance for mutual protection, but had a deeper foundation in the bond of kin. The confederacy rested upon the tribes ostensibly, but primarily upon common gentes. All the members of the same gens, whether Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, or Senecas, were brothers and sisters to each other in virtue of their descent from the same common ancestor, and they recognized each other as such with the fullest cordiality. When they met, the first inquiry was the name of each other’s gens, and next the immediate pedigree of their respective sachems; after which they were usually able to find, under their peculiar system of consanguinity, the relationship in which they stood to each other. Three of the gentes—namely, the Wolf, Bear, and Turtle—were common to the five tribes; these and three others were common to three tribes. In effect, the Wolf gens, through the division of an original tribe into five, was now in five divisions, one of which was in each tribe. It was the same with the Bear and the Turtle gentes. The Deer, Snipe, and Hawk genres were common to the Senecas, Cayugas, and Onondagas. Between the separated parts of each gens, although its members spoke different dialects of the same language, there existed a fraternal connection which linked the nations together with indissoluble bonds. When the Mohawk of the Wolf gens recognized an Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, or Seneca of the same gens as a brother, and when the members of the other divided gentes did the same, the relationship was not ideal, but a fact founded upon consanguinity, and upon faith in an assured lineage older than their dialects and coeval with their unity as one people. In the estimation of an Iroquois every member of his gens, in whatever tribe, was as certainly a kinsman as an own brother. This cross-relationship between persons of the same gens in the different tribes is still preserved and recognized among them in all its original force. It explains the tenacity with which the fragments of the old confederacy still cling together. If either of the five tribes had seceded from the confederacy it would have severed the bond of kin, although this would have been felt but slightly. But had they fallen into collision it would have turned the gens of the Wolf against their gentile kindred, Bear against Bear; in a word, brother against brother. The history of the Iroquois demonstrates the reality as well as persistency of the bond of kin, and the fidelity with which it was respected. During the long period through which the confederacy endured they never fell into anarchy nor ruptured the organization.

Unanimity among the sachems was required upon all public questions, and essential to the validity of every public act. It was a fundamental law of the confederacy. They adopted a method for ascertaining the opinions of the members of the council which dispensed with the necessity of casting votes. Moreover, they were entirely unacquainted with the principle of majorities and minorities in the action of councils. They voted in council by tribes, and the sachems of each tribe were required to be of one mind to form a decision. Recognizing unanimity as a necessary principle, the founders of the confederacy divided the sachems of each tribe into classes. No sachem was allowed to express an opinion in council in the nature of a vote until he had first agreed with the sachem or sachems of his class upon the opinion to be expressed, and had been appointed to act as speaker for the class. Thus the eight Seneca sachems being in four classes, could have but four opinions, and the ten Cayuga sachems, being in the same number of classes, could have but four. In this manner the sachems in each class were first brought to unanimity among themselves. A cross-consultation was then held between the four sachems appointed to speak for the four classes; and when they had agreed they designated one of their number to express their resulting opinion, which was the answer of their tribe. When the sachems of the several tribes had, by this ingenious method, become of one mind separately, it remained to compare their several opinions, and if they agreed the decision of the council was made. If they failed of agreement the measure was defeated and the council was at an end. The five persons appointed to express the decision of the five tribes may possibly explain the appointment and the functions of the six electors, so called, in the Aztec confederacy.

By this method of gaining assent the equality and independence of the several tribes were recognized and preserved. If any sachem was obdurate or unreasonable, influences were brought to bear upon him, through the preponderating sentiment, which he could not well resist, so that it seldom happened that inconvenience or detriment resulted from their adherence to the rule. Whenever all efforts to procure unanimity had failed, the whole matter was laid aside because further action had become impossible. . . .

When the Iroquois confederacy was formed, or soon after that event, two permanent war chiefships were created and named, and both were assigned to the Seneca tribe. One of them (Tawannears, signifying "needle breaker") was made hereditary in the Wolf, and the other (Sonosowa, signifying "great oyster shell") in the Turtle gens. The reason assigned for giving them both to the Senecas was the greater danger of attack at the west end of their territories. They were elected in the same manner as the sachems, were raised up by a general council, and were equal in rank and power. Another account states that they were created later. They discovered immediately after the confederacy was formed that the structure of the Long House was incomplete, because there were no officers to execute the military commands of the confederacy. A council was convened to remedy the omission, which established the two perpetual war chiefs named. As general commanders they had charge of the military affairs of the confederacy, and the command of its joint forces when united in a general expedition. Governor Blacksnake, recently deceased, held the office first named, thus showing that the succession has been regularly maintained. The creation of two principal war chiefs instead of one, and with equal powers, argues a subtle and calculating policy to prevent the domination of a single man even in their military affairs. They did without experience precisely as the Romans did in creating two consuls instead of one, after they had abolished the office of rex. Two consuls would balance the military power between them, and prevent either from becoming supreme. Among the Iroquois this office never became influential.1

1Morgan, L.H.n/an/an/an/a, "Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines," Contrib. to North Amer. Ethnol., 4: 25–39, passim.


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Chicago: "Yuman Tribes of She Gila River," Yuman Tribes of She Gila River in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed December 3, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TMYSVEWNYYC4DX6.

MLA: . "Yuman Tribes of She Gila River." Yuman Tribes of She Gila River, Vol. 4, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 3 Dec. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TMYSVEWNYYC4DX6.

Harvard: , 'Yuman Tribes of She Gila River' in Yuman Tribes of She Gila River. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 December 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TMYSVEWNYYC4DX6.