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ARTHUR, Stephen. "Where License Reigns With All Impunity": An Anarchist Study of the Rotinonshón:ni [Iroquois] Polity
Article published on 15 February 2007
last modification on 23 April 2015

by r-c.
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The traditional society of the Rotinonshón:ni (Iroquois), "The People of the Longhouse," was a densely settled, matrilineal, communal, and extensively horticultural society. The Rotinonshón:ni formed a confederacy of five nations. Generations before historical contact with Europeans, these nations united through the Kaianere’kó:wa into the same polity and ended blood feuding without economic exploitation, stratification, or the formation of a centralized state.

"Their Policy in this is very wise, and has nothing Barbarous in it. For, since their preservation depends upon their union, and since it is hardly possible that among peoples where license reigns with all impunity — and, above all, among young people — there should not happen some event capable of causing a rupture, and disuniting their minds, — for these reasons, they hold every year a general assembly in Onnontaé. There all the Deputies from the different Nations are present, to make their complaints and receive the necessary satisfaction in mutual gifts, — by means of which they maintain a good understanding with one another."
François le Mercier, 1668 [1]

Some historical materialists claim a densely settled, agricultural population will inevitably develop into a hierarchically stratified society, with a centralized state and an exploitative economic redistribution system, in order avoid warfare while resolving blood feuds among its members. [2] While this is a common occurence, it is not the only way these issues have been resolved. Located along the southern banks of Kaniatarí:io (Lake Ontario), the traditional society of the Rotinonshón:ni (Iroquois), [3] "The People of the Longhouse," was a densely settled, matrilineal, communal, and extensively horticultural society. The Rotinonshón:ni formed a confederacy initially of five nations: Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), Oneniote’á:ka (Onedia), Ononta’kehá:ka (Onondaga), Kaion’kehá:ka (Cayuga) and Shotinontowane’á:ka (Seneca). Generations before historical contact with Europeans, [4] these nations united through the Kaianere’kó:wa (“the Great Good Way”) into the same polity [5] and ended blood feuding without economic exploitation, stratification, or the formation of a centralized state.

Jared Diamond hypothesizes that when stateless egalitarian hunter-gather societies develop agriculture and experience population growth, blood feuds and new resource management problems challenge their ability to maintain horizontal political relationships and economic communalism. [6] According to Diamond, the material transition itself leads inevitably to the State, which he refers to as "the kleptocracy," and the most the oppressed can hope for by revolting is for a change in the rate of exploitation and oppression by installing a new group of kleptocrats. In his view, "the kleptocracy" is ultimately a function of material culture. [7]

Some Marxists agree with Diamond’s perspective. They argue that in the transitions from hunter-gather communism to feudalism, and from there to capitalism, society develops the industrial production of the social wealth necessary for communism to become an option again. There is at least one strong counter example to this vulgar historical determinism and unilinear cultural evolution: the formation and continued survival of the Rotinonshón:ni in the northeast of North America.

While critical of Marxism, Murray Bookchin acknowledges the cooperative and peaceful internal nature of hunter-gather societies but also brings up the problems of external warfare.

"To members of their own bands, tribes, or clans, prehistoric and later foraging peoples were normally cooperative and peaceful; but toward members of other bands, tribes, or clans, they were often warlike, even sometimes genocidal in their efforts to dispossess them and appropriate their land.... As to modern foragers, the conflicts between Native American tribes are too numerous to cite at any great length... the tribes that were to finally make up the Iroquois Confederacy (the Confederacy itself was a matter of survival if they were not to all but exterminate one another), and the unrelenting conflict between Mohawks and Hurons, which led to the near extermination and flight of remnant Huron communities." [8]

The conflicts Bookchin mentions occurred around Kaniatarí:io and Lake Erie in the 17th century and are often referred to as the “Beaver Wars,” due to the connection with the fur trade between indigenous and European people. Bookchin’s description the conflict of Kanien’kehá:ka and the Wendat (Huron) as “extermination” or “genocidal” is inaccurate. Rather than a matter of ethnic cleansing or economic competition, that conflict is better understood as a civil war of political unification among Iroquois speakers. It is ironic that in Bookchin’s tirade against modern anti-civilizationist mystification of the primitive, he acknowledges the formation as of Rotinonshón:ni polity that ended the warfare among the Five Nations, but fails to reflect upon this momentous accomplishment or see how much their achievement has parallels with his own political ideas.

Notes :

[1Thwaites, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791, Vol. 51

[2Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 268-269

[3For this article, "Iroquois" will be used to refer to those who speak a northern Iroquois language, while "Rotinonshón:ni" (Haudenosaunee) will be used for the specific polity, also known as the People of the Longhouse and the League (Confederacy) of Five (Six) Nations. Terms used throughout the article are mostly in standard Kanien’kehá:ka

[4Bonaparte, Creation and Confederation, 47

[5Also referred to as Gayanashagowa, "The Great Law," "The Great Law of Peace", "The Good Tidings of Peace and Power (and Righteousness)," "The Great Binding Law," "The Constitution of the Five (Six) Nations"

[6Diamond, 286-287

[7Ibid, 276

[8Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism


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