Maybe it was just a footnote to Hitler, but in 1942, the Iroquois Confederacy declared war on Germany, separate from the war declared by the Washington government. This was a sign of the autonomy with which this ancient entity, also known as the League of Six Nations, operates. Today, with about forty-nine thousand members (plus five thousand more in Canada), they even issue their own passports, distinct from the U.S., which their politicians and athletes use.

The Iroquois Confederacy was the union of five nations that lived in the northeast of the U.S.: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, to which the Tuscarora were added in 1722, totaling a little less than six thousand people. The name ‘Iroquois’ is not native; it was given by white settlers—specifically, the Frenchman Samuel Champlain—using the Algonquin word ‘irok-ois’. Or so says one of the theories, although there are others, and none has been definitively proven. Today, the term is falling into disuse because it’s considered derogatory.

They also called themselves by two other names: ‘Nadowa’ and ‘Haudenosaunee’ (or ‘Hodinonhsioni’), which means ‘people of the longhouse’, referencing the large longhouse located in their capital, Onondaga (in present-day New York), with a door at each end, each guarded by a member from a different tribe (an eastern door by a Mohawk, and a western door by a Tuscarora). This is where they debated decisions. In that sense, they had a third name, ‘Ongwanonhsioni’, or ‘builders of the great house’.

Distribution of the tribes of New York State before the arrival of Europeans (pink: Iroquois-cream: Algonquian).
Distribution of the tribes of New York State before the arrival of Europeans (pink: Iroquois-cream: Algonquian). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The exact date when the Confederacy was established is unknown. In the article dedicated to its founder, Deganawida, we saw that it was possibly in the second half of the 15th century, although some authors suggest 1535 (when Cartier noted the first references to the Iroquois), or even later, in 1570. However, some indigenists take the opposite approach and move it back to 1142 to align with an eclipse that supposedly signaled the union according to legend (although there was also one in 1451).

Let’s talk about that legend. It says that Deganawida, born miraculously, had a mystical vision that prompted him to propose a grand union of all tribes. He achieved it with the help of Jigonhsasee and Hiawatha, believing this would end the constant wars that hindered their people’s progress. It took convincing, but they finally achieved it, thanks to a miraculous resurrection of Deganawida (whose exact tribal origin remains unknown).

Deganawida then laid down the Great Law of Peace, a kind of fundamental law written on a wampum (a belt of beads), which had 117 articles granting legal and political equality to the five tribes. It is said that the U.S. Constitution is inspired by it, establishing councils of representatives of both sexes with equal voting rights, who elected chiefs or ‘sachem’ to form a central council—a proto-parliament.

These representatives made the final decisions by voting, and from among them, a supreme sachem was selected, but he was controlled by the councils and could be removed. Additionally, war leaders were chosen, along with a council of elder women, who proposed topics and candidates, and a women’s council to act as a counterbalance (although the sachem had to be a man). This structure brought peace among the five-six nations, earning Deganawida the title of the Great Peacemaker.

However, this peace was relative, as the Iroquois Confederacy did not hesitate to wage war against others, as the Algonquins, Hurons, and Innus experienced, leading to their alliance with the French. This resulted in the Beaver Wars, to which we also dedicated an article. In any case, that system was a unique form of assembly-based democracy that served as a reference for the declaration of war against Germany on June 13, 1942, announced on the steps of the Capitol in Washington the following day:

We represent the oldest democracy, though the smallest, in today’s world. It is a unanimous sentiment among Indian people that the atrocities of the Axis nations are violently repulsive to all our people’s sense of justice, and this ruthless slaughter of humanity cannot be tolerated. Now we resolve that it is the sentiment of this council that the Six Nations of Indians declare that there exists a state of war between our Confederacy of the Six Nations on one side, and Germany, Italy, Japan, and their allies, against whom the United States has declared war, on the other side.

This declaration was independent, like that of any sovereign state, and was based on ethical and justice principles. This was especially interesting because it recreated a situation similar to when the American Revolution broke out. The Iroquois Confederacy was invited by the British Empire to join them, rekindling the old alliance against France. However, there was internal disagreement: the Mohawk and Seneca were in favor, but the Oneidas and Tuscaroras supported the colonists, while the Cayugas and Onondagas preferred neutrality.

This was quite a dilemma, as the Great Law of Peace required unanimity for decision-making, and this consensus was impossible to reach. This caused both internal tension and distrust among the colonists, remembering that the Mohawk had previously fought alongside the Crown. Thus, in 1779, George Washington decided not to risk the security of the northeast and sent General John Sullivan to launch a preemptive strike against the Confederacy.

Villages were destroyed one after another, achieving the strategic goal: rendering the Iroquois an ineffective warrior force. When independence was declared, the tribes that supported the Patriots (Oneidas and Tuscaroras) were compensated with extensive territories and privileges. The rest were forced to cede their lands, and most of them migrated to Canada (a British colony), where another Confederacy was organized that coexisted with the original.

By the time World War II broke out, things had softened and changed significantly: on one hand, Canada had become an independent country; on the other, the U.S. and the U.K. were strong allies. The Iroquois considered themselves brothers with both, and in 1941, when Roosevelt gave his speech to the nation following the attack on Pearl Harbor, they decided to stand with them against Nazi ignominy. This led to the spark that caused the Iroquois Confederacy to make a war declaration of its own, just as it had done in 1918 during the previous conflict.

In some ways, it was a heated reaction to a court decision that, titled ‘Ex parte Green’, upheld the Nationality Act of 1940, indicating that American tribes were subject to federal law, even though a treaty historically declared them sovereign. Theoretically, the treaties between the Indians and the government were permanent, but they generally concerned issues related to land ownership, tribal rights, and matters affecting their way of life. This case, however, involved a purely political matter.

On September 16, 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act (also known as the Burke-Wadsworth Act), established the first draft in U.S. history, requiring all men between the ages of 21 and 36 to register (increasing the age range to 18-45 when the war began). This included Native Americans, which displeased the Iroquois.

One of them, named Warren Eldreth Green (thus the title of the ruling), challenged the Nationality Act, but the court ruled he was a citizen even without his consent, based on a 1924 law that granted citizenship to all Indigenous people. Consequently, the Iroquois Confederacy was not, in practice, the independent nation its members believed it to be, which they found insulting.

To avoid complying with the Selective Training and Service Act, which they considered imposed without their consent, the Iroquois decided to issue their own declaration of war and authorize their people to enlist in allied armies to fight against the Axis, claiming to be considered another allied nation (and, as an anecdote, they named Stalin as an honorary chief). So, the result was the same, but they wanted to do it on their terms.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 24, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en ¿Por qué la Confederación Iroquesa declaró la guerra a Alemania en 1942?


James Wm. Chichetto, The Iroquois Declaration of War on Germany, 1942 | Loretta Hall, Iroquois confederacy | Sebastián Masana, La Liga de las Seis Naciones iroquesas y el debate sobre su aporte al sistema político estadounidense | Steven A. Littleton, Voices of the American Indian Experience | Laurence M. Hauptman, The Iroquois Struggle for Survival: World War II to Red Power | Christopher Buck, Deganawida, the Peacemaker | William Nelson Fenton, The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy | Victoria Oliver, Pieles rojas. Encuentros con el hombre blanco

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