The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy

Guest Review by Paul Sharp

The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy
Francis Jennings, William N Fenton, Mary A. Druke, David R, Miller (eds.), The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy (Syracuse UP, Syracuse, 1985), (paperback 1995) pp. xvii and 278 (with index), ISBN 0-8156-2271-6 (cloth) and 0-8156-2650-9 (paper)

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The alarm bells ring when one sees a book from “out of area” sporting the term diplomacy. It is likely to be a study of foreign policy, statecraft or just international relations in general. For the most part, this is emphatically not the case with Iroquois Diplomacy. Under the guidance of Francis Jennings, Director Emeritus of the Center for the History of the American Indian at the Newberry Library, assisted by William N. Fenton, the “Dean of Iroquois Studies,” the editorial team has put together a fine collection of essays and some fascinating reference materials. They focus principally, but not exclusively on the ways in which the tribes of the Iroquois confederation represented themselves and their interests to one another and to the English and the French from the early 17th to the late 18th Century. Between 1613 and 1776, the beginning of the American Revolution, we have records of over 240 treaties, councils and conventions between the various parties.

Fenton establishes the basic themes of the book with an essay on Iroquois treaty-making forms. They pre-dated the arrival of Europeans and arose out of the condolence ceremonies by which different tribes and groups paid their respects to those who had died since previous encounters. This reflected the primary importance which the five (later six and more) tribes of the confederation accorded to lineage and to families as the basic units on which other structures were based. Contact with the Europeans left its mark on the forest diplomacy of the Iroquois and others, but it is notable that the Europeans did more adapting to native protocols, without knowledge of which they were unable to treat.

Negotiations followed a clearly-defined path. The delegation of the “sending” group would halt at the edge of the forest where it would be met by a receiving delegation. Pre-negotiations would follow regarding the agenda and seating places at the main talks. The latter would be conducted by an elaborate process including gift-giving, story-telling and dances. The main exchanges were in public, but side talks (“in the bushes”) and secret démarches were normal. Good speakers were valued and, since immunity seems to have been a privilege bestowed, not a right acknowledged, they were presumably hard to find. As in other pre-modern systems, diplomacy took place around specific missions. There is evidence of residents, but such people were primarily either hostages or pro-consul like agents of the superior tribes to subordinate ones.

Jennings provides a political history of relations between the Iroquois, other tribes and the Europeans. It is a complex story of generally triangular diplomacy, for example: Iroquois/French/French-Indian allies; Iroquois/French/English; Iroquois/English/other Indians; and Iroquois/New Yorkers/other English colonies, from which no one emerges with a great deal of credit. The Europeans tended to trick the Indians into agreements, the full import of which they did not understand. The Indians promised the Europeans that which they could not or would not deliver, and everyone was prepared to sell out their allies when opportunity or necessity dictated that they should. One fascinating theme, however, is how the Iroquois struggled to maintain their authority over other tribes, and tribes within the Iroquois attempted to maintain their authority over their fellows in the confederation. Increasingly, actual control gave way to formal authority with the senior partner giving its benediction to what subordinates were going to do anyway. Another is how the English colonies made such a mess of their relations with the Iroquois, that London appointed its own Commissioner for all relations with the Indians creating, of course, a new triangle between the Iroquois, the colonies, and the Crown’s representative.

Essays by Druke and Michael Foster get into the details of treaty and council protocol. At the heart of the process was wampum, strings or belts of decorated shells which were exchanged in the course of negotiations. An embassy would arrive with several such belts, each with a message having been “read into it” at home, and each belt covering a distinct episode in, for example, the history of relations between the tribes, the journey of the delegation and its attendant difficulties and, of course, the démarche itself. They would be “read” by the leader of the visitors, but the formal understanding was that its was the belt itself which spoke as if, the authors suggest, a tape recording was being played. Informally, however, interlocutors often enjoyed some leeway in interpreting their instructions. When they had finished, the receivers might refuse to accept the belts (a very bad sign) but, once they did, there would be a day or so of feasting as the response (and the necessary belts and strings) were prepared. These, and possibly some people of the receiving tribe, would be sent back with the delegation. Given that journeys were made by foot and canoe over pretty rough country and considerable distances, one might expect one or two full exchanges to take place during the seasons when it was fit to travel.

Beyond tribal issues such as condolences and religious rites, diplomacy was about trade, war, transit rights for both and, after the Europeans made their presence felt, the terms on which displaced tribes might settle on other Indian territory. Non-aggression pacts and straightforward alliances were negotiated, although less often concluded, as were attempts to establish and confirm a hierarchy among the tribes. “Women” tribes, for example, were not supposed to negotiate questions of war and peace on their own behalf, and “little brother” tribes were supposed to follow their elders on such questions.

The Europeans complicated matters, primarily because they were up to no good. Indeed, Foster makes the important point that forest diplomacy was often about maintaining relations where there could be no fundamental reconciliation of interests. The Iroquois relied on an oral tradition bolstered by the mnemonic aid provided by the belts, while the Europeans wanted everything written down. The Europeans thought that once something was written down it was a done deed, while the Iroquois believed agreements faded without the constant face-to-face renewals which they regarded a polishing the Covenant chain which linked peoples. While they might not have understood each other’s cultures of communication, however, they both quickly learned the importance of the other’s way of doing business. The Iroquois would insist that the Europeans wrote something down, while the Europeans would insist on wampum belts being exchanged.

The book has few faults. The most important is unavoidable. There is so much we do not know because we have no written records from the Iroquois side, only European interpretations of what they said and meant. On occasions, the anthropologists’ fault of finding the obvious fascinating is in evidence, in the treatment of metaphors, for example. Even here, however, there are some interesting points made about the confusion which resulted from the use of family metaphors by people for whom father/son and uncle/nephew relationships meant quite different things. These are small points, however. The reward is a collection of essays which bring front and center the arguments about the extent to which diplomacy is culture-specific. There are lots of differences between the Indians and the colonists. For the former, diplomacy was about restoring natural unity, whereas for the latter it was about conducting relations of separateness. However, family resemblances abound in the questions about, for example, the nature of representation, the question of authority to treat, and the importance of continuous relations. On the evidence of this book at least, those who maintain there is something essential to diplomatic relations which transcends time and place, have the edge.