Chapter 1: Better Together — The Great Confederacies

Several alliances are known to have pre-dated the contact era. That is to say, alliances—even complex ones—were common. This chapter continues the exploration of Indigenous people’s experiences of commerce and alliance, shifting the focus to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Wendat Confederacy (a.k.a. Wendake Ehen, Huron Confederacy), and the Anishinaabe Council of Three Fires around the Great Lakes. Some elements of the history of the Iron Confederacy on the Northern Plains and the Niitsitapi Confederacy are taken up in this section’s third chapter. Any of these alliances might be described in many ways, including emergent and long-standing, temporary and permanent, defensive and aggressive. It is important to note at the outset that words like “confederacy,” “federation,” and “league” come with caveats: Indigenous societies in the Americas, by and large, display a strong preference for autonomy, whether within interpersonal relations, the household, the clan, or larger political structures. While the Haudenosaunee, for example, demonstrated the ability to act with remarkable unity toward specific and clear political and military goals, the Five Nations was not a modern nation-state with binding and bureaucratic institutions in place. Onondaga may have been their seat of power, but none of the other affiliate peoples were bound to Onondaga’s will. What we have here, then, are—as in the case of any state, empire, or assembly—works in progress, phenomenon that are constantly changing in response to changing circumstances. And we are able to observe the arc of their progress with some clarity from about 700 CE on.

Ententes and Alliances

Alliances spring from many sources. Commercial links, mutual defense, the need for peace, common systems of belief, linguistic connections, shared and overlapping clan systems, and family bonds are only a partial inventory of possible origins. If a federation proves durable enough, it will acquire a narrative of its own. This is as true of modern federal systems—one has only to think of “founding father” mythologies—as it is of much more venerable alliances like the Council of Three Fires. The means of building alliances, moreover, were many. Intermarriage between peoples sealed commercial and diplomatic bonds whilst confirming lines of inheritance in some cases. The adoption of people from one community into another also opened the door to possible future connections. Even captives who were unwillingly absorbed into new communities brought with them the prospect of linkages. Broadly, alliances reflect the role of family and kin, defined in ways that are both diverse and consistent: women show up as the key figures in these arrangements more often than not, and children play important roles as well. Histories of the Council of Three Fires, the Wendat Confederacy, and the Haudenosaunee League provide examples of these diverse and complicated relationships.

The Anishinaabe exodus from the East Coast to the Lakes is briefly surveyed in Section 5 of the Preface. By the 1500s, if not earlier, Anishinaabe control of the three largest (and northwesternmost) Great Lakes was almost complete. Much of the north shore of Gchi-zaagigan (a.k.a. Lake Ontario) was also Anishinaabe territory before the Mourning Wars and the Beaver Wars. Michilimackinac—traditionally an Odawa centre—constituted their seasonal “capital,” a place to which thousands would migrate each year to trade, exchange news, offer gifts and loyalties, celebrate, engage in rituals, and forge marriages (and, thus, alliances). Anishinaabewaki—the lands of the Anishinaabe peoples—radiated outward from Michilimackinac like spokes on a wheel. Bonds of real and “fictive” kinship “knitting together disparate peoples and places across the pays d’en haut . . . [linked] winter bands and village communities in far-flung places.”[1] Although individual bands zealously guarded their autonomy, the components of the Council of Three Fires could be brought into alignment when the need arose.

Haudenosaunee aggression and epidemic diseases destabilized the Anishinaabeg world from the 1630s. The arrival of (mostly) traditionalist Wendat refugees after the destruction of Wendake Ehen in 1649 inflated Anishinaabe numbers, and they retreated northward to regroup.[2] Fifty years later they were sweeping the Haudenosaunee from Southern Ontario and reclaiming the lands of the Misi-zaagiing (Mississauga).[3] By 1700, Wendat and other Iroquoian languages in the region had been reduced to a tiny minority: Anishinaabemowin—in its various dialect forms—was spoken from Gchi-ziibi (Ottawa River) through Bnesii-wiikwedong (Thunder Bay) and much further north.

Against the apparent resilience of the Anishinaabeg, the Haudenosaunee had a singular advantage: farming societies were consistently larger and more densely packed than their non-agrarian, foraging neighbours. Recent estimates indicate that there were about one hundred thousand Iroquoian people in total, ca. 1550–1610—although the possibility exists that these numbers were already reduced by European diseases.[4] Before 1600, the St. Lawrence Valley at night sparkled with the fires from hundreds of small villages and a few large ones. The “three sisters” were adapted over generations and centuries for production at the northern limits of agriculture, within sight of the Canadian Shield. Tobacco production, too, was common throughout the Iroquoian regions. The St. Lawrence and Wendat villages were thus the larder of their Algonquin-speaking neighbours to the north and west. This involved a mutually advantageous exchange of respective surpluses: fatty protein for dried carbohydrates, lush fur blankets for practical ceramics and baskets of pulses, bales of feathers for bundles of sacred tobacco, and so on. It was here, across a frontier knitted together by lakes and rivers, that two food cultures met.

The Wendat Confederacy brought together five Iroquoian-speaking communities: the Attignawantans, Attigneenongnahacs, Arendarhonons, Tahontaenrats, and Ataronchronons. The last two joined the Confederacy around 1500 CE, by which time the core elements of Wendake had been together for about a hundred years. Archaeological evidence points to a westward migration that may have paralleled that of the Anishinaabe, albeit a few centuries later. The Wendat were related culturally to the St. Lawrence Iroquois (who disappeared in the mid- to late sixteenth century shortly after contact with French expeditions in 1534, 1536–37, and 1541–42), the Tionontati (a.k.a. Petun) and Attawandaron (a.k.a. Neutral) to their south and east, and the Haudenosaunee southeast of Lakes Erie and Ontario. Cultural similarities, however, were clearly no guarantee against conflict with Iroquoian neighbours, not least because of the expansive ambitions of the Wendat. At its largest extent, Wendake stretched from the northern shore of Ka:nia:ta:ro:io (a.k.a. Lake Ontario) to the east coast of Lake Huron. Unlike the Anishinaabe nations, whose economic culture depended on seasonal movement and hunting and fishing, Wendat peoples established a more sedentary, agrarian way of life. The trademark features of Iroquoian nations—a farming economy and longhouses that held several families organized along clan lines in villages surrounded by tall palisades (a reflection of political tensions in the region)—were all present in Wendake.

Relations between Iroquoian-speaking “farmers of the North” are known to have been poor through the 1500s, and they may have been bound up in conflict for centuries. What we know for certain is that the histories of the Wendat and Haudenosaunee intersected and intertwined. The theme of palisaded villages persisted south of Ka:nia:ta:ro:io and east to the Oh-iio-ge (a.k.a. Hudson River). The fact that all five of the original members of the Haudenosaunee League spoke separate and distinct variants of Iroquoian underlines their cultural and political differences along with their common ancestry. Down to the 1100s, they were in a near-perpetual state of internecine war, raiding one another while suffering attacks from their non-Iroquoian neighbours as well. The establishment of a Confederacy by 1142 brought an end to this conflict and allowed the allied “Five Nations” to turn their attention outward. This may have catalyzed other confederacies like Wendake and the Laurentian Iroquois. Indeed, it may have led to the elimination of the Laurentian Iroquois in the sixteenth century.

Between about 1550 and about 1580, the Laurentian peoples—including the large villages at Stadacona and Hochelaga—were wiped from the map. In the seventy years that followed, Wendake was shattered, destroyed as a political and economic unit and scattered as a people. This represents an enormous change in the geo-politics of the region. The rise of the Haudenosaunee in the 1600s was fired as much by desperate circumstances as it was by ambition. Smallpox ate into the Iroquoian village populations around the Great Lakes, threatening the sustainability of the Haudenosaunee and Wendat alike. By 1640, both confederacies were badly depleted of population, young and old. Ruthless attacks in the generations-long Mourning Wars enabled the Haudenosaunee to capture replacement populations—perhaps as many as four thousand in the seventeenth century—to replenish falling numbers. By 1700, it was reckoned that Kanien’kehá:ka (a.k.a. Mohawk) was mostly comprised of foreigners adopted in raids. The influence of the Haudenosaunee at this point was so great that they had effectively cleared a domain from the rapids at Lachine, all around the southern Great Lakes to the south end of Lake Michigan and the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi. And yet their population numbers remained far less impressive than their deeds.

Each of these confederacies/councils/leagues pursued complex strategies in order to secure their economic and political future. Wendat and Haudenosaunee cultural practices—as well as those of the Attawandaron, Tionontati, and Wenrohronon (a.k.a. Wenro)—contained many similarities beyond an agricultural focus. (Their reverence and rituals for their dead was particularly definitive.) But farming (most of which was conducted by women whose knowledge of plant husbandry, crop development, and effective land use was extensive and advanced) made it possible to build up larger numbers in semi-permanent villages that relocated once every ten to twenty years based on soil exhaustion and the depletion of fuel sources. Thousands might occupy these longhouse villages; there was reckoned to be four thousand at an Attawandaron village in the late seventeenth century when Haudenosaunee warriors launched their winter campaigns. That site had been repeatedly occupied for something like five hundred years. Having a surplus of food and a regular supply of trade goods, as well as the ability to warehouse both, put the Iroquoian peoples in an interesting position: their villages were marketplaces capable of producing scores of warriors, and they were also sitting targets that might be terrorized, besieged, and burned.

That particular narrative, however, places too much emphasis on conflict. Political cultures evolved within these confederacies that ably governed and reinforced their claim to sovereignty. Councils in the Iroquoian societies were the principal form of government, one that depended on democratic consensus. As a rule, these councils were heavily influenced by female members of the community, even if men were the visible representatives. Women’s authority reflected their everyday significance in food and material production, and it was reinforced in their active engagement in trade. As Jan Noel has demonstrated, Haudenosaunee women worked overtly and covertly as merchants, eluding and exploiting the view of European traders for whom the women were invisible.[5] Also, matrilineality (descent marked along the mother’s line) and matrilocality (residence in the home of the woman’s family) were common denominators in this region. Women were also active in spiritual matters, which in Iroquoian societies involved, among other things, a great many seasonal festivals. Haudenosaunee women, moreover, used their position as clan leaders to determine when it was both desirable and feasible to go to war. Although Iroquoian peoples were—largely by dint of their ability to feed an army—widely and very visibly engaged in conflict, it was this underlying and interlocking structure of economic, social, political, and cultural activity that made them a force with which to reckon.


The Eastern Woodlands and Great Lakes peoples experienced waves of disruption in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They had to address population collapse caused by unfamiliar diseases even while locked in a long-term cycle of conflict with rivals. While Haudenosaunee numbers were depleted by war and disease, they were also rebuilt by captives. The same was not true of the Iroquoian peoples of Wendake and the St. Lawrence. Both were virtually scoured from the face of the earth between 1550 and 1650. The geopolitical and economic vacuums had significant consequences in the moment and over the two centuries that followed. The arrival of Europeans in their territories was both a cause and a consequence of these developments. With the disappearance of Wendake Ehen, Anishinaabe commerce and defense strategies had to adapt, which led to the emergence of the Council of Three Fires as the military powerhouse of the continent’s heartland by the early eighteenth century. How the easternmost peoples addressed the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is considered in the next chapter.

Additional Resources

The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this chapter:

Cook, Peter. “Onontio Gives Birth: How the French in Canada Became Fathers to Their Indigenous Allies, 1645–73.” Canadian Historical Review 96, no. 2 (June 2015): 165–93.

Dickason, Olive. The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1984. See esp. pp. 161–80

EmperorTigerstar. “The Rise and Fall of the Iroquois.” EmperorTigerstar. February 25, 2016. Video, 2:54.

Johansen, Bruce Elliott, and Barbara Alice Mann. Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000. See esp. pp. 3–7.

Labelle, Kathryn Magee. Dispersed But Not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat People. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. See esp. pp. 1–28.

MacLeod, D. Peter. “The Anishinabeg Point of View: The History of the Great Lakes Region to 1800 in Nineteenth-Century Mississauga, Odawa, and Ojibwa Historiography.” Canadian Historical Review LXXIII, no. 2 (1992): 194–210.

Moogk, Peter. “The ‘Others’ Who Never Were: Eastern Woodlands Amerindians and Europeans in the Seventeenth Century.” French Colonial History 1 (2002): 77–100.

Noel, Jan. “Fertile with Fine Talk: Ungoverned Tongues among Haudenosaunee Women and their Neighbors.” Ethnohistory 57, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 201–23.

Richter, Daniel K. “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience.” In Trade, Land, and Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America, 69–96. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Schmalz, Peter S. The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Sioui, Georges, and Jane Brierley. Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999. See esp. pp. 3–44.

Sioui, Georges, and Kathryn Labelle. “The Algonquian-Wendat Alliance: A Case Study of Circular Societies.” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 34, no. 1 (2014): 171–83.

Trigger, Bruce G. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660. Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987.

Warrick, Gary, “European Infectious Disease and Depopulation of the Wendat-Tionontate (Huron-Petun).” World Archaeology 35, no. 2 (2003): 258–75.

  1. Michael A. McDonnell, “The Indigenous Architecture of Empire: The Anishinaabe Odawa in North America,” in Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age, eds. Kate Fulagar and Michael A. McDonnell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 48–71.
  2. Make a special note of the fact that only Wendake Ehen—the location of the Wendat near Georgian Bay—was destroyed. The Wendat carried on, taking their home—Wendake—with them wherever they went. This is important because of the power of “the destruction narrative” that sees them doomed to disappear. This is a theme you’ll find throughout European (and some Indigenous) accounts of Indigenous societies. For more on this subject, see “Introduction,” in Peace and Labelle, From Huronia to Wendakes, 6–7, and Kathryn Magee Labelle, Dispersed, But Not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat Diaspora (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013).
  3. Heidi Bohaker, “Anishinaabe Toodaims: Context for Politics, Kinship, and Identity in the Eastern Great Lakes,” in Gathering Places: Aboriginal and Fur Trade Histories, eds. Carolyn Podruchny and Laura Peers (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 99–100.
  4. Brad Loewen, Contact in the 16th Century: Networks among Fishers, Foragers, and Farmers (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of History & University of Ottawa Pres, 2016), 3–4.
  5. See, for example, Jan Noel, “Fertile with Fine Talk: Ungoverned Tongues among Haudenosaunee Women and their Neighbors,” Ethnohistory 57, no.2 (Spring 2010): 201–23.


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Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada by John Belshaw, Sarah Nickel, and Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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