Although physically situated within the territorial limits of the United
States today, native nations like the Onondaga Nation and the other members
of the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations Confederacy, retain their status as
sovereign nations. Like the United States, the Haudenosaunee is a union
of sovereign nations joined together for the common benefit of its citizens.
Governed by a Grand Council of Chiefs who deliberate and make decisions
for the people concerning issues both domestic and international, the Haudenosaunee
began as a confederacy of sovereign nations aligned to deal with other
native nations surrounding their lands and, later, to negotiate with Europeans
when the latter came into their territories beginning in the early 1600's.
Sovereignty is the state of existence as a self-governing entity, and
it was in this capacity that the Onondagas and other members of the
Haudenosaunee sat with delegates from England, France and the Netherlands
in the years prior to American independence. During the colonial era,
the Haudenosaunee made at least 50 treaties with European powers, most
of which were expressions of peace and friendship. Some were made to
share land, but the member-states of the Haudenosaunee retained their
hunting, fishing, and gathering rights within the territory that they
agreed to open to settlers.
After the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies each became independent
states and began to conduct themselves as sovereign governments. Eventually,
they set up a process for unified government (similar to that of the
Haudenosaunee, in fact) and created the United States Constitution. The
Constitution specifically vested the President or his appointed representatives
with the exclusive legal right to negotiate treaties, which are agreements
between sovereign nations, and gave the Senate the exclusive power to
ratify those treaties. The Commerce Clause further granted Congress the
exclusive authority to regulate commerce with Indian nations.
Early U.S. statesmen acknowledged the international status of Indian
nations and the treaties made with them. Rufus King, one of America’s
founding fathers and later a U.S. Senator from New York, equated Indian
treaties with all other international treaties, such as those with Britain
or France. In a February 12, 1818, letter to his son describing an Indian
treaty recently rejected by the Senate, King concluded with a telling
postscript: "As all Treaties, including Indian Treaties, are deemed
State Secrets, until ratified and published, you must so far regard this
communication as such, as not to publish the same."
United States - Haudenosaunee Treaties
With this mutual understanding as a backdrop, the United States government
entered into three major treaties with the Haudenosaunee. Interestingly,
two of these treaties have never been abrogated by either side and
remain in effect to this day, while a third, the 1789 Treaty of Fort
Harmer, was superceded by the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794. Validation
of this treaty lies in the fact that the Haudenosaunee receives from
the United States annuities from the Canandaigua Treaty, in the form
of bolts of muslin cloth and a $4500 annuity allocated each year from
the U.S. Treasury.
In 1871, the United States ceased treaty-making with native nations.
By that time, the U.S. had entered into nearly 400 legitimate treaties
with indian nations. It is the contention of the Onondaga Nation, then,
that it maintains and has never relinquished either its national or collective
sovereignty as a member of the Haudenosaunee. Such sovereignty was defined
by the Peace Maker as belonging to those nations that accepted the Great
Law, subscribed to its spiritual, moral and social mandates, and placed
themselves under the authority of the Governing Councils of Chiefs. There
has never been any provision for transferring that sovereignty to any
other entity, nor have the traditional chiefs of the Haudenosaunee ever
consented to such a transfer.
Like the individual states of the United States, each member nation of
the Haudenosaunee retains the authority to govern its own internal
affairs. Within the framework of the Great Law and its own specific
laws, each individual nation reserves the right to adjudicate internal
disputes, pass laws for the welfare of their own community, assess
fees, regulate trade and commerce, control immigration and citizenship,
oversee public works, approve land use, and appoint officials to act
on its behalf. Every member of the Haudenosaunee has the authority
to defend its citizens against internal and external dangers and to
advocate for the peaceful resolution of conflict and the equitable
distribution of collective resources.
Like the United States federal government, the Haudenosaunee is itself
a constitutional government, holding the power to resolve differences
between member nations and to guarantee that its members are of one mind
on matters of international treaties, territorial disputes, international
trade, or any other issue that affects the long-term welfare of the Confederacy.
The Chiefs of the Grand Council are designated advocates of peace and
hold the future welfare of the people in their hands. They are empowered
to deliberate, to consider all options, to arrive at consensus, and to
legislate laws that are added to the collective set of laws called the
In the past, the chiefs, headmen and delegates of each nation were involved
in the negotiation and acceptance of the terms of treaties with European
governments, and later with the United States government. These treaties
were then presented to the Grand Council for approval. If accepted, a
treaty came to represent the legal relationship between the United States
and the traditional nations.
Haudenosaunee sovereignty was not granted by the United States, any
more than U.S. sovereignty was granted by the English crown in the eighteenth
century. Sovereignty is an inherent right that, in the case of the Onondaga
Nation, was established with the formation of the Haudenosaunee and adoption
of the Great Law of Peace.
The Onondaga Nation has had and continues to possess sovereign authority,
both as a nation and as part of the Haudenosaunee. With such sovereignty
comes the power to pass laws, make treaties, and act on behalf of the
Onondaga people in relations with other sovereign nations. It is an authority
that the Nation and its designated representatives take very seriously.