The structure of the government of the Iroquois nation consisted of a council of 50 chiefs who met once a year to settle disputes and create the customs and laws of the confederacy. These laws were codified on strings of wampum to aid recitation and became known as the Book of the Great Law.
The Iroquois confederacy first consisted of five tribes, called the Five Nations, or the people of the longhouse, and it included the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Onondaga tribes. In 1722, the Tuscarora joined, and the confederacy became known as the Six Nations. The confederacy originated when a man named Deganawida, who became known as the peacemaker, joined with Hiawatha to proclaim a message of unity to the five tribes. Because the Iroquois were matriarchal, clan mothers chose the 50 chiefs who met to work out the details of the accord.
The confederacy gave great strength to the Iroquois because, although they were warriors, they maintained peace within their alliance and concentrated their attacks on those outside. While the council consisted only of men, the power was held only by women. When a council chief died, women of his family and lineage met together to choose a new chief, who would then be approved by the council. Elaborate rituals marked the choosing of leaders and the making of decisions. For more than a century before the American Revolution, the Iroquois nation governed the northeastern woodlands with unity and efficiency.