Haudenosaunee Diplomacy and International Thought

West 1766By Mark Millard

In the world of International Relations modern diplomacy has traditionally been regarded as the conduct of peaceful relations between states, beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which ended the Thirty Years War, and transformed Europe from Christendom into the modern state system. Historians of international thought have long been critical of this narrow state-based definition, which treats the international system as a natural concept. Instead David Armitage argues for a broader reflection on what he describes as ‘that peculiar political arena populated variously by individuals, peoples, nations, and states’, to include ‘a multiplicity of non-state actors’. As an alternative to the nation-state as the primary object of study, Edward Keene proposes we consider the more inclusively defined ‘communities…whose relations with one another need to be understood’, a concept helpful when considering different periods in history.

With this more expansive approach Leonard J. Sadosky demonstrates how Europeans sought to apply the Westphalian system to the colonization of North America but found that Native polities and the nascent settler communities didn’t fit these norms. Instead, a variant emerged, including Native peoples, settlers, and eventually, European metropolitan authorities. This ‘diplomatic middle ground’ not only combined Indigenous and European systems of diplomacy, but also defined how expanding settler polities related to the metropole. It was within this new system that a colonial imperial elite began to contemplate the inclusion of the American Indian in the British Empire, to maintain and order commerce and diplomacy between the colonies and Indigenous polities, a role seen as ‘essential to imperial security in North America’. This moment proved fleeting. After the French Indian War (1756 – 1763) increasingly powerful and land-hungry colonial governments no longer desired ‘diplomatic structures that could provide for the continued coexistence of Indians and settlers’. The result was an Indian policy that sought to keep Indians and settlers apart, preferably with Indian’s on reservations, while the colonies absorbed their land.

Henry Kissinger famously described diplomacy as ‘the art of restraining power’, and for the Haudenosaunee peoples of the eighteenth century this involved preserving their sovereignty by developing a series of multitudinous connections throughout colonial America. The nature of Haudenosaunee diplomacy, a significant contributor to Sadosky’s ‘diplomatic middle ground’, has often been described in relation to a ‘traditional’ culture. In the most recent work on the subject, Timothy Shannon argues that the values of balance and reciprocity found in the Haudenosaunee creation myth of Sky Woman, and the Deganawidah origin story of the League, which bound together five previously warring tribes in friendship, extended throughout their family and community arrangements. Haudenosaunee relations with Europeans were also based on ‘extended notions of kinship and reciprocal obligations’, exemplified in the Covenant Chain agreement with the English. Robert Williams, in his legal interpretation of Native diplomacy, extends this notion of Haudenosaunee ‘tradition’, describing the Great Peace of the Degandawidah epic as ‘divinely understood’ and handed down from generation to generation as a ‘fundamental law’. According to Williams this message of peace ‘envisioned a multicultural community of all peoples on earth, linked together in solidarity’. In this way the Covenant Chain with the English ‘accorded precisely with Iroquois constitutional tradition’.

Just as scholars of International Thought have sought to escape the constraints of International Relation’s state-based system, anthropologist Audra Simpson seeks to move beyond a consideration of the Haudenosaunee prescribed by ‘traditional’ cultural values. Simpson argues the ‘Iroquois canon’, on which much of Shannon and Williams’ work is based, is as much about anthropologists’ desires, as it is Haudenosaunee culture. From Lewis Henry Morgan, to William N. Fenton, Fred Voget, and Morris Freilich, scholars have sought ‘purity’, ‘fixity’, and ‘cultural perfection that at once imagined an imminent disappearance…after…land dispossession’ and found just that. This perspective developed its own ‘authenticating discourse’, deciding on what or was not considered traditional. However, Simpson argues culture, rather than being static, is a collection of ‘meanings, processes and practices that are both shared and contested; it is not a matter to be assigned value, nor is it to be adjudicated’. While Haudenosaunee people, past and present, value tradition, it is not the ‘narrow and procedural’ version all too often represented in the historiography.

In considering the treaty literature, rather than explaining motive through ‘tradition’,  it may prove more productive to investigate a more fluid concept of culture, where Haudenosaunee diplomatic strategy can be examined in terms of agency, and within the context of the immediate contemporary environment. In such a setting, freed from the deterministic limitations of a fetishized culture, the Haudenosaunee operate as a significant node of power, as important as England or France in the affairs of eighteenth century North Americans. In this way the “Native Perspective” can be better represented ‘regarding the process of colonialism and settlement in the New World’. Perhaps more than that, this agency can also restore the Haudenosaunee as part of a global population beginning to realize it lived in a world of states, broadly defined, described by Armitage as an ‘act of collective human imagination [that] may be the single most important shift in political consciousness of the last 500 years’.


Works cited

Armitage, David, Foundations of Modern International Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Cooper, Andrew F., Jorge Heine, and Ramash Thakur, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Keene, Edward, International Political Thought: An Historical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)

Roberts, Chalmers, “Kissinger vs. Fulbright,” Washington Post, Apr. 26. 1970.

Sadosky, Leonard J., Revolutionary Negotiations: Indians, Empires and Diplomats in the Founding of America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009)

Simpson, Audra, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014)

Shannon, Timothy J., Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier (New York: Penguin, 2008)

Vaughan, Alden T., ed., Early American Indian Documents: Treaties and Laws, 1607-1789, VIII (Bethesda, Md.: University Publications of America, 1986)

Williams Jr., Robert A., Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace 1600-1800 (New York: Routledge, 1999)