Although the Micmac and the Iroquois Confederacy are both Aboriginal groups, they have many differences as well as similarities. One area of such, is their traditional justice systems. Their governments and laws are in some ways similar, but in many ways different.
The Micmac reside in what is now Nova Scotia, eastern New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and southern Gaspe. The territory was subdivided in to seven districts. Each of these districts contained family groupings in small settlements based on hunting and fishing. Those from P.E.I. held more territory in common than any other Micmac district. Their land was allotted by family.
The Iroquois were a agricultural people. They lived in permanent villages in a domain now called southern Ontario, southern Quebec, and northeastern United States. Indian Nations living here formed a formal and lasting confederacy by 1450. Their members were called ‘Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee’. The league was called ‘Kanonsionni’, meaning EXTENDED HOUSE. The first five nations to join the confederacy were Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. Tuscaroras migrated from Carolina and joined the confederacy in 1722. The Iroquois are bound in a treaty of friendship with the Ojibway to the North.
The Micmac government was three-tiered, with local, district, and national chiefs, or ‘Sagamores’. Each settlement’s council of elders chose a local chief. The chief was the focus of power in the settlement. The local chief attained position through both hereditary right and meritorious behavior. The oldest son of a dead chief was usually given first consideration as a successor. If he was found unfit for office, despite special training, others in family and/or others in the community were considered. These chiefs usually had two assistants or captains. These were called second and third watchers. They would assume command from a sick or incompetent chief. The local chiefs would convene in a district council and select one of their numbers to preside over their meetings and represent the regions’ interests. Councils usually met in the spring or fall, and all decisions were based on unanimity.
District Sagamores made up the governing body of the Micmac nation. One district chief would act as Grand Chief. All three of these types of chieftainship followed bloodlines as a natural course of leadership ascendency. The people expected their chief to be a man of intelligence, knowledge, dignity, courage, generosity, an able hunter, and fearless warrior. Leaders ruled through impeccable example, not force.
The Iroquois confederacy was formalized by a constitution, recorded on wampum belts to preserve the understanding for all generations to follow. Each nation retained its own council and managed its own local affairs. General control was to be lodged in a federal senate, composed of representatives elected by each nation, holding office during good behavior, and acknowledged as ruling chiefs throughout the whole confederacy. Every nation was further subdivided into clans. Each clan discussed a matter to be brought before the federal council, followed by unanimous agreement between clans. The head chief would then announce the vote of his nation in the league council.
In the Iroquois society, fifty “sachem ships” were created, these men represented their nation’s interests on the general council, while continuing to exercise leadership at the local level. Together they formed the executive, legislative, and judicial authority of the league. Although each nation possessed unique responsibility in the confederacy, no sachem had greater rights than another. Onondaga had 14 representatives; the Cayuga, 10; the Mohawk and Oneida, nine; and the Seneca, eight. All council decisions were unanimous. Onondaga as the fire-keepers (chairman) and the Mohawks as the founders of the league , had the special duty and right of preventing a decision from passing if it was harmful to the people. The two head Seneca chiefs were stationed at the door of the council room, to prevent any unwanted motion from proceeding.
Iroquois women held other powers in their communities. All member nations were matriarchal. All goods, titles, and rights followed the female line of descent. The elder women were the heads of the families. The women had orators representing them at council meetings, or they spoke directly through a chief. In times of war, women were peace makes by right and duty.
A distinction existed between Iroquois leaders in times of peace and during wars. A sachem could not participate in a battle in his official capacity. Constitution specified that each sachem have a war chief and a runner to bring tidings; in war, the sachem was to step down and be replaced by the war chief until hostilities ended. The war chief acted as an advisor to his sachem in peace, his words carry considerable weight. The lesser chiefs, or captains as they were occasionally called, existed in Iroquois villages. These chiefs were intermediaries between the sachems and their people, and grew in influence. Men were awarded these positions according to merit, family rank being of no consequence. A warrior who assisted the chiefs capably, and who was trustworthy and honest, was appointed chief by the others. The lesser chieftainships were not hereditary. The chiefs were governed by requests to their people, rather than with orders; it appears that they possessed no powers of force other than public sentiment and tradition. Leaders were careful to ask nothing that might likely meet with refusal. Their decisions were, on the whole, willingly carried out; creating an orderly, but liberal society. They developed a unique system of government that combined hereditary and elective elements. Principle chiefs were chosen by the women, who weren’t eligible to become chiefs themselves. They were likely to select leaders with no other consideration but the good of the nation.
The moral fibre of the Iroquois community was guarded by “keepers of the faith”, widely respected men and women selected from the populace. On election as a keeper of the faith, a citizen was duty-bound to accept and adopt a new name. The office could be relinquished. They reported evil deeds of individuals to the council, to make them an example by exposure. They sometimes held consultations to deliberate upon the moral condition of the people.
Both the Iroquois and Micmac cultures honored presents as a form of reconciliation. They both saw murder as terrible. Although punishment and reconciliation were the same, Micmac distinguished between murder, manslaughter, and accidental death. War was different between the cultures. If someone of the Micmac were killed in war, the opposing could bring presents, be killed, or sometimes, adopted by the victims family. If someone of the Iroquois was killed by an opposing tribe, it would start a war. This death could also be reconciled by the gift of presents, or punishable by death or adoption by the clan mother.
In the Micmac society, trespassing was a serious offence and punishable by reconciliation by the wronged. The Iroquois had no such thing as trespassing. Everyone owned everything. Only spiritual articles were personally owned. If these items were stolen, the punishment was ridicule or anger. New Year’s Eve was the only time theft was permitted. Both cultures took in and cared for the poor and unfortunate. Both cultures also killed their old and ill but for reasons. Iroquois did because of burden, and Micmac did it to relieve pain and suffering.
In Micmac society, marriages were preformed in the summer and courtship was strict. The Iroquois could marry at anytime. Polygamy was okay in Micmac society and was not in Iroquois society. Adultery was rare in the Iroquois society and punishable by whipping or mutilization. In Micmac–marriage of an uncle, cousin, siblings and nieces and nephews, was forbidden. In the Iroquois society, marriage to anyone within the clan was forbidden.
In Iroquois society, witchcraft was the most serious offence. If the person could not be reformed, they were put to death. Treason was just as bad and punishable the same as witchcraft. The clan mother can remove a chief for violating sacred trust of his people and committed a crime. Small offenses were punishable by ostracism. Iroquois also believed offenses brought evil, such as drought, famine, or other scourge upon entire community. The planting festival was used for all to confess any transgressions that could have angered the Great Spirit.
Although there are many similarities between both the Micmac and the Iroquois, there are some differences that make them separate communities. The government and laws are only a small part of what unites these communities as Aboriginals, but separates them as communities.