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The Origin of the League of Five Nations (c. 1745)

THE ORIGIN OF THE LEAGUE OF FIVE NATIONS (c. 1745)


At the end of the sixteenth century, five related Iroquois Nations created what was known as "The Iroquois League." To the Five Nations, represented by the Cayugas, the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, and the Senecas, all indigenous to the woods and hills of New York, this union was "The Great Peace." In fact, however, the benefits of the confederation were often military as well as civil. When the western-most tribe of the Iroquois, the Senecas, became avowed enemies of the Illini, their membership in the Five Nations allowed them to muster numbers of warriors much greater than those of their adversaries. And as the French began their colonization of the St. Lawrence Valley near Quebec, the Iroquois were able to fight them for land until the burgeoning French population drove them into upstate New York and the Great Lakes Basin. The Five Nations was one of the most important instances of representative intertribal governance. Its leaders, chosen by the women of the various tribes and appointed for life, were selected for their wisdom, tolerance, and generosity of spirit.

Laura M.Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Civilized Tribes, Five ; Indian Political Life ; Iroquois .

Where the Mohawk river empties into the Hudson in ancient times there was a Mohawk village. The people there were fierce and warlike and were continually sending out war parties against other settlements and returning would bring back long strings of scalps to number the lives they had destroyed. But sometimes they left their own scalps behind and never returned. They loved warfare better than all other things and were happy when their hands were slimy with blood. They boasted that they would eat up all other nations and so they continued to go against other tribes and fight with them.

Now among the Mohawks was a chief named Dekanawida, a very wise man, and he was very sad of heart because his people loved war too well. So he spoke in council and implored them to desist lest they perish altogether but the young warriors would not hear him and laughed at his words but he did not cease to warn them until at last dispairing of moving them by ordinary means he turned his face to the west and wept as he journeyed onward and away from his people. At length he reached a lake whose shores were fringed with bushes, and being tired he lay down to rest. Presently, as he lay meditating, he heard the soft spattering of water sliding from a skillful paddle and peering out from his hiding place he saw in the red light of sunset a man leaning over his canoe and dipping into the shallow water with a basket. When he raised it up it was full of shells, the shells of the periwinkles that live in shallow pools. The man pushed his canoe toward the shore and sat down on the beach where he kindled a fire. Then he began to string his shells and finishing a string would touch the shells and talk. Then, as if satisfied, he would lay it down and make another until he had a large number. Dekanawida watched the strange proceeding with wonder. The sun had long since set but Dekanawida still watched the man with the shell strings sitting in the flickering light of the fire that shadowed the bushes and shimmered over the lake.

After some deliberation he called out, "Kwe, I am a friend!" and stepping out upon the sand stood before the man with the shells. "I am Dekanawida," he said, "and come from the Mohawk."

"I am Haiowentha of the Onondaga," came the reply.

The Dekanawida inquired about the shell strings for he was very curious to know their import and Haiowentha answered, "They are the rules of life and laws of good government. This all white string is a sign of truth, peace and good will, this black string is a sign of hatred, of war and of a bad heart, the string with the alternate beads, black and white, is a sign that peace should exist between the nations. This string with white on either end and black in the middle is a sign that wars must end and peace declared." And so Haiowentha lifted his strings and read the laws.

Then said Dekanawida, "You are my friend indeed, and the friend of all nations.—Our people are weak from warring and weak from being warred upon. We who speak one tongue should combine against the Hadiondas instead of helping them by killing one another but my people are weary of my advising and would not hear me."

"I, too, am of the same mind," said Haiowentha, "but Tatodaho slew all my brothers and drove me away. So I came to the lakes and have made the laws that should govern men and nations. I believe that we should be as brothers in a family instead of enemies."

"Then come with me," said Dekanawida, "and together let us go back to my people and explain the rules and laws."

So when they had returned Dekanawida called a council of all the chiefs and warriors and the women and Haiowentha set forth the plan he had devised. The words had a marvelous effect. The people were astonished at the wisdom of the strange chief from the Onondaga and when he had finished his exposition the chiefs promised obedience to his laws. They delegated Dekanawida to go with him to the Oneida and council with them, then to go onward to Onondaga and win over the arrogant erratic Tatodaho, the tyrannical chief of the Onondaga. Thus it was that together they went to the Oneida country and won over their great chief and made the people promise to support the proposed league. Then the Oneida chief went with Haiowentha to the Cayugas and told them how by supporting the league they might preserve themselves against the fury of Tatodaho. So when the Cayuga had promised allegiance Dekanawida turned his face toward Onondaga and with his comrades went before Tatodaho. Now when Tatodaho learned how three nations had combined against him he became very angry and ran into the forest where he gnawed at his fingers and ate grass and leaves. His evil thoughts became serpents and sprouted from his skull and waving in a tangled mass hissed out venom. But Dekanawida did not fear him and once more asked him to give his consent to a league of peace and friendship but he was still wild until Haiowentha combed the snakes from his head and told him that he should be the head chief of the confederacy and govern it according to the laws that Haiowentha had made. Then he recovered from his madness and asked why the Seneca had not been visited for the Seneca outnumbered all the other nations and were fearless warriors. "If their jealousy is aroused," he said, "they will eat us."

Then the delegations visited the Seneca and the other nations to the west but only the Seneca would consider the proposal. The other nations were exceedingly jealous.

Thus a peace pact was made and the Long House built and Dekanawida was the builder but Haiowentha was its designer.

Now moreover the first council of Haiowentha and Dekanawida was in a place now called Albany at the mouth of a small stream that empties into the Hudson.


SOURCE: Parker, Arthur C. Seneca Myths and Folklore. Buffalo, N. Y.: Buffalo Historical Society, 1923.

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