Deganawidah and Hiawatha (Flourished 1570)
Deganawidah and Hiawatha (Flourished 1570)
Founders of the iroquois confederacy
Union. The Iroquois Confederacy was perhaps the most complicated governmental organization among the native peoples of North America. The League of the Iroquois, as it was also called, dates back to sometime in the late fourteenth or fifteenth century. The Iroquois peoples lived in the area of present-day Pennsylvania and New York. During this period five Iroquoian tribes—the Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Cayu-gas—joined together into a political and military alliance. (A sixth tribe, the Tuscaroras, joined the confederacy in 1722.) Before the construction of the confederacy the individual tribes lived in clusters of self-sufficient villages that were separated by large tracts of fishing or hunting territory. Before they confederated, the separate tribes of the Iroquois often engaged in bitter wars of blood revenge. With the creation of the confederation the Iroquois renounced the practice of blood revenge. Several forces probably pulled the Iroquois peoples into this alliance. Trade enhanced communication and cooperation between the Iroquois. In addition the Iroquoian tribes may have come together to ward off enemies such as the Hurons from the north. However, most anthropologists agree that the five tribes confederated in order to end the animosities caused by the law of blood revenge. The Iroquois oral tradition about Hiawatha and Deganawidah corroborates this theory.
Endless Wars. According to this tradition there once lived a man named Hiawatha who became discouraged by the seemingly endless cycle of war and violence that plagued the Iroquois. “Everywhere there was peril and everywhere mourning,” one version of the story goes. “Men were ragged with sacrifice and the women scarred with the flints, so everywhere there was misery. Feuds with one another, feuds with other nations, feuds with brother nations, feuds of sister towns, and feuds of families and of clans made every warrior a stealthy man who liked to kill.” Hiawatha in vain tried to convince his people to renounce the law of blood revenge. A witch, who despised the proposition of peace among the Iroquois, killed Hiawatha’s seven daughters in an effort to spur him into a fit of revenge. Distraught over this tragedy, Hiawatha wandered through the forest of his homeland for days. For sustenance he ambushed and ate innocent travelers. One day, while sitting by the shore of a lake, Hiawatha had a series of visions. In his dreams Hiawatha met a holy man named Deganawidah the Peacemaker.
Creating Stability. Deganawidah told Hiawatha that he was also horrified by the endless wars and violence between the Iroquoian peoples, and he told Hiawatha that the Iroquois tribes needed to join together and create a council of the wisest men to govern them. Deganawidah then presented Hiawatha with a string of wampum. (The Iroquois historically presented wampum, strings of quahog clams and whelk shells, when they concluded treaties to demonstrate their sincerity.) Deganawidah told Hiawatha that the beads were intended to wipe the tears of grief from Hiawatha’s eyes. The holy man presented another string of wampum and told Hiawatha that it was to open his ears to hear his message of peace and reconciliation. Finally Deganawidah gave Hiawatha a third strand of beads to restore his voice and revive his ability to speak with patience, reason, and peace. The two then took the strings of wampum to the warring Iroquois nations and taught them the ceremony that Deganawidah had performed with Hiawatha. (In some versions of the story Deganawidah was only visible to Hiawatha.) Each nation, they said, was a longhouse just like the homes in which the Iroquois lived. Although each nation possessed a separate land, the Iroquois tribes had all descended from the same mother. It was therefore wrong for them to feud and war with each other. Ultimately Hiawatha and Deganawidah persuaded the Iroquois nations to reconcile their differences and come together as one people.
Sacred Fire. Since Hiawatha was an Onondaga, the delegates selected his people to maintain the tribal fire at the first council meeting. They thus became responsible for calling the other tribes in for the annual councils that were intended to reaffirm the peace and sanctity of the confederacy. The Onondagas were also entrusted with the sacred wampum strand, the beads of which represented the important events in the history of the confederacy and the points of agreement that held the tribes together. The confederacy outlawed war among the five nations and replaced the law of blood revenge with a system of compensation. (The Iroquois only suppressed blood revenge between the nations of the confederacy. They continued the practice of blood revenge with other tribes such as the Hurons and Eries.) The confederation council consisted of fifty men from the five tribes of the confederacy. The women of the tribes confirmed the selection of these men and thus held a considerable veto power over their actions. Primarily the confederacy dealt with problems of a diplomatic and military nature that affected all of the member tribes. It had no control over the internal policies or government of the member tribes. However, the confederation council could act as a decision-making body in disputes that tribal leaders had been unable to resolve independently. Separately, the Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Cayugas could not adequately defend themselves from enemy attack. United as the Iroquois Confederacy, they were the most powerful military force in North America during the colonial period.
Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992);