Deganawida was instrumental in founding the League of the Iroquois.
Deganawida is best known as the great leader who, with Hiawatha, founded the League of the Iroquois. Although the story of Deganawida's life is based primarily on legend, all accounts of the league's formation credit Deganawida for his efforts. In addition to his persuasive vision of unified Iroquois tribes, Deganawida was instrumental in defining and establishing the structure and code of the Iroquois league.
It is believed that Deganawida was born around the 1550s in the Kingston, Ontario, area and was one of seven brothers born to Huron parents. According to legend, Deganawida's birth was marked by a vision his mother had that her newborn son would be indirectly responsible for the destruction of the Hurons. She, along with Deganawida's grandmother, tried to protect the Hurons by attempting three times to drown him in a river. Each morning after the attempts, Deganawida was found unharmed in his mother's arms. After the third unsuccessful attempt, Deganawida's mother resigned herself to her son's existence.
Creates the League of the Iroquois
When Deganawida was grown, he journeyed south to carry out his mission of peace among the Iroquois. He met Hiawatha (not the Hiawatha of Longfellow's poem), a Mohawk, who joined him in his efforts to create an alliance of the Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Senacas, and Mohawks. Deganawida acted as the visionary and, because Deganawida had a speech impediment, Hiawatha served as his spokesman. Deganawida's message to the Iroquois was that all men are brothers; therefore, they should cease their practices of killing, scalping, and cannibalism. Together, Deganawida and Hiawatha convinced the five tribes to make peace and join together in an alliance of friendship, rather than persist with their attempts to destroy each other. The powerful Onondaga chief, Thadodaho (also known as Atotarho, Adario), who initially had been strongly opposed to the union of the five tribes, marked the beginning of the alliance when he made the decision to join. Deganawida also tried, without success, to encourage the Erie and neutral tribes to join the alliance. Their refusal resulted in their eventual dispersal by the Iroquois in the 1650s. Deganawida's effort to persuade them to join may have been prompted by their friendly disposition toward the Hurons, unlike the other Iroquois. Sometime after Deganawida's death, his mother's earlier vision was realized when the Huron nation was destroyed by the Iroquois.
The alliance of the five tribes was referred to as the League of the Iroquois (also known as The Iroquois Five Nation Confederacy; after the Tuscaroras joined in the early eighteenth century, it was known as the Six Nations). The exact date of the founding of the league is unknown. The purposes of the league were to bring peace, to build strength, and to create goodwill among the five nations in order for them to become invulnerable to attack from external enemies and to division from within. The code of the league summarized the intent of Deganawida and the confederate chiefs to establish "The Great Peace." Out of this code was created the Pine Tree Chiefs. Deganawida served as one of those chiefs, who were chosen by merit rather than by heredity.
A grand council of all the chiefs of the five tribes gathered at Onondaga, the most centrally located of the five tribes, to establish the laws and customs of the league. Each tribe had an equal voice in the council despite the fact that the number of chiefs representing each tribe varied. As the council developed over the years, it became immersed in matters of diplomacy, including war and peace, associations with other tribes, and treaties with the European settlers on their borders. Deganawida is credited with the development of the advanced political system of the league, which was primarily democratic and also allowed women a major role. Many of the principles, laws, and regulations of the league are attributed to Deganawida.
By 1677, the league had developed into the most powerful of all the North American Indian confederations and consisted of approximately 16,000 people. The successful union begun by Deganawida flourished into the nineteenth century. After its peak of influence, the league began its collapse as a result of many contributing factors, including the influence of outsiders, the supply of trade goods, the control of military posts, the old covenants with the whites, the rivalry between warriors and chiefs, and structural weaknesses. However, the league owed the several centuries of influence it enjoyed to the prominent leadership of Deganawida, as evidenced by his astuteness in negotiations and by his wisdom in framing the laws and principles that served as the basis for the entire structure of the league.
Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977; 71-72.
Handbook of American Indians, edited by Frederick Webb Hodge, New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 1971; 383-384.
Leitch, Barbara A., Chronology of the American Indian, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, Scholarly Press, Inc., 1975; 82.
Tooker, Elisabeth, "The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Rituals," in Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant, Smithsonian Institution, 1978; 422-424.
Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, New York, Facts on File, 1990; 96-97.
Wallace, Anthony F. C., The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, New York, Knopf, 1969; 42, 44, 97-98. □
Deganawidah, the prophet whose vision of peace led to the establishment of the Iroquois Confederacy and the ending of centuries of strife between the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, and Cayuga Nations, was born at an unknown date, most likely between 1400 and 1600 C.E., among the Huron people. According to the oral tradition from which knowledge of him derives, his mother became pregnant though still a virgin. His grandmother had a vision that he would grow up and live among foreigners and raise a great tree of Peace. He would also indirectly be the cause of the demise of the Huron people. To prevent the latter from happening, the two women tried to kill him, but he would not die.
At about the age of 18, Deganwidah left home and made the first convert to the vision of peace that he claimed he had been sent by the Master of Life to deliver. The convert was a young Mohawk named Hiawatha, an eloquent speaker who would become the public voice of his teacher. Under Deganawidah's counsel, Hiawatha changed from a man filled with hate (due to the massacre of his family) to a man of peace. The message called people to three principles: health of body and mind, righteous in conduct and equality and justice among people, and the maintenance of authority. He also wrote a song of peace that he and Hiawatha taught to the people among whom they moved.
When they approached the Mohawks, Deganawidah proposed a test of his message. He climbed to the top of a tall tree that hung over the Mohawk River. He then had the Mohawks cut the tree out from under him. He plunged into the swift river. All thought him dead. However, they found him the next morning cooking breakfast. He explained that the Master of Life had given him power over his own death.
It took him five years to bring the Mohawks, Oneida, Seneca, and Cayuga into the original confederacy based on the three principles. He and Hiawatha then moved to Onondaga land, the land ruled by the man who had killed Hiawatha's wife. Here he performed a miracle of healing on the chief, who was mentally ill. Deganawidah is said to have combed the snakes (evil and insane thoughts) from his head. The chief became an immediate convert. At the ceremony creating the League of Five Nations, he led in the planting of a Tree of Peace, and uprooting another tree, the peoples' weapons were symbolically tossed into the hole. The league was a representative democracy well known to Benjamin Franklin and has been seen as one of the models upon which the United States government was finally created.
Deganawidah was only about 23 years old when he completed the task of uniting the people. According to the tradition, he then got in a canoe and left. Where he went and what eventually happened to him is unknown. The last prophecy of his grandmother came true in 1649 when the league attacked the Hurons and forced the survivors to assimilate into the confederacy.
Hewitt, J. N. B. "Legend of the Founding of the Iroquois League." American Anthropologist 5 (1892): 2.
Peterson, Scott. Native American Prophecies. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
Dekanawida, a semilegendary Native American leader, is credited with helping unite the five Iroquois tribes of northern New York in the late 1500s. According to legend, Dekanawida (whose name means "two rivers flowing together") was born to a virgin mother of the Huron people in Canada. Because of warnings that he would bring ruin to his people, his mother tried to drown him several times. However, on each occasion, he miraculously survived and reappeared the next morning lying next to her.
As an adult, Dekanawida left the Hurons and went south, where he met another legendary Indian figure, Hiawatha. Together the two men developed a plan for uniting the five Iroquois nations into a single confederacy. According to legend, Dekanawida came up with the idea but was a poor speaker, so Hiawatha became the spokesperson. The Iroquois Confederacy later served as a model for founders of the government of the United States.
See also Hiawatha; Native American Mythology.