The Great Peacemaker of the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee People might be the most documented person in pre-contact North America, or at least the most remembered historical figure. Just like the Great League of his creation, which has a huge impact on the history of this side of the continent, pre and post contact, his story was told and retold, surviving many centuries, reaching us all the way from maybe as far as the 12th century, and with plenty of details.
According to the main narrative of various versions of the Great Peacemaker’s legend, he came from across Lake Ontario and the lands of the Huron/Wyandot People, present day southeastern Canada, near the Bay of Quinte. For unknown reasons, his own country folk did not deign to listen to his words; however, the people of the current day’s upstate New York turned out to be more open to new ideas.
Around the 12th century, the lands on both side of Lake Ontario were reported to be torn by ferocious warfare, with every nation fighting each other, raiding one another’s towns, seeking revenge against offenses, imaginary or real.
On the southern side of the Great Lake, today’s upstate New York, five sister-nations known to us under the names of Mohawks, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca were caught in the web of violence and retaliation, unable to escape the hopeless loop. To settle their differences and make them talk, someone with courage and unusually broad thinking was needed. Maybe a prophet, maybe just an outstanding man, he was an outsider, on that all the versions of the legend agree.
Not too many details of his early life are known to us. No plaque commemorates his possible place of birth around the Bay of Quinte, even though many versions of the story point at the precise location called Eagle Hill. For such spiritually and historically important figure, the Great Peacemaker’s physical presence is strangely not marked but by his creation alone, the Great League of the Iroquois and its contribution to the later-day USA Constitution.
Many versions of the story mention the mysterious circumstance of his birth, with his mother said to be an innocent maiden, a young woman who knew no man, nevertheless having conceived with child. His grandmother was reported to be skeptical in the beginning, even trying to get rid of the newborn baby, unsuccessful on that count.
To believe or disbelieve this part of the story, one has to take into account the traditional way of life in which the term ‘grandmother’ did not necessarily mean an actual biological mother of a parent, but sometimes referred to the leading woman of each longhouse, an elected person who was entrusted with vast responsibilities, managing the affairs of the families living together under the same roof but in different compartment and belonging to the same clan (in a sort of an apartment building that spreads sideways and not up). Each longhouse would have an elected leading woman, a member of the town’s or village’s Clans Council.
Also it is worthy of notice, that the “virginal birth” might be a later-day, post-contact addition to the story. Its resemblance to the Christian motif is uncomfortably great. Virginity did not seem to have such a great value in the original Haudenosaunee/Iroquois society, and as a child always belonged to its mother’s clan, no matter how there and involved its father might be in its raising, a lack of a fatherly figure would not have affected the child’s status, certainly not to the degree of attempting to get rid of the newborn. The Longhouse People’s society did not work in this way.
Back to the legend, the Peacemaker’s childhood is reported to be uneventful, with no details provided to us in order to conclude what made him leave his people and embark on the suicidal mission of crossing the Great Lake into the lands of his people’s implacable enemies. At some point, it is said, he had told his mother and grandmother, his only mentioned family members, that the time to leave has come, and that if they wished to know of his wellbeing in the future they were to cut a certain tree and see if no blood was coming out of it but the regular sap. If it didn’t, it would mean that he was alive and successful.
At that, he had entered a stone canoe – a miracle in itself – and sailed into the mists of the Great Lake Ontario, heading for the other side.
At this point, the legend turns helpfully more detailed. According to various versions, after completing the crossing, the Great Peacemaker was first greeted by an Onondaga hunter standing upon the high bank of the Great Lake.
“… It happened at the time a party of hunters had a camp on the south side of the lake now known as Ontario, and one of the party went toward the lake and stood on the bank, and beheld the object coming toward him at a distance, and the man could not understand what it was that was approaching him; shortly afterward he understood that it was a canoe, and saw a man in it…
Then Dekanahwideh [the personal name of the Peacemaker that is not to be used casually according to the Haudenosaunee tradition] asked the man what had caused them to be where they were, and the man answered and said: “We are here for a double object. We are here hunting game for our living and also because there is a great strife in our settlement.”
Then Dekanahwideh said: “You will now return to the place from whence you came. The reason that this occurred is because the Good Tidings of Peace and Friendship have come to the people… and if asked, you will say that the Messenger of the Good Tidings of Peace and Power will come in a few days.”
Then the man asked: “And who are you now speaking to me?”
Dekanahwideh answered: “It is I who came from the west and am going eastward and am called Dekanahwideh in this world.”
Then the man wondered and beheld his canoe and saw that his canoe was made out of white stone…”
Thus, the first contact was made, and it seemed that the Peacemaker had already well formulated plans concerning the mission ahead, and that he knew how to convey his message without being challenged for it, at least not by a simple hunter. It seems that it might have been safer to prolong the conversation, to wheedle an invitation into his first acquaintance’s settlement, to make friends or start gathering followers. However, he didn’t seem to be interested in that.
His next call turned out to be a dwelling of an old woman Jikonsahseh, who was said to live alone in the woods, feeding the warriors who happened to pass by. It is not known to what nation out of five she belonged, because according to the story she fed all warriors who passed her dwelling by, no matter where they came from or where their destination lay, or even what were their goals, peaceful or otherwise.
“…Then after saying these words, Dekanahwideh went on his way and arrived at the house of Ji-kon-sah-seh and said to her that he had come on this path which passed her home and which led from the east to the west, and on which traveled the men of a blood-thirsty and destructive nature.
Then he said to her. “It is your custom to feed these men when they are traveling on this path on their war expeditions” Then he told her that she must desist from practicing this custom. Then he told her that the reason she was to stop this custom was that the Good Tidings of Peace and Power had come… Then also, “I now charge you that you shall be the custodian of the Good Tidings of Peace and Power so that the human race will live in peace in the future. Then Dekanahwideh also said, “You shall, therefore, now go east where I shall meet you at the place of danger (Onondaga), where all matters shall be finally settled, and you must not fail to be there on the third day.
I shall now pass on in my journey…”
(A.C. Parker, “The Constitution of the Five Nations or The Iroquois Book of the Great Law”)
Thus the role of the women in the Iroquois Confederacy was set. They were to have an important part in the management of the entire confederacy, equal to men if different. Elected women of each clan’s council were to nominate the men who would represent their longhouse/village/town in the Great Council of Five Nations, thus giving the women power to choose and vote, even to recall the representative who did not serve his electorate well, replacing him with a new candidate. The Iroquois society was an astonishingly good place for women to enjoy equality while the rest of the world seemed still to be ruled predominantly by men.
Next on the list was apparently the legendary Hiawatha (Hionhwatha). This man’s story is sad and thought-provoking. According to different versions, he was either an Onondaga man, or a Mohawk warrior who had left for the Onondaga lands after terrible misfortune befell him, in the course of which he had lost his beloved wife and three daughters. Different versions disagree on the details of what happened. Some claim that he had a quarrel with one of the powerful leaders of the Onondagas People, Tadodaho, a quarrel that ended with the death of his family through sorcery and vile deeds.
The offset of the events was that Hionhwatha lived alone in the woods, crazed with grief, according to some feared and accused of vile practices of feeding on human flesh, according to others spending his time making ornaments of white and purple shells that were later to become known as wampum, to be an important part in commemoration of the Great League’s laws and rules. He is said to be “… a man who instilled great fear in the people who knew him because after his wife became a victim of tribal warfare and his daughters perished (some stories claim it was due to sorcery), he became a hermit (self-exile) and estranged from the Onondaga’s community and a man of hate who practiced a form of cannibalism on victims of his wrath. The Peacemaker was able to counsel Hiawatha and change his heart and help him to overcome his resentment and sorrow…”
This deed being accomplished, the Great Peacemaker then went to the lands of the Mohawks (People of the Flint) where he was required to prove the divine nature of his mission by climbing a tree which was cut down, falling into the worst of the falls.
“… Then one of the chief warriors asked: “What shall we do with the powerful tribes… who are always hostile to us?”
Then Dekanahwideh answered and said that the hostile nations referred to had already accepted the Good News of Peace and Power.
Then the chief warrior answered and said: “I am still in doubt, and I would propose (as a test of power) that this man (Dekanahwideh) climb up a big tree by the edge of a high cliff and that we then cut the tree down and let it fall with him over the cliff, and then, if he does not die, I shall truly believe the message which he has brought to us.”
Then the deputy chief warrior said: “I also am of the same opinion, and I approve of the suggestion of the chief warrior.”
Then Dekanahwideh said: “I am ready and most willingly accede to your request, because the good Tidings of Peace and Power has come unto us, I now confidently place myself in your hands.”
Then the chief warrior said to Dekanahwideh: “I made this proposal, and therefore, you will now climb this tree so that it will be a sign of proof, and the people may see your power. If you live to see tomorrow’s sunrise then I will accept your message.”
Then Dekanahwideh said: “This shall truly be done and carried out.” And then he climbed the tree, and when he had reached the top of the tree, he sat down on a branch, after which the tree was cut down, and it fell over the cliff with him.
Then the people kept vigilant watch so that they might see him, but they failed to see any signs of him… Now when the new day dawned, one of the warriors arose before sunrise and at once went to the place where the tree had been cut, and when he arrived there he saw at a short distance a field of corn, and nearby the smoke from a fire…and after seeing a man, he at once returned and said that he had seen the man, and that it was he who was on the tree which was cut the evening before…”
(A.C. Parker, “The Constitution of the Five Nations or The Iroquois Book of the Great Law”)
People have disputes concerning the actual location of the ‘test of the falls.’ Some claim it might be the famous Cohoes Falls near the crossing of Mohawk and Hudson rivers; some name various waterfalls considerably closer to Lake Ontario. Upstate NY area is abounding with beautiful and vicious cascades that should take a miracle to survive a dive in.
Having this way gained the trust and the backing of the powerful nation, the People of the Flint (Mohawk), and the tentative proposals of the People of the Hills (Onondaga), the Great Peacemaker continued with his quest, having still much work ahead of him. He was yet to convince another three nations, and then to confront powerful Tadodaho of the Onondagas, a very dangerous and still greatly influential man, Hionhwatha’s implacable enemy.
In the meanwhile, backed by the powerful Flint/Mohawks, he had approached their immediate neighbors, the People of the Standing Stone (Oneida), who had proved relatively easy to convince. The message of the Good Tidings of Peace fell on attentive ears, although it must have taken a few gatherings and more than a few arguments to make two enemy nations sit beside the same fire.
The People of the Great Swamp (Cayuga) joined the proposed union as eagerly, but their neighbors to the west, the fierce, warlike People of the Mountains (Seneca) remained suspicious. Divided already, they followed two separate leaders, spreading along the lands up to Genesee River, a natural boundary. What seemed to be uniting both disagreeing leaders was their mutual dislike of foreigners trying to pry into their people’s affairs.
However, the Great Peacemaker was not about to take a ‘no’ for an answer. Accompanied by the leaders of the three other nations, he had sailed into the lands of the stubborn westerners, to talk and to persuade, by another miracle if necessary.
The meeting might have not been very well going, as at some point, the Peacemaker was reported to make “the sun disappear from the sky.” Indeed, in August 1142, a full solar eclipse had occurred around both New York state and Pennsylvania, reaching near Seneca and Canadaigua Lakes according to the list displayed on the NASA Eclipse Website. There were more eclipses above this area, a century earlier, and a few centuries later, too, but those were either not full or occurring at the wrong time of the year or the day to fit the event described in the legend.
This or that way, after witnessing such a glaring proof of the divine displeasure, the People of the Mountains (Seneca) joined promptly, with no more arguments or debates.
With the backing of four powerful nations, the Great Peacemaker could turn to the last of the reluctant, the Onondagas. In the lands of the People of the Hills (Onondaga) all was not well. Tadodaho, the man responsible for Hionhwatha’s family’s death, was still strong, still influential, still adamant in his refusal to listen to the message of the Great Peace. He was reported to be a powerful sorcerer, with twisted limbs and snakes for a hair. The Peacemaker and Hiawatha went to see him alone.
According to many versions of the legend it was a long, tedious meeting. The old sorcerer refused to listen. Snakes twisted in his hair, and his ears were closed to reason. The sun climbed its usual path and was about to descend to its resting place, and still the Peacemaker talked, refusing to give up. In the end, the old sorcerer was convinced. He allowed the Peacemaker to comb the snakes out of his hair, his twisted limbs straightened and he joined the Great Peace.
Judging by the Peacemaker’s wonderfully detailed, well-recorded constitution, it might not have been that simple. The Onondaga People had definitely received a special place in the Great League of Five Nations. The meetings of the confederacy were to be annually held in the Onondaga lands, giving its dwellers a distinguished title – the Keepers of the Central Fire.
In the Great Council these people were represented considerably more heavily than any other nation – fourteen Onondaga representatives as opposed to nine Mohawks, nine Oneida, ten Cayuga and eight Seneca. Tadodaho was to preside over the meetings, having a position of an arbiter, and a power of veto. Not that the power of veto gave Tadodaho, now the Head of the Great Council, any clear advantage, as the voting was required to be unanimous, thus in fact granting every member of the council an actual power to veto any decision.
Still, these positions of honor and additional power may have been the ones to tip the scales on the famous snakes-combing meeting. The Peacemaker was a great man with a grand vision and a brilliant thinking. He might have thought of those concessions to lure the man he needed to join of his own free will. In the end there was no inequality in the Great League’s procedures, honorific titles or not.
Historically, what made the Iroquois Confederacy special was their amazingly detailed, well-defined constitution. Recorded by a pictographic system in the form of wampum belts, the Great League’s laws held on for centuries, maintaining perfect balance between five powerful, warlike nations.
Many among modern-day scholars believe that the USA constitution was inspired by the earlier Iroquois constitution. To what degree, this is another question, but Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and some other Founding Fathers were, undoubtedly, well enough versed in the laws of the Great League, with Franklin advocating a federal system akin to that of the Iroquois and Adams leading a faction that favored more centralized government but still citing many of the Iroquois laws in the process.
Benjamin Franklin was recorded to print many pamphlets, wrote many letters, citing the Great League’s incredibly elaborate set of laws. In 1754, on the famous Albany conference, he spoke openly about creating a union that resembled that of the Iroquois. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington, while being less ardent supporters of the Five Nations’ model of democracy, were recorded to speak with admiration about the Iroquois’ concepts of liberty and political organization as well.
In fact, in October 1988, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary to the signing of the United States Constitution, the US Congress “… acknowledged the historical debt which this Republic of the United States of America owes to the Iroquois Confederacy… for their demonstration of enlightened, democratic principles of government and their example of a free association of independent Indian Nations…”
An excerpt from “The Great Law of Peace”, The Peacemaker Series, book #3.
There was no way out of this, but why? wondered Tekeni, his mind numb, eyes drawing to the sun every now and then, seeing it diminishing slowly but surely, still fiery and bright but eaten away bite by bite. Had the great man seen the end of the world in that dream he did not have time to share? Was he wishing to finish it all in a spectacular manner of a fierce fight to the death? He tried to make his mind work.
“How do we know those are not lies?” cried out the younger leader, bringing his hands up in a showy way. “From the supposed agreement of the three nations to the allegedly divine nature of this man’s mission, how do we know those are not arrogant, presumptuous, audacious lies?”
The wind tore at them, bringing along the scent of a nearing storm.
“I tell no lies. The other nations have listened to the message of the Great Spirits. Some asked for proof, some have accepted with no evidence of the divine intervention.” Two Rivers’ gaze drew to the sky now too, if only momentarily. Tekeni held his breath, seeing the familiar lips pressing tightly, the large eyes clouding, turning unreadable as he took a deep breath. “I tell no lies, and my mission carries the blessing of the Right-Handed Twin himself. He wants to see his children living in peace with each other. The people of this side of the Great Lake are like a longhouse, spreading from the east to the west, with five nations like five families, living together with each having its own fireplace and independence in managing all but their mutual affairs.”
He looked at them gravely, encircling them with that penetrating gaze of his. “He will be displeased to see that one of the families refuses to live alongside the others.”
More people were glancing at the sky now, unsettled, their frowns deep. Tekeni forced his eyes off the diminishing circle, feeling the cold spreading. Was it his fear or was it truly getting colder? Further down the clearing, around the tents, the women were pointing at the sky, talking rapidly.
“Listen to me,” cried out Two Rivers, and Tekeni clung to the familiar voice, watching the Great Man as he stood there, paying no attention to the disquiet that kept growing around them. “We can make it work.”
“How?” The silver-haired leader stepped forward, also refusing to look at the sky.
“Like I said, in the way of our traditional longhouse.” As though no deepening shadows were gathering upon the ground, Two Rivers knelt, picking up a small stick. Like in a dream, Tekeni watched the long fingers drawing a square, then another, five in all, connected by a thin line. “These are our people, five nations, five families residing side by side. The People of the Flint,” the stick pointed toward the first square, “they have already held the gathering, choosing the leaders who will represent each town at their national council. They are organized now, not a loosely coordinated group of settlements anymore, but a nation.”
The stick kept moving, sliding above the next rectangle. “The People of the Standing Stone have chosen their council too, already.” A slight hesitation above the middle square. “The Onondagas are yet to organize the meeting of the whole nation, but their neighbors to the west, the People of the Swamp, are holding the main gathering at these very moments. I was present at their meeting when your messengers came to invite me here.” He looked up, not needing to squint anymore, with the glow of the sun dimming rapidly.
Unable to stop himself from doing so, Tekeni looked up, a stony fist squeezing his stomach. What started as the dark crack on the edge of the blazing sun was now a blot of ominous blackness, swallowing the shining deity like a snake devouring its prey, unhurried, sure of itself. For a heartbeat he shut his eyes, his senses clinging to the familiar voice, so calm and well measured. Didn’t Two Rivers notice that something was amiss?
“You are the fifth family, the keepers of the western door. Without you, our longhouse will not be whole.”
Most people were staring at the sky now, some gaping, some pointing, murmuring, looking around, their fear unconcealed.
“It all sounds very well,” the younger leader’s voice boomed, overcoming the growing hum. “But what happens if we refuse to join? Will the Great Spirits direct you to gather the warriors of the four nations in order to force us into your union? What will you do if we refuse to guard the western door of your metaphorical longhouse?”
Two Rivers got to his feet, looking suddenly tired, almost exhausted.
“I think the Great Spirits are not trying to conceal their displeasure,” he said quietly, his jaw stubbornly tight, but his eyes clouded, thoughtful and oh-so-very sad. “Listen to this.” Gesturing widely, he pointed toward the forest behind their backs. Not a chirp of a bird came from between the swaying trees. Even the insects kept quieter now, as though afraid of the darkness.
“What does it mean?” the people were shouting. “What is happening?”
“The Great Spirits are displeased.” Two Rivers’ voice rang calmly, but there was an obvious tension to it now. Unable to fight the urge, Tekeni came closer, but whether to protect his friend in case someone decided to attack him, or to seek the safety beside the man who seemed to be doing all this, he didn’t know.
The cold was growing, definite now. And so were the shadows. He noticed the flowers down the clearing were closing up, as though the night were nearing. People were rushing about, openly afraid, peering at the sky, murmuring prayers. Two Rivers stood there alone, watching the sharpening shadows, his jaw tight.
“Your dream?” whispered Tekeni, stepping into the void surrounding his friend. Even their people kept away from the Crooked Tongues man now, stealing terrified glances.
The warm palm rested on his shoulder, heavy, reassuring. “Yes. But it is going to be well in the end.”
The distant shadows loomed over the western side of the lake, like a gathering storm.
“What is happening?” He swallowed, hearing his own voice husky and high, full of panic. The urge to run away welled. It was obvious that the Left-Handed Twin was coming to claim their world for himself and his underworld minions and followers, the bad, poisonous uki and the giants that were still reported to roam the earth. The cry of an owl confirmed this assumption. An owl in the middle of the day?
“I don’t know,” Two Rivers’ voice shook now too, his self-assurance gone. “I wish I knew!”
The sun was a pitifully thin crescent, like a moon on certain nights. Oh, Mighty Spirits! Tekeni watched the strips of light darting across the ground, alternating with patches of black, both moving fast, like attacking predators. It was as though the light and the darkness were fighting each other. The epic battle of the Celestial Twins?
He felt his heart fluttering, the stony fist gripping his stomach, squeezing with all its might. But for the presence of Two Rivers, he would turn around and run into the woods, to crawl somewhere quiet and maybe vomit in fear. The world was ending in front of his eyes, and he was not ready for this. It was one thing to risk one’s life, facing death, fighting or sailing, or hunting a bear, but another to watch the world dying, collapsing on its own, with Father Sun being devoured by a feral beast.