He is one of the most important Indigenous individuals of the past 1,000 years and arguably the most important Indigenous person from pre-contact that we know of. His name was Hiawatha, and he would bring peace to the five nations of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk to create a confederacy that would become a major political force for centuries.
It should be noted that I am not talking about Hiawatha in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem The Song of Hiawatha.
It is not known when Hiawatha lived, with some records putting him living from 1525 to 1565, while other records have his life from 1400 to 1450, or even possibly 500 years previous. As such, he is mixed between the oral histories told by the Indigenous about him, and the legend that has sprang up around his life. As a result of this, it is said no two versions of the story of Hiawatha are the same. In some stories he is a heroic figure similar to George Washington, and in other stories he is a mythical figure such as Odysseus.
One of the first discrepancies is over which Indigenous nation he was part of, with some claiming he was Mohawk and others claiming he was Onondaga, or even the farther away Mi’kmaq
During the life of Hiawatha, the Indigenous people of his region were involved in the Mourning Wars, or what Europeans would call blood feuds, that created a never-ending cycle of violence fueled by vengeance for past deaths and deeds.
Among the Indigenous tribes of the region, there was a tradition of replacing fallen warriors with captives taken in battle, to help mourners deal with the death of their loved ones. Unfortunately, this caused the cycle of vengeance to keep going, with neighbouring nations trying to take their own captives to replace the members of their nation taken as captives.
As wars continued, famine grew because it depleted the stores of the villages and hunters who would have been out getting food were now involved in the business of war, which meant many communities had no food to get through the winter months.
It was in this world of violence, that Hiawatha came into the picture.
Very little is known about Hiawatha behind his life slightly before and after the founding of the Confederacy. He is also known as Ayonwatha and Hienwentha, or He Who Combs.
In the story of Hiawatha, three main individuals feature and I will cover all three because each gives a glimpse into the violence that was plaguing the Five Nations at the time and each had their part in the overall story.
The first figure is Hiawatha himself, who was an Onondaga or Mohawk warrior that lost his wife and daughters as a result of the blood feuds. With the loss of his family, Hiawatha falls into a deep depression and he began to wander the lands of the Haudenosaunee grieving their loss. As a result, Hiawatha is the representation of the victims of the violence that everyone had to deal with.
The second figure is Atotarho, who was the war chief of the Onondaga. He represents the aggressors of the blood feuds and it was said that he controlled dark magic and had snakes in his hair. Using his magic, he prevented the councils of the Onondaga from conducting open discussions and councils to deal with the violence. No one spoke out against him as there was fear of his temper and violent nature.
The third figure is The Great Peacemaker, or Deganawida. He was said to come from the north, possible the area of the Huron people, to bring his message of peace to the Five Nations.
A fourth figure is also present in some stories, called Jigonsahseh, or the Peace Queen, whose approval of the message of The Great Peacemaker symbolized the need for gaining consent of a council of women before any major political actions were taken.
According to the oral histories, it was Hiawatha and The Great Peacemaker who became the founders of The Great Law of Peace and the Iroquois League. This league is represented by the longhouse and the Haudenosaunee became The People Of The Longhouse, with the Longhouse being sacred among them.
According to archeological evidence, it is believed that the league was founded in the late-1400s.
As for how that came about, it all comes down to two men meeting each other and sharing a common goal of ending the violence.
According to oral histories, The Great Peacemaker’s grandmother had a dream that her daughter would have a son that would bring a message of peace and power from the Chief of the Great Sky Spirits to the waring nations across the water, or Great Lakes. According to the histories, the Great Peacemaker was born around 1390. When that child grew up, he stated his desire to sail across the water and bring his message of peace and power to the five waring nations. He then took a canoe of white stone across the lake. The Great Peacemaker then traveled from one village to another, telling about his message of hope.
The Great Peacemaker had travelled down from his homeland to live with the Mohawk and it was here that he met Hiawatha, who was in self-exile dealing with the death of his family. The two men began to speak and realized they both shared the common goal of ending the blood feuds.
At the time, Hiawatha was described as a man who had a clouded mind and who could not think clearly as his rage had taken away his sense of reason. In order to help him deal with his grief, The Great Peacemaker conducted a ceremony of condolence, which he taught to Hiawatha. He taught him that anguish had the ability to push those who survived the terrible wars into a deep despair, just like Hiawatha, and that it was harmful not only to themselves, but to their community as well.
The Great Peacemaker told Hiawatha that the blood feuds had to be replaced with peace and it was through the condolence ceremony that it could be done.
The condolence ceremony, which could only be done by someone who had an unclouded mind, consisted of wiping the eyes of the weeping mourner so that they could see, then opening the ears so they could hear and clearing their throat so they could speak.
When the ceremony was done to Hiawatha, he suddenly found that he no longer had pain and sorrow and his reason had returned to him. The key to the ceremony was forgiveness. Hiawatha discovered that he had been unable to forgive his enemy, and without forgiveness he could not unite the nations.
The ceremony was only one part of the ritual, which included the wampum belt that would record agreements, and the re-quickening ceremony that was the ritual of adopting a member of another tribe as the re-embodiment of a loss within the tribe to provide balance.
With this, Hiawatha would unite the Five Nations.
According to legends, the reason that Hiawatha was the one to spread the message of peace for The Great Peacemaker was because The Great Peacemaker had a speech impediment.
As the disciple of The Great Peacemaker, Hiawatha preached about the condolence ceremony and how it had helped him. He kept a wampum to remind him of the ceremony, which he wore around his neck and to ensure he did not forget how to conduct the ritual. Hiawatha began by going to the Mohawk, and making his way westward to the Oneida and both nations, after one year, approved of the message of The Great Peacemaker.
He then returned to his home village with the Onondaga and Atotarho was approached with this new message of peace. Since Atotarho had risen to power through the wars, he did not want peace, but Hiawatha continued on to the Cayuga and Seneca who both approved of the message of The Great Peacemaker.
With four of the nations aligned, they approached Atotarho, who refused once again. The four nations then spoke with Hiawatha and asked him why they couldn’t just coerce him and his nation by force into the confederacy, now that they were stronger together. Hiawatha refused this as he believed that this would create a stain on the founding of the Confederacy.
To appease Atotarho, Hiawatha offered him the role of great chief and ensured that his home in Onondaga would be the meeting place of the Grand Council, which is the ruling body for the chiefs of the Haudenosaunee. With this, Atotarho agreed and the Iroquois Confederacy was born.
The creation of the Iroquois Confederacy would have long lasting impacts, and it would ensure that the member nations stayed strong and united for the next 30 years, and served as important military allies to the French, English, Dutch and Americans over the course of the centuries.
The Hiawatha Wampum Belt is a visual record of the creation of the Iroquois Confederacy. It consists of 6,574 beads, in 34 rows by 173 rows, with 892 white and 5,682 purple beads. The purple beads represent the sky and universe, and the white represents the purity and Good Mind. In the centre of the belt is the symbol of the Confederacy, a Great White Pine, or the Tree of Peace. It was under this tree that the weapons of hate, jealousy and war were buried. It also represents the Onondaga Nation where the central council fire resides. The other nations are represented in squares on the belt. The white open squares are connected by a white band that has no beginning or end, and the band does not cross the centre of each nation, which shows that each nation is supported and unified by the common bond.
It is not known when Hiawatha died, but it is stated that he was buried on the shores of Lake Superior.
In 1988, the United States Congress stated that the Confederation of the Thirteen Colonies was influenced by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the principles of democracy that would be put into the United States Constitution.
Hiawatha has been honored extensively in North America as a result of his role in creating the Confederacy. In the United States, a 52 foot tall statue honours him, as does the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan. In Canada, several locations also bear his name, including the Hiawatha First Nation.
The members of the Hiawatha First Nation, named for the man who brought a democratic peace to his people, would be the first Indigenous in Canada to vote in a federal election, in this case a byelection, without losing their treaty status.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, New World Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Native-Languages.Org, Onondaga Nation, Tales of an Empty Cabin,