Deganawida and Hiawatha
The story of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy is one of the most fascinating and wonderful that history has to offer us. It is the story of Deganawida and his disciple Hiawatha who single handedly brought about the unity of five warring tribes in America, many hundreds of years before Europeans settled the country.
The story has so many variations, it is hard to choose just one, but all accounts agree that amongst the five tribes that lived to the east of the great lakes, a terrible war raged, for many generations.
The five tribes were the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Onondagas. Tribe fought with tribe, and in the tribes, villages fought with villages, and in the villages, families fought with families, and even in the families there was fighting. Fear and hatred reigned in the land and nobody was safe.
On the opposite shores of the
great lakes, amongst the Huron nation, there lived a woman and her daughter. One
night, as the woman slept, she dreamt that her daughter had a son called
Deganawida, who would bring a message of peace and power from the Chief of the
Great Sky Spirits to all the warring nations across the water. And sure enough
the dream came about. A son was born to her daughter and they called him
Deganawida. When he had grown to be a man, he told them of his desire to sail
across the water and bring his message of peace and power to the five fighting
tribes. His mother and grandmother consented, and Deganawida stepped into a
canoe of white stone and rowed across the lake.
When the people saw him floating in a boat made of stone they were filled with wonder, and when they heard what he had to say they became willing to abandon their weapons and adopt his peaceful ways.
Deganawida didn’t stay in any place for long; he travelled from one village to the next, always moving eastwards, telling the people his message of hope.
One day he reached the Mohawk tribe, whose chief was Hiawatha. Hiawatha was a fierce cannibal, renowned for being the best warrior in the land. But recently he had felt unable to fight and could not sleep at nights.
He was not surprised to see Deganawida and quickly called together his people to hear him speak.
"I come with good tidings from the Chief of the Sky Spirits," Deganawida said. "Fighting must cease in the land. The good Spirit never intended that blood should flow between human beings."
"But if we do not fight," one man objected, "we will be killed by the neighbouring tribes."
"The neighbouring tribes have already accepted my message of peace," said Deganawida, and Hiawatha’s tribe then accepted his message as well.
When the time came for Deganawida to leave, he gave Hiawatha a parting piece of advice. "There is one I wish to warn you of," he said. "He is the Chief of the Onondagas who lives above the lake. He will not listen to my words, and has great powers to use against those who do." So saying, he left for the east.#
Hiawatha had three daughters, and in the months ensuing Deganawida’s departure they all died mysteriously.
Suspecting the evil man he had been warned of, and filled with grief, Hiawatha abandoned his tribe and home, and left to find Deganawida.
After a long and difficult journey he found him, and Deganawida’s wise and kind words of consolation, succeeded in dispelling his grief. They spent many days together, at the end of which Hiawatha pledged to help Deganawida bring the tidings of peace to the five tribes.
They parted ways, and did not meet again until there was only one man left who had not accepted the message of peace and power: the evil Onondaga chief. They journeyed to his mountain together and found him in a cave above the lake. Hiawatha was shocked to see that he was more of a monster than a man, with a hideous face and serpents entwined in his hair!
They talked to him for a long time, and after many hours of discussion and persuasion, he began to smile. "I will accept your plan of peace," he said. His face lost all traces of ugliness and Hiawatha helped to comb the serpents out of his hair.
They returned down the mountain where all the tribes were gathered and began a great meeting. Deganawida proposed that they would form one nation and he told them the laws they should abide by, which became their constitution. They would be the Haudenosaunee nation (later known as the Iroquois Confederacy), and when the meeting was over, they buried all their weapons. Deganawida planted a tree above, and the tree became known as the Tree of Peace. Deganawida then left, leaving Hiawatha in his place.
The new nation prospered and was still strong when the Europeans came. Their constitution and democratic system of government was admired by the newcomers, particularly Benjamin Franklin, and this, along with its similarity, has given rise to the belief that the American constitution is based upon the constitution given to the Iroquois Confederacy by Deganawida and Hiawatha.
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