Legend of the Great Peace of the Iroquois Confederation
by Robert Constas
The Legend of Hiawatha and the great Native American prophet, Deganawidah is one of the most inspiring stories in all religious and political history. This legend is not just a myth; it is history based on real life happenings occurring before the white man discovered the Western Hemisphere, before Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola in 1492. Earlier scholars dated these events as occurring most likely around 1450. Some more recent scholars now think they may have occurred around 1148.
There are many variations of this profound story. In all the variations of this legend, the miracles described seem as valid as accounts in the New Testament or stories about the miracles performed by various prophets and saints throughout history. The miracles in the legend of Hiawatha and Deganawidah are all recorded in the archives of the Iroquois Nation in upper state New York. There is no doubt that there was a real Hiawatha, said to be an Onondaga chief later adopted by the Mohawk. There also was the great prophet born of a virgin Huron. He was named Deganawidah, the Peacemaker. There also was the black magician war chief of the Onondaga tribe, Atatarho. A prominent woman named Djigonsasee is also included in all the accounts. Deganawidah was born during the winter in very cold weather into the Huron tribe on the north side of Lake Ontario. His mother was a virgin teenager, and his grandmother was angry about the pregnancy, not believing that her daughter was a virgin. The grandmother had a dream that her grandson eventually would be the cause of great harm coming to the Huron tribe. She told her daughter that the baby must be killed, and the sorrowful mother and grandmother took the baby to the freezing water of a stream and submerged the baby in the water. The next morning they found him in the blankets lying between them and laughing. They did this three times with the same result. Finally, the grandmother was convinced that he was a messenger sent from the Great Spirit and stopped trying to kill him. The grandmother’s dream came true much later when the Huron tribe refused to make peace with the Iroquois Confederation and was conquered. Once conquered, the Huron tribe would no longer be able to make war against the Iroquois.
Throughout his childhood Deganawidah talked enthusiastically about establishing the Great Peace among the tribes. His peers scorned him because he did not participate in games of war with them. Also, he had a speech impediment, most likely stammering. The Hurons, as well as all the tribes, very much admired oratory.
When eighteen years old he made a white stone canoe and told his mother and grandmother that he planned to paddle across Lake Ontario to establish the Great Peace with the warring tribes. His grandmother told him he was very foolish and would drown in the stone canoe. Deganawidah told her that the Great Spirit had told him that he would die only when he decided it was the time to die. He had a strong vision of a new world ruled by principles in harmony with the Great Spirit. This world was to be free of war, cannibalism, black magic and the cycle of revenge.
Saraydarian calls the mother of Deganawidah, Djigonsasee, the Mother of the World, with the same meaning given in the Theosophical tradition. That means she was the same woman who was the reincarnated mother of many great heroes of cultures such as Krishna, Buddha and Jesus. Apart from this legendary account, there was a woman called Djigonsasee who lived on the south side of Lake Ontario, that was the first person to dedicate herself to the vision of the Great Peace. Deganawidah gave her the title Mother of Nations. Djigonsasee warned Deganawidah that he must pass through the forest where a dreaded cannibal lives. The tribes in that area had the custom of eating the heart of an enemy they had killed. This cannibal was so full of rage against mankind that he developed a lust for human flesh. This was after the evil Atatarho killed the man’s wife and three daughters, presumably by using psychic powers through black magic. This cannibal was Hiawatha.
Hiawatha had been a prominent Onondaga chief who several times had opposed Atatarho in council. Each time he opposed the evil war chief, someone in his family was killed, either through black magic or assassins. Atatarho had his followers kill those who opposed him. As a result, the other chiefs feared Atatarho, both for his black magic and his assassins. After his wife and daughters were slain, Hiawatha abandoned his Onondaga tribe and lived as a hermit in the forest. Filled with bitterness and revenge, he became a feared cannibal. He became a fallen angel, a noble man who lost all hope. He killed enemy warriors and ate their flesh. This was the custom among the local tribes in upper state New York in this most dark of times.
However, there was a great and noble soul still living in his heart, waiting to be awakened. It is the divine-sent Peacemaker, Deganawidah, who awakened Hiawatha from his dark ways, revealing the noble soul of Hiawatha. When Deganawidah met Hiawatha, Hiawatha was dragging a corpse into his lodge. Deganawidah climbed onto the roof and observed him through the smoke hole while Hiawatha was quartering the corpse and filling the pot with water. Hiawatha looked into the pot and saw the face of Deganawidah. He thought the reflection was his own face, and thought to himself, How can a face like that do what I am doing? He immediately repented and removed the corpse from his lodge. Deganawidah climbed down from the roof and spoke to Hiawatha about the Great Peace. Hiawatha’s mind was turned to the New Hope by the spiritual message given to him, and became the second person after Djigonsasee to join Deganawidah. The relationship between the two men became very close. Hiawatha was an excellent orator and was the main speaker for Deganawidah in all the meetings they had with the various tribes. Although Deganawidah had great spiritual power, he had a speech problem and realized that he could not command the respect of the tribal leaders, no matter how inspired his messages were. In some ways he was similar to Moses who also had some type of speech problem and had his brother Aaron speak for him.
What followed over the next five years was the pledge of dedication to the Great Peace of four tribes of the original five, starting with the Mohawk. Through Hiawatha, Deganawidah told the Mohawk that he was sent to establish the Great Peace by the Master of Life from whom we are all descended. He spoke about establishing a union of nations. He told them that all the chiefs must be virtuous men and be very patient.
The Mohawk council challenged Deganawidah to show that he was a true messenger sent by the Great Spirit. Deganawidah agreed and proposed that he climb to the top of a tall pine tree overhanging the swift Mohawk river, and that they should chop down the tree, thus sending him to a nearly certain death. The Mohawk did so, and Deganawidah disappeared from sight. Night came and Deganawidah did not appear. They thought he had drowned.
The next morning some warriors saw smoke coming from an empty cabin. They found Deganawidah preparing his morning meal. The warriors ran back to the village, reported what they saw, and soon everyone believed that Deganawidah was who he said he was.
The Mohawk dedication to the Great Peace was followed by the Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca tribes. They were all wearied by the endless wars and killing. This agreement among the four tribes was accomplished over five years. The leaders of the Onondaga tribe were fearful of joining the union until Atatarho gave permission because he had a reputation for murdering anyone who defied or challenged him.
The transformation of the wicked Atatarho was very dramatic. It was Hiawatha who soothed Atatarho with his singing and combed the snakes of evil and insane thoughts out of his hair. (It is possible that Atatarho tied garter snakes in his hair to frighten people.) It was incredible how Deganawidah appealed to the dormant higher nature and noble pride of Atatarho to win his allegiance to the Great Peace. This strategy succeeded and Atatarho actually became the keeper of the sacred flame of the Iroquois Confederation.
Atatarho insisted that his tribe would have the right to veto any policy that the Onondaga disliked. Deganawidah consented, but this was of little concern, because all decisions had to be made by a general consensus anyway. The use of general consensus to make all decisions was one of the most important developments in political history. This meant that a governing body, council or legislature would insist on insuring that every position and viewpoint would be considered and a decision not be made until a decision upon which they all agreed was achieved. The chiefs recognized that they could not always have their way, but knew that their rights would be respected and that the good of all tribes was the highest priority.
Perhaps the greatest miracle of Deganawidah was awakening the higher nature of both Atatarho and Hiawatha. Hiawatha also was instrumental in turning Atatarho to the Great Peace. Atatarho had a twisted body and undoubtedly was scorned and belittled as a child, arousing a great bitterness in him. Also, he had considerable psychic powers, more than the average shaman. He had no compassion and showed no mercy when opposed. He became an embodiment of evil. The compassion of Deganawidah and Hiawatha found the key to unlock his higher nature, and Atatarho opened his heart and dedicated himself to the Great Peace. There is still today a grand council of Iroquois leaders. There is still a keeper of the sacred flame who is given the name Atatarho. Out of humility, the Iroquois sachems (chiefs and senators) all use the same names of the original fifty Iroquois sachems that formed the Confederation. Women are still regarded as guardians of the culture and future.
Saraydarian’s work gives the essence of the message of Deganawidah, but makes Hiawatha the dominant person in his book. Hiawatha is the one who gives almost all the messages. The messages are the essence of spiritual and political wisdom, expressed in great simplicity and beauty. It is as if someone who was actually there recorded the speeches, and used the power of verbal music to convey the essence of the meaning. This is the expression of Saraydarian’s genius.
Deganawidah carried out his mission over five years, from age eighteen to twenty-three. When twenty-three he headed his white stone canoe into the sunset and was never heard from again. Hiawatha continued for many years to lead, inspire and consolidate the confederation of the five tribes. He is much revered by the Iroquois. A sixth tribe, the Tuscorora, joined the Confederation around 1715.
It is said that Hiawatha invented wampum, an aid to memory using symbols and designs made of beads sewn on fabric. Although beads had been stitched on fabric in the past and used as money and for decoration, credit is given to Hiawatha for using them as a mnemonic recording device. The symbols in the wampum help the storyteller to recall the events in chronological order. Wampum is not a language of words, and can only be interpreted properly by the individual who made the designs in the first place. The colonists brought the Native Americans a true written language, and many Natives were fast to learn how to speak the language of the colonists. Nevertheless, due to the lack of a written language, the Natives developed excellent memories and were accurate in passing on the oral traditions.
Many scholars now believe that the Iroquois constitution made a very significant contribution to the formation of the American Articles of Confederation and the American Constitution. This is discussed in the Appendix.
The Influence of the Iroquois Confederation on the American Constitution
Liberty was a fundamental characteristic of the Native Americans. In many ways they Americanized the European colonists. The American love of freedom did not start with European philosophers. It started when they saw how much freedom was allowed in the Native American tribes and how advanced was the constitution of the Iroquois Confederation
When the colonists first met the Indians they found them living in a Stone Age setting. Even so, the inhabitants had developed a sophisticated social and political culture, amazing in its maturity, rivaling that of Europe. Indeed, they had more liberty than the Europeans, were eloquent orators, and had far-sighted politicians who demonstrated supreme diplomatic skills in dealing with the colonists.
The Indians managed to hold the balance of power on this continent between England and France. Both England and France sought to dominate North America. France started in what is now Canada and French trappers traveled up and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and other trading posts. The English and Dutch colonists settled in New England down to Virginia. The Iroquois kept good relations with both the quarreling English and French, with both sides trying to win the support of the Iroquois against the other. As a result, both the English and the French treated the Iroquois favorably.
The Iroquois constitution provided for representative democracy. Voting rights were given to women, and only the women voted for the male representatives (called sachems, meaning senators or chiefs) who then voted in council. The woman were thought to be wise and would not easily vote to go to war when they knew that some of their husbands and sons would be killed. Also, the clan mother held the right of recall when the male senator or chief from her clan did not adequately fulfill his leadership position. Local self-government was provided through local tribal and regional legislatures. This, combined with the Native emphasis on personal liberty, fired the imaginations of those colonists who later were to become the founding fathers of the United States.
During the mid-18th century there were friendly relations between Europeans and the Iroquois. England made treaties with the Iroquois and many English nobles adopted their lifestyle. Benjamin Franklin was an Indian commissioner for Pennsylvania. He published twenty-six treaty accounts with the Iroquois. It was from them that he and other prominent colonists conceived of the idea of a federal union of the colonies. There is a documented visit at the treaty council in 1744 of Benjamin Franklin with Canassatego, the speaker for the Grand Council at Onondaga, New York. Canassatego recommended to Franklin that the colonies adopt a similar structure of government as the Iroquois Confederation. He expressed that this would give them greater strength and power. Franklin presented this plan at the Albany council, but it was defeated. Twenty years later, however, it reappeared in the Articles of Confederation, forming the basis for the Declaration of Independence. The most prominent Founding Fathers of the United States by that time were all familiar with the principles of the Iroquois Confederation.
Scholarly evidence suggests that the political philosophers of Europe – Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes and More – became familiar with the Iroquois principles. Most likely this was the result of Benjamin Franklin’s meetings in Europe with the ruling classes and politicians there.
The Iroquois managed to achieve a harmonious synthesis of individualism and communal holdings. A movie about this legend and the Iroquois Confederation was about to be made during the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union, but it was aborted. It was thought that such a movie could be used as Communist propaganda. American thought is now more mature, and can be educated by the spiritual power and message of the Iroquois Confederation.
The Iroquois sachems were to be men with clear minds, full of goodwill and peace. They were to set the example of freedom from corruption, to be detached from material possessions, and to show no signs of selfishness. The Iroquois Confederation remains a model for global cooperation and goodwill. Saraydarian’s account reveals the beauty and wisdom of this noble people.
The various legends often mix the identities of Deganawidah and Hiawatha. Some say Hiawatha was the Peacemaker; others say it was Deganawidah. Some say Djigonsasee (other references call her Jikonsaseh) was the mother of Hiawatha, others say she was a young woman unrelated to Hiawatha. They all agree that Atatarho (other references use Tadodaho) was a psychic shaman who was the war chief of the Onondaga tribe and was the major obstacle to ending the intense warfare among the five original tribes of what was to become the Iroquois Confederation. One version of the legend even fuses the identity of Deganawidah and Hiawatha, but the evidence strongly supports that they were two separate individuals. Interestingly, the poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855), by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, has little to do with the historical person of Hiawatha. Despite the various presentations of the legend, this does not affect the beauty and profound significance of the story. The reader can easily look beyond the names to the inspiring quality of the characters of Deganawidah and Hiawatha and their magnificent achievements. They gave a wonderful gift to the Iroquois tribes and offered America an advanced social system that has yet to be surpassed.
Bonvillain, Nancy. Hiawatha: Founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1992.
Mann, Charles. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Knopf, New York, 2006.
Peterson, Scott. Native American Prophecies. Paragon House, New York, 1990.
Wallace, Paul. White Roots of Peace: the Iroquois Book of Life. Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, 1946, originally published 1946; it contains drawings from 1984 and 1996. . Especially valuable because it has a foreword by Chief Leon Shenandoah, the Atatarho (Tadodaho) from 1967 to 1996, and an epilogue by John Mohawk.
Robert Constas, M.D. is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist with the Phoenix Indian Medical Center in Arizona, USA. He has extensive experience with parapsychological phenomena, and the application of the Ageless Wisdom in the field of child and adolescent treatment and child rearing. He was raised in the Ageless Wisdom tradition and worked with Torkom Saraydarian beginning in the 1960’s.