Centuries before the creation of the United States and its Constitution, democracy had already taken root in North America, among a handful of Indigenous nations. Known as the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, this league of nations emerged among five Northeastern Woodland tribes that had been plagued by wars of retaliation and violence for many generations.
The Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse”) originally included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations. In the 1700s, the Tuscarora became the sixth. Guided by the Great Law of Peace – their own constitution – this league came to govern jointly, while recognizing the sovereignty of each nation.
The Great Law of Peace, widely attributed to two visionary heroes of culture, Hiawatha and Deganawida (aka “The Peacemaker”), established a model of federalism, separation of powers and participatory democracy that would inspire leaders like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison during training. the United States. It also conferred significant power and status on women in Iroquois culture.
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A story of symbols
The origin story of the Great Law of Peace, passed down through centuries of Iroquois oral tradition, is a powerful epic loaded with symbolism, which links peace and justice with physical health and human emotions like grief. and empathy. Many of the names in the story have been passed down from generation to generation and are considered metaphorical to the citizens of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee today.
“These names are there to remind us through symbolism that we should never go back to those days again,” said Jamie Jacobs, a Seneca of the Tonawanda Turtle Clan and member of a committee that oversees the reading of the Great Law of Peace. throughout the Iroquois Confederacy.
According to oral tradition, these events took place a long time ago at a place known as Kanienkeh, where Hiawatha, Deganawida and others worked to establish lasting peace that continues to be a living tradition today. . While some Western scholars date the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy around 500 years ago, the Iroquois and many non-Indigenous scholars date its inception to 1142, when a total solar eclipse occurred in the region.
Here is a distilled version of the Iroquois story of the birth of the Great Law of Peace:
The great loss and transformation of Hiawatha
Hiawatha lived among the Onondaga people at a time of great discord. People were afraid to leave their homes at night for fear of violence, betrayal and witchcraft. The worst among these evil wizards was the dreaded Atotarhoh, a curvy, misshapen man with snakes in his hair who ate human flesh and could kill his enemies with evil drugs, from which he drew great powers.
Hiawatha and others had repeatedly tried to thwart Atotarhoh’s bad manners, but he always trapped them until defeat. A dreamer in the community had a vision that a man from the north would soon pass by that could change everything, but Hiawatha would have to travel with him first to help him.
Hiawatha had seven daughters he didn’t want to leave, but they were all killed over time, leaving him overwhelmed with grief and struggling for answers. He left the Onondagas to wander in the woods, his mind in a cloud, until he camped in a grove of hickory trees. There, in his grief, he made three cords from a rush plant, forming in his mind words of compassion and consolation, rather than revenge.
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The “words of condolence” in wampum
Hiawatha then collected seashells for the wampum strings and composed the “words of condolence” that would one day be at the heart of the Great Law of Peace. “If I were to see someone in deep grief, I would pull those shell strings off the post and console them,” he said. “These ropes would become words that would remove the darkness with which they are covered. “
These words and others would eventually become Great Law, codified in cords of wampum shells for communication to future generations.
Hiawatha soon met members of the Oneida Nation, who had heard about him and the dream he would one day meet The Peacemaker. After sitting with them in council for seven days, Hiawatha traveled with their leader until he came to the Mohawks, where he first met Deganawida.
Deganawida converts evil beings, then empowers them
As Hiawatha endured his woes, another man named Deganawida made plans to confront the warring nations of the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee. Born in a Huron village, the boy was called by the Creator and endowed with miraculous powers. He paddled a stone canoe east across Lake Ontario to the land of the Iroquois with a message of “peace, righteousness and might.”
As he neared the land of the Iroquois, The Peacemaker met a woman named Jigonsaseh known to lure men into her lodge and poison them to death. “The message I bring is that all people should love each other and live together in peace,” he told her. Her mind was transformed, and The Peacemaker then decided that women would one day have the power to choose leaders, and remove them if they no longer had the “right spirit” to lead.
The Peacekeeper then convinced him to give up cannibalism, granting him the right in his new form as first leader of the Mohawks.
The Peacemaker then approached the unarmed Mohawks, convincing them to be the first nation to adopt the Great Law of Peace, which would include ceremonies and rituals to protect health, peace, righteousness, justice and justice. religion.
“Health means strength of mind and body,” said The Peacemaker. “It also means peace, because that’s what happens when minds are sane and bodies are healed. Justice means justice practiced among men and among nations. It signifies a desire for justice to prevail.
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The gathering of two minds
When Hiawatha met the Peacekeeper among the Mohawks, they shared their stories, and in some accounts, Hiawatha became a spokesperson for The Peacemaker. “The root of the name Hiawatha means to awaken, like awakening to a higher level of peaceful consciousness,” says Jamie Jacobs. “Hiawatha was a catalyst for peace and it was by chance that these two men met at that time. They knew what the other was looking for.
Hiawatha learned from Deganawida how to establish a union of nations and how virtuous and patient men should be. The new chiefs would wear deer antlers to symbolize their positions.
Win the sorcerer to win the peace
The delegation then shared its plans with the other four nations. Each has taken a year to consider joining the Great Law of Peace. After reporting back to the Mohawk Nation on their success, the delegation then came up with a plan to confront the dreaded Atotarhoh, which had to be won for peace to prevail. He was found alive alone in Onondaga, bent and twisted in seven places.
The Peacekeeper taught Mohawk songs, including the “Hymn to Peace,” in preparation for the Oneida and Mohawk delegation to console and convert Atotarhoh. The Peacekeeper sang the song as he approached the wizard, rubbing his twisted body to judge his strength. As he finished, Atotaroh’s body straightened and the snakes left his hair. Now, with his good and strong spirit, the establishment of the Great Peace could begin.
In Onondaga, the Peacekeeper uprooted the largest white pine, the Tree of Peace, under which the rulers buried their weapons of hatred, jealousy and war. This has been called “burying the hatchet”.
Atotaroh became the central guardian of the confederation, passing the title to this day on Onondaga. Deganawida has ordered the people not to pass on his name as a hereditary title since the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy. Today, he’s known simply as The Peacemaker.