Two great Native American leaders named Hiawatha and 'Peacemaker' united five tribes, changed America
Illustration by DAVID SHANNON Legendary Iroquois Nation Chief Hiawatha (1525-unknown).
KEN WELSH/Design Pics Hiawatha and Minnehaha characters in Henry Wadsworth Longfellows poem Song of Hiawatha.
GOOGLE IMAGES Peacemaker Deganawida and Hiawatha convinced five tribes to stop fighting and live in peace with one another, forming the Iroquois Federation.
PUBLIC DOMAIN Hiawatha Returning With Minnehaha mural by Frances Foy in a Gibson City, Ill., post office, depicting Hiawatha returning to his village with Dakota bride, as described in Longfellows poem.
WALT DISNEY Walt Disney movie Little Hiawatha (1937).
WALT DISNEY In the Disney animated cartoon about Hiawatha, he is depicted as a little Indian boy whose pants kept falling down (1937).
WIKIMEDIA COMMONS Tribal areas of six Indian Nations of the Iroquois League.
BRITANNICA Song of Hiawatha poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).
PBS Iroquois wampum belts with symbols representing the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the same design as on the Confederacy flag.
GOOGLE IMAGES The arrows held by the eagle were inspired by a speech from Iroquois leader Canassatego; the olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war.
GOOGLE IMAGES Onondaga Chief Canassatego addressing Continental Congress members including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Patrick Henry in Philadelphia on June 11, 1776, promoting peace and friendship as advocated hundreds of years earlier by Hiawatha and Deganawida.
Ask anyone “who was Hiawatha?” Most don’t know, confuse the name with Pocahontas or Sacagawea, or remember seeing Disney’s 1937 “Little Hiawatha” cartoon about the little Indian boy hunting while his pants kept falling down.
Hiawatha was no cartoon character. He was one of the great Native American chiefs.
Centuries before the Founding Fathers crafted the U.S. government, the Iroquois Indians created an admirably sophisticated form of their own.
Hiawatha, chief of the Iroquois Onondaga helped make it happen.
This story begins nearly 500 years ago when Hiawatha was born — about 1525. No one is sure when he died — maybe 1595.
Indian history was oral, so much of the Hiawatha story is more likely myth than empirical history, but there is enough evidence proving that he existed and that he left an important legacy in American history.
He is believed to have been a Mohawk Indian chief of the Onondaga tribe, or an Onondagan adopted by the Mohawks who lived in west-central New York and Ontario, Canada.
The Onondaga — meaning “People of the Hills” — was part of the Iroquois Nation in which the tribes were constantly fighting one another.
There were about 5,000 Iroquois when the first Europeans arrived in the 1600s in that part of America.
The Iroquois (AKA Haudenosaunee), “People of the Longhouse” included five tribes — the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca — called the Five Nations. They lived in New York west of the Hudson River and southwestward into northern Pennsylvania.
For generations, warfare raged among the tribes.
One source from the U.K. said, “Fear and hatred reigned in the land and nobody was safe. 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.”
Here’s where legend and history come together.
Hiawatha’s early days are hazy and his story after becoming chief of the Onondaga may have started with a myth about his three daughters.
Legend says they were courted in turn by Tadodaho, an evil wizard of the Onondaga “who had a deformed body and snakes for hair.”
Each of the daughters turned him down and when they did, he murdered them.
That tragedy so depressed their father, Hiawatha, that he brooded alone in the wilderness, during which time he met the prophet Deganawida, who healed him of his anguish and then persuaded him to help him unite the tribes in the region.
Instead of avenging the death of Hiawatha’s daughters, they healed Tadodaho, who then became guardian of the council of fire for the Iroquois Confederacy, according to the legend.
The Prophet supposedly had a speech impediment that he felt handicapped him in spreading the peace message. Noting Hiawatha’s gift of oratory, he asked him to be his spokesman — and Hiawatha accepted.
The oral tradition says the two men crisscrossed the region seeking peace between the tribes — though another account says that only Hiawatha’s Onondaga tribe remained to be convinced.
The leaders of the original five tribes were brought together to discuss the matter, and thanks to great oratory by Hiawatha, they agreed to establish the Iroquois League with the “Great Law of Peace” written on wampum belts the basis for the Iroquois Confederation Constitution.
Getting them all together and convincing them to stop ongoing tribal warfare, unite in peace and form a powerful force to increase their tribal territory and stand together against aggression from other tribal groups was no easy task.
But Hiawatha and Deganawida succeeded and all five tribes agreed to the pact, believed by most scholars to have been in the eclipse year of 1451.
The revered Prophet Deganawida was then given the title of the “Great Peacemaker.”
In 1722, the Tuscarora — meaning “hemp gatherers” or “shirt-wearing people,” joined them to make it six. Today, they live in Ontario, Canada, New York and North Carolina.
Structure of the new Indian nation was democratic, with representatives from each tribe part of the government to ensure equity and fairness.
There were 117 Articles of the Iroquois Confederacy, establishing the role and membership of the Great Council of war chiefs, women and clans and outlining their eligibility, resignation rules, rights and duties.
Those laws included laws of emigration, rights of foreign nations, rights and powers of war, treason or secession of a nation and the rights of the people of the Five Nations.
The rest of the Iroquois constitution was so strong that over the years the Constitution drew the admiration of early Anglo settlers, many of whom saw the Indians simply as “savages.”
Hiawatha’s fame grew long after he was gone when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his epic (deeds of a great hero) poem “Song of Hiawatha” in 1855 — a fanciful romantic tale about an Indian chief named Hiawatha of the Onondaga tribe who falls in love with an Indian maiden Minnehaha.
Longfellow was among the romantic poets called “fireside poets” who wrote easy-to-read entertaining poetry, with Nature often a common theme. Other poets of that genre included John Greenleaf Whittier and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
The Song of Hiawatha narrative is a mixture of Native American oral legends handed down through generations that Longfellow heard from Indians he knew personally. He combined several legendary Indian characters into one figure — the hero Hiawatha.
In the poem, Longfellow made no direct reference to the Iroquois Confederacy nor to any actual historical figure.
The story is far more fiction than fact, but it has kept the name of the great chieftain in the spotlight of American history and literature.
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker created a huge cultural shift among Native Americans living in a dangerous and uncivilized environment, while also bringing wisdom later adopted by the Founding Fathers.
The Iroquois had been far from peaceful. Torture, slavery, witchcraft, human sacrifice and cannibalism were commonplace.
Those practices predated the arrival of the Europeans, who started occupying traditional tribal lands.
The clash of cultures was inevitable.
The Indians fought to keep them out with the same barbarity they used in intertribal warfare, and the newcomers quickly labeled the Indians “savages” and considered it their duty to “civilize” them.
The often-heard terms “noble savage” and “civilized white man” were both misnomers.
The whites brought their horrors onto the scene that were equally violent and cruel.
Both sides were guilty of scalping, torture, rape and murder.
One additional horror that was introduced by the Anglo-Europeans was the so-called “white-man diseases.”
Small pox, influenza, measles and other new ailments from Europe wiped out entire tribes all across America because the indigenous people had no natural immunity against them.
Over the ensuing years, the Iroquois and settlers settled many differences, resulting in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768.
Six years later, Onondaga chieftain Canassatego made a speech in Pennsylvania at a conference attended by Iroquois leaders and colonists that resulted in the Treaty of Lancaster.
He wisely urged the 13 contentious colonies to unite.
“Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger,” he said.
“Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations.
“We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another.”
That’s still good advice for America today.
Benjamin Franklin freshly returned from London virtually on the eve of the Declaration of Independence, liked the speech and had it printed.
Much of the Iroquois model for governance was incorporated into the Articles of Confederation adopted by Congress on Nov. 15, 1777.
Canassatego concluded his remarks by breaking an arrow, symbolically ending conflict and bringing peace.
On the U.S. Seal today, the American eagle clutches 13 arrows — a legacy of Canassatego’s broken arrow.
The Peacemaker and Hiawatha introduced concepts of social conduct and governance that in the centuries that followed created a whole new culture.
It was not an easy transition, nor did it happen quickly.
But those two early Native Americans should also be considered Founding Fathers.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Walt Disney’s ‘Little Hiawatha’
“The ‘fearless warrior’ of the poem is a very small child whose pants keep falling down. He tries to shoot a grasshopper with his arrow, but the grasshopper spits in his eye. He tries to shoot a bunny rabbit, but the rabbit is too cute and pathetic. He tracks a bear, and runs after its cub and right into the mother. But the rest of the animals, thankful for him saving the rabbit, come to his rescue.”
— Jon Reeves email@example.com
‘Little Hiawatha’ online…
Here’s Walt Disney’s 1937 cartoon “Little Hiawatha” to be enjoyed by kids and adults. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x26j9ii
Hiawatha and communism…
In 1952, Monogram Pictures made the movie Hiawatha, starring Vincent Edwards based on Longfellow’s poem. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was probing communists in high government places and in the influential movie business that resulted in the infamous McCarthy Hearings. Production of Hiawatha was suspended for a time when it was criticized as having pro-communist elements in the script — written by Arthur Strawn who was eventually black-listed by Hollywood for alleged communist ties.
Lesson from Hiawatha…
“Hiawatha constantly asks the natural world for help. When he builds a canoe, he asks the trees to give him resin and sap to help him plug all the holes in the bark. Many modern folks might just hack at the trees and take what they want, but Hiawatha shows respect in everything he does.”
— Shmoop (comment on Song of Hiawatha)
About epic poems…
The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem about a great hero. Beowulf is another. It’s the longest epic poem in Old English, spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest in 1066, and chronicles the life and death of the heroic Prince Beowulf. Difficult to understand in its Old English, it tells how Beowulf kills a monster, slays a dragon and finds a treasure for his people. Homer’s Odyssey is about a Greek hero returning from the Trojan War, performing super-human feats.
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Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Community History Popcorn stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.