- Historic Sites
People Of The Long House
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
When he reached manhood, he crossed Lake Ontario to the country of the Onondagas, in the neighborhood of modern Syracuse. The Onondagas, at that time, were governed by a tyrant, Atotarho, whose mind was warped, whose body (as the legend describes him) had seven crooks in it, and whose head was covered with snakes instead of hair. Nearby lived a man who, under the influence of Atotarho, had sunk to the lowest level which the Indian mind could conceive. He was a cannibal!
Deganawidah went to this man’s cabin, climbed to the bark roof, and looked through the smokehole, seeing below him a large kettle suspended over the fire. When the cannibal came in, cut up the dead body of a man he had brought, and put it into the pot, Deganawidah lay still to see what happened. Alter a time the man came to the kettle and looked in to see if the water was boiling. There he saw a face looking up at him, calm, strong, benevolent. It was, of course, Deganawidah’s face reflected from above, but the man supposed it to be his own, and the thought troubled him. “This is not the face of one who kills his fellow men,” he said.
Thus he was moved with a desire to live in accordance with the new vision. He emptied the kettle. Then Deganawidah came down from the roof and expounded his Good News of Peace and Power. The man “took hold of the message,” as the legend informs us, and offered himself as a disciple to Deganawidah, who straightaway named him Hiawatha , which means, He Who Combs. “For,” said Deganawidah, “you shall comb the snakes out of Atotarho’s hair.”
The two men parted, Deganawidah going east to the land of the Mohawks, while Hiawatha remained to work among his own people, the Onondagas. Atotarho, however, was too much for him and drove him away. He rejoined Deganawidah among the Mohawks, who had taken hold of the Message of Peace and Power and were preparing to set out and persuade other nations to do the same. The Oneidas and Cayugas were easily persuaded; the Senecas, not until Deganawidah put the sun out and brought darkness upon the land. (This part of the legend is corroborating evidence for dating the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy some time about the middle of the Fifteenth Century. There was an eclipse in the Genesee region in 1451.)
Deganawidah and Hiawatha returned for a showdown with Atotarho. Backed by the warriors of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, and Senecas, they confronted the dictator in his “bulrush swale” on the shore of Onondaga Lake with power sufficient to make peace seem more attractive than war even to a born tyrant. Hiawatha combed the snakes out of Atotarho’s hair.
After that Deganawidah planted the Tree of Peace on the shore of Onondaga Lake. On its summit he placed the Eagle that Sees Afar, symbol of military preparedness. Then he gave to his people the wise savings which have been treasured ever since as the Constitution of the Confederacy.
This legend, preserved for centuries by oral tradition and first written down by Seth Newhouse on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada in 1885, is not an idle tale. It virtually constituted the Iroquois Bible. Its poetry enlightened and inspired them. Its wise sayings guided them. This piece of “oral literature” was one of the main sources of the Confederacy’s strength.
There were, of course, other sources. During the Seventeenth Century, for instance, the Five Nations had in common a strong economic motive, as the late George T. Hunt has shown in The Wars of the Iroquois to capture some share, as middlemen, of the beaver trade (their country having been by this time almost denuded of beaver) on which they depended for their guns and other necessary trade goods.
Another source of strength lay in the excellent military position they occupied, along the fringe of mountains flanking Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence trade route, and at the head of the great rivers Susquehanna, Delaware, and Hudson. Their Confederacy gave them peace among themselves and defense against their enemies. Their strength was severely tested by the coming of the white men in “winged canoes” from across the sea. During the Seventeenth Century France formed around them a dangerous ring of enemies. It was to be their supreme military achievement to break France’s chain of Indian allies in a series of brilliant campaigns. They defeated and dispersed the Huron nation in 1649, the Erie in 1654, the Susquehannock in 1675. The lands of these and many other peoples passed under Iroquois control.
Their rule was not oppressive. Each nation governed itself, relinquishing only the right to make war without the sanction of the Iroquois federal council. Tribute in wampum or deerskins was sent to Onondaga, the capital, in token aknowledgement of their position under the Tree of Peace. The Onondaga Council exerted no despotic control.
Well-routed trails extended the Iroquois Peace (with Power) over a vast area. Ambassadors traveled them, with gifts of deerskin and wampum, to adjust intertribal disputes. War parties sped over them to chastise aliens who infringed on Five Nations territories. The mere passage of these armed bands through the lands of their “nephews” was sufficient reminder of the Power that upheld the Great Peace.