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 northeast woodlands tribes that had been plagued by wars of retribution 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 jointly govern, while recognizing the sovereignty of each nation.

The Great Law of Peace, credited largely to two visionary culture heroes, Hiawatha and Deganawida (a.k.a. “The Peacemaker”), established a model for federalism, separation of powers and participatory democracy that would inspire leaders like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison during the formation of the United States. It also conferred significant power and status to women in Iroquois culture.

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, one that links peace and justice to physical health and human emotions like grief and empathy. Many of the names in the story have been passed down through generations and are considered metaphorical for citizens of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations today.

“These names are there to remind us through symbolism that we should never go back to that time again,” said Jamie Jacobs, a Seneca of the Turtle Clan from Tonawanda and a member of a committee that oversees the reading of the Great Law of Peace throughout the Iroquois Confederacy.

According to oral tradition, these events happened long ago at a place known as Kanienkeh, where Hiawatha, Deganawida and others worked to establish a lasting peace that continues to serve as a living tradition today. While some Western scholars date the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy to about 500 years ago, the Iroquois and many non-Native scholars date its creation to 1142, when a total solar eclipse occurred in the region.

Here’s a distilled version of the Iroquois story of how the Great Law of Peace came into being:

Hiawatha’s Great Loss—and Transformation

Hiawatha lived among the Onondaga people during a time of great discord. The people were afraid to leave their homes at night for fear of violence, treachery and sorcery. The worst among these evil sorcerers was the fearsome Atotarhoh, a bent and misshapen man with snakes in his hair who ate human flesh and could kill his enemies with evil medicine, from which he drew great powers.

Hiawatha and others had tried many times to thwart Atotarhoh’s wicked ways but he always tricked them into defeat. A dreamer in the community had a vision that a man from the north would soon pass by who could change everything, but Hiawatha would first have to travel with him to help.

Hiawatha had seven daughters who he would not depart from, but they were all killed over time, leaving him grief-stricken and struggling for answers. He left the Onondagas to wander the woods, his mind in a cloud, until he camped in a hickory grove. There, in his grief, he made three strings from a rush plant, forming in his mind words of compassion and consolation, rather than vengeance.

The ‘Words of Condolence,’ in Wampum

Hiawatha then gathered shells for the wampum strings and composed the “words of condolence” that would one day be central to the Great Law of Peace. “If I should see anyone in deep grief, I would take these shell strings from the pole and console them,” he said. “These strings would become words that would lift away the darkness with which they are covered.”

These words and others would eventually become the Great Law, codified in wampum shell strings for communication to future generations.

Hiawatha soon encountered members of the Oneida Nation, who had heard of him and of the dream that he would one day meet The Peacemaker. After sitting with them in council for seven days, Hiawatha traveled with their chief until he came to the Mohawks, where he would first encounter Deganawida.

'Hiawatha was a catalyst for peace and it was fortuitous that these two men met at that point in time. They knew what each other was looking for.'

Deganawida Converts Evil Beings—and Then Empowers Them

The Five Nation Confederacy. Engraving from Pere Joseph Francois Lafitau, "Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains." Paris, 1724.
Science History Images / Alamy
The Five Nation Confederacy, as visualized by an 18th-century French artist. Engraving from Pere Joseph Francois Lafitau, Paris, 1724.

While Hiawatha was enduring his woes, another man named Deganawida was making plans to confront the warring nations of the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee. Born into a Huron village, the boy was called by the Creator and imbued with miraculous powers. He paddled a stone canoe eastward across Lake Ontario to the land of the Iroquois with a message of “peace, righteousness and power.”

As he approached the land of the Iroquois, The Peacemaker encountered a woman named Jigonsaseh known for luring men to her lodge and poisoning them to death. “The message I bring is that all people shall love one another and live together in peace,” he told her. Her mind was transformed, and The Peacemaker then decided that women would have the power one day to choose chiefs, and to remove them if they no longer had the “good mind” to lead.

The Peacemaker then came upon Tekarihoken, "the man who eats humans," and convinced him to renounce cannibalism, entitling him in his new form as the first chief of Mohawks.

The Peacemaker then approached the Mohawks, unarmed, convincing them to be the first nation to adopt the Great Law of Peace, which would come to include ceremonies and rituals to safeguard health, peace, righteousness, justice and religion.

“Health means soundness of mind and body,” The Peacemaker said. “It also means peace, for that is what comes when minds are sane and bodies cared for. Righteousness means justice practiced between men and between nations. It means a desire to see justice prevail.”

The Gathering of Two Minds

When Hiawatha met with the Peacemaker among the Mohawks, they shared their stories and, in some accounts, Hiawatha became a spokesman for The Peacemaker. “The root of the name Hiawatha means to awaken, as in to awaken to a higher level of peaceful consciousness,” says Jamie Jacobs. “Hiawatha was a catalyst for peace and it was fortuitous that these two men met at that point in time. They knew what each other was looking for.”

Hiawatha learned from Deganawida how to establish a union of nations and how virtuous and patient the men would need to be. The new chiefs would wear deer antlers to symbolize their positions.

Winning Over the Sorcerer To Win Peace

The delegation then sent word of their plans back to the four other nations. Each took one year to consider joining the Great Law of Peace. After reporting back to the Mohawk nation on their success, the delegation then formed a plan to confront the fearsome Atotarhoh, who had to be won over for peace to prevail. He was found living alone at Onondaga, bent and crooked in seven places.

The Peacemaker taught the Mohawks songs, including the “Hymn of Peace,” in preparation for the Oneida and Mohawk delegation to console and convert Atotarhoh. The Peacemaker sang the song as he approached the sorcerer, rubbing his crooked body to judge his strength. As he finished, Atotaroh’s body straightened out and the snakes left his hair. Now, with his good and strong mind, the establishment of the Great Peace could begin.

At Onondaga, the Peacemaker uprooted the tallest white pine, the Tree of Peace, under which leaders buried their weapons of hate, jealousy and war. This came to be known as “burying the hatchet.”

Atotaroh became the confederacy’s central firekeeper, handing down the title to this day at Onondaga. Deganawida directed the people to not pass his name down as a hereditary title from the time of the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy. Today he is known simply as The Peacemaker.

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