Burying The Hatchet.

How the Peacemakers made the 5 nations bury the Hatchet and formed the foundation of America.


The Iroquois Confederacy (formed sometime between 1450 and 1600 though some put it as early as 1134) was originally comprised of five (later six) tribes, Mohawks Oneidas Onondagas Cayugas and Senecas, all of whom shared a similar origin. The name Iroquois is a French word corrupted from Indian sources.


Flag of the Iroquois Confederacy in traditional wampum colours, representing the five nations with Onondaga's Tree of Peace in the centre
Flag of the Iroquois Confederacy in traditional wampum colours, representing the five nations with Onondaga’s Tree of Peace in the centre

The Beginning.

This remarkable group of American Indians operated on two political levels; The Great League of Peace and Power, which fostered goodwill, friendship and protection between the tribes and the Iroquois Confederacy; which essentially dealt with the public face of the nation. In their own language they called themselves the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse.

In the beginning, so Iroquois founding legend says, the sound of weeping was never absent from the longhouses of the five nations. Across the frontier from New York to Pennsylvania and over the basin of the Great Lakes, the Iroquoian peoples were locked in a never ending circle of raiding, killing and kidnapping called “Mourning War”. The family of a person killed in war could not grieve properly for their lost ones until they had been replaced -physically and spiritually – with captives from the enemy. These captives would either be literally swapped for the deceased or executed to compensate for the loss. Obviously this way of thinking caused a widening and repetitive pattern of violence as soon as the first loved one died, for all of five nations believed in venting grief in this way. On top of this cannibalism was practiced by the tribes, respected enemies could expect various parts of their anatomy to be eaten in order to enhance selected abilities of the diners. Laughter was not a sound the Iroquois knew well in those days.


The Tears of Hiawatha.

Seeing that if something was not done to alter this pattern they would all be destroyed, a shaman and wise Sachem, who some even said he was a supernatural being sent by the creator, called Deganawidah, emerged from the shadows. He was either an adopted Mohawk or a full Huron or some mixture of the two, and he stepped to the fore with a new and divinely inspired doctrine. He travelled the lands of the five nations preaching the good news of Peace and Power, showing the people how to cope with bereavement and that they should give up the practice of cannibalism. To prove the truth of his words he gave a demonstration of his teachings to a man named Ayouwatha. Better known as Hiawatha, he was of the Onondaga but was an adoptee of the Mohawk like himself.

Deganawidah had found Hiawatha grieving for his three dead daughters on the shore of lake Onondaga. The girls had met violent ends and feeling compassion he comforted their bereaved father. To do this he picked the white and purple Wampum shells from the shallows of the lake and made them into strands. All the while the disconsolate Hiawatha wept, probably asking for vengeance on the murderer of his family, as was his right. Deganawidah then took a string of the glistening beads and passed them over Hiawatha’s eyes to dry his tears. He then placed another strand over his throat to clear obstructions that would prevent him from venting his grief in words, with yet more he enacted burial rites on the bereaved’s lost ones. Deganawidah then gave Hiawatha pure water to drink to refresh him and clear his mind, “As you know sit in darkness” he said, perhaps in chant, “I remove all the heavy clouds which surround you that you may behold the light and sunshine”. By condolence and ritual gift giving the peacemaker taught Hiawatha that resorting to war amongst people of his own race and cultural background was not the answer to mastering his grief.


A Wampum Treaty Belt. But they could take many forms
A Wampum Treaty Belt. But they could take many forms

Mother of Nations.

Together with his new disciple, Hiawatha, Deganawidah went amongst the tribes and taught them how they could gain strength from peace and togetherness, he also showed them how to string the sacred wampum into belts. Needing special knowledge of each tribe, they went to see the one woman who had first hand experience of each one. She was called Jikonsahseh (She lives on the warpath) she offered food and shelter to warriors going to fight and those returning home, her house was neutral ground and none were barred from her door. Being of like mind she believed in Deganawidah’s cause and agreed to help him. The Peacemaker called her “Mother of Nations” and told her that she would appoint the chief’s who would sit at the coming great peace council. The Iroquois were a matrilineal society, the varying clans of the tribes were run by clan matrons who saw that the rules were adhered to in life and in council and much more. When a man married (and inter-clan marriage was forbidden) he moved into the woman’s clan and all his possessions became his wife’s including any and all children. It is not an exaggeration to say that amongst the Haudenosaunee, nothing moved without the assentive nod of the women.


Combing Tadodaho’s Hair.

The last tribe to cling to the old ways was the Onondaga. They were held under the sway of the evil Sachem, Tadodaho, who possessed powerful magic. While he held out agains the Great Law that was sweeping the five nations, there could be no League and the warring would continue. Jikonsahseh told Deganawidah and Hiawatha about him. His evil stemmed from a terrible affliction, Tadodaho was bent in several places in the body which tormented him and drove him to ill deeds. Thus driven to distraction he was careless of his appearance and irritable, his hair was matted and knotted into it were the tangled bodies of dead snakes. Jikonsahseh probably also told them how he could kill from a distance. Up until then he had resisted all overtures to accept the Great Law. Hiawatha did not need to be told about him for according to one part of the legend it was Tadodaho that had killed his three daughters and by ancient custom he had the right to kill in order to correct the balance. Taking advice from Jikonsahseh, Diganawidah met the sinister chief and exerting his considerable charisma. He persuaded him to have his contorted body soothed by special ointments that Deganawidah knew of. After he had been shown a way to relieve his pain, the negotiations started, Tadodaho wanted to know what was in it for him, and the pot was sweetened by offering him the post of “fire keeper” or chairman of the proposed league. The chance to become the most influential chief of the new federation was one too good for Tadodaho to pass up. No one truly knows whether the snakes that “Lived” in Tadodaho’s hair were metaphorical or not, but what is certain is that hair combing was an important initiation ceremony in Iroquois society. The strange and mystical sachem knelt before a sombre Hiawatha, for whom, if the story about who killed his daughters was true, the moment must have been one laden with significant poignancy, and bowed his head allowing Hiawatha to comb the snakes from it. Fire Keepers for ever after were elected from the Onondaga, and with Tadodaho’s support the final piece of Deganawidah’s grand design had fallen into place.


Burying the Hatchet.

 Deganawidah planted a seed which in time grew into a magnificent White Pine, a physical icon the new league could identify with which legend says was home to an Eagle, the guardian of the Haudenosaunee (an icon later adopted by a more industrial confederacy). From the base of the tree stretched four long roots, in the four sacred directions, “The White roots of Peace”. The peacemaker said that any tribe who wished to live by the laws of the Great Peace (the Great Law) would be welcomed under the tree at Onondaga, the Great League of Peace and Power had been officially formed.

When the 50 original sachem’s arrived at the very first council meeting it was a great day. And a day heavily laden with symbolism, five arrows were bound together to represent the bonds of brotherhood now felt amongst the five nations, (note that the eagle on the seal of the USA holds a bundle of 13 arrows representing the first states). Underneath the Great tree of Peace, the representatives of the five nations ceremonially buried the hatchet, interring their weapons of war deep in the earth as a symbol of peace, making all equal within the league. The great event was commemorated in the wampum belts introduced by Deganawidah and Hiawatha, a medium that became like pen and paper to the Iroquois and a major piece in their diplomacy. Created with different patterns and scenes they were used for a myriad of things from commemorating events, to recording treaties, to declaring war and in this case writing laws. The original 50 chiefs of the league were commemorated by a special circular wampum wheel, with fifty strands leading down into the centre representing each sachem, whose place and title were handed on and taken up by the generations that followed.

The heads of the five tribes formed a council of elected members, each elected from their own tribes and clans who fulfilled a set quota to make up the numbers, with the influential Tadodaho, the Fire Keeper at it’s centre, elected by unanimous vote of all the tribes. At “The Tree of the Great Peace” at Onondaga all the separate council longhouses of the nations combined into one elongated one with six smoke holes forming the Haudenosaunee, the people of the longhouse.


The Great Tree of Peace and the Longhouse at Onondaga.
The Great Tree of Peace and the Longhouse at Onondaga.

Pax Iroquoia.

Thereafter the Iroquois saw it as their duty to spread the word of their success, and they incorporated weaker nations into the league who believed in the promise of Great Law. As time went on, those who had suffered at the hands of the white settlers sought the protection of the league. However they also operated a policy of “with us or against us” to everyone who didn’t buy into the scheme. Mourning war was still a part of life, and though the only war that the people of the longhouse now undertook between one another was on a lacrosse field, this did not extend to those tribes who shunned the peace belts that told of the new experiment. It was much more effective to wage a mourning war as a group than alone, and when the war belt was passed to the ignorant tribe that had refused the pax Iroquoia, that tribe knew they had a fight on their hands.

The Haudenosaunee rose to become the dominant political and military force in North America, incorporating a sixth nation, the Tuscarora in 1722, as time passed however Iroquois power was slowly eroded by their involvement in wars between the Europeans which eventually split the league in two in 1776. Their achievement had been considerable and disproved many narrow minded conceptions of their civilisation. At the height of their power they skilfully outwitted Dutch, French and British colonial powers and in many ways proved to be more enlightened than them. Yet their own hubris after successfully playing the French and British off against one another eventually lead to their own downfall, breaking their long stance of neutrality in white affairs, ultimately ending with the separation of the league during the American Revolution. Yet their influence endured in the basis of the Constitution of the nation that finally brought them down; The United States of America. Benjamin Franklin was very impressed by Indian governments and once suggested that “If the nation to the North can form a near perfect union that has endured for centuries; why cannot we form a more perfect union?” many see this quote as alluding to the Iroquois Confederacy and it is hard to fault that logic. 


See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.





3 Replies to “Burying The Hatchet.”

  1. Truly amazing summary. I had been curious how the nations interacted and found a way to pursue mutually beneficial goals for a period. While I guess nothing lasts forever, the European influence seemed to be the catalyst for division and separation. Interesting to think if the Colonists took a more peaceful approach to native american relations how differently the country might have been physically shaped.

    1. Whenever one group organises and unites to grow their power and resources, you can assume that it will be directed against their neighbours. Such was the case here.

Leave a Comment