The image above represents the story of the five founding nations of the Haudenosaunee (pronounced ho-din-oh-show-knee and meaning “the people who are building a longhouse”), in English the “League of Nations.” This graphic is a stylized digital version of the original Peacemaker belt, a wampum belt made of the purple and white quahog shell, strung onto thread of sinew or plant fibre. There is an enormous amount of information stored in this belt, so let’s begin the story.
No one knows precisely when the League was established. You can find persons who state with great self-confidence that it happened in the year so-and-so, but I am doubtful concerning every such assertion. Furthermore, it is to me a matter of indifference. Between the eleventh and fifteenth century (more near the latter seems to me probable), the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca put aside their differences and adopted a Constitution, the Kaianerekowa, or Great Law of Peace. (Note that for the ease of the reader I am using the English names for each nation, and will continue for the most part to do so.) Why a law of peace? These five nations, although linguistically and culturally related — all considered themselves Rotinonsion:ni, a term translated as Iroquois in English —, or perhaps because so, had long been at war. According to the story, they dug an enormous hole, threw in all their weapons, and planted a pine tree, the Tree of Peace. It’s a powerful story, but I find nothing romantic about it. The Haudenosaunee arose as a political instrument of necessity, addressing deadly divisions among the Rotinonsion:ni and, later, the even more daunting opportunities, challenges, and threats posed by newcomers.
According to the founding myth of the Haudenosaunee, the Peacemaker came from the north into the eastern territories of the Iroquois. There he met Hiawatha, a man who had set to wandering after the death of his daughters and who took the message of peace to the five warring nations and convinced them, after a few years of deliberation, to form a league. Incidentally, Hiawatha also is credited with conceiving the Condolence ceremony, brought to completion by the Peacemaker and first performed by him to alleviate Hiawatha’s considerable suffering. The story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker is long and detailed and fascinating, and at points impossible, and you are welcomed to look for a printed version of it. My objective here is not to rehearse the narrative, but instead to get on with the story told by the Peacemaker belt.
You’ll have noticed there are four white squares and a tree-like object in the centre. These objects represent the five nations. At the centre is the council fire, the keeping of which is entrusted to the Onondaga. The position of the nations within the belt is geographically derived. The Seneca lands at the time were the furthermost west, in present-day Ohio: therefore the Seneca are known as the keepers of the western door, and they are on one end of the belt. On the other are the Mohawks, the keepers of the eastern door, whose easternmost lands were in the present-day Mohawk Valley of New York State. The Seneca and Mohawks are known as the “older brothers,” their “younger brothers” being the Cayuga and Oneida, respectively.
These are not mere terms of endearment. They pertain to the detailed procedural rules of the Longhouse Council, as articulated in the Constitution, the Great Law of Peace, of the Haudenosaunee. The Onondaga, as Firekeepers, have well-defined and circumscribed powers and responsibilities, as do the other nations. In a sense, the Onondaga preside over Council business, confirming decisions and in rare cases rendering decisions where consensus is elusive. I say rare cases because consensus of the broader community, expressed through the fifty hereditary Chiefs of the Council, is the prime objective and modus operandi in all Haudenosaunee affairs. The older brothers discuss questions of the day, passing their views “over the fire” to the younger brothers, who do the same. Eventually, the Mohawks inform the Onondaga of the consensus view, or, if this is lacking, of the competing views. The Firekeepers confirm the decision or, in the case of disagreement and consistent with procedural rules, render a verdict.
This is a very much simplified version of the process of decision-making in the Haudenosaunee Council. Furthermore, I’ve said nothing yet about the way in which the fifty hereditary Chiefs are “condoled,” or appointed, a discussion which would bring us to the matters of the Clan Mothers (who both raise up and, when need be, bring down the Chiefs) and the holding of Royaner, or Chief, titles. Nor is the Great Law of Peace concerned only with governance: there are procedures set forth for everything from immigration to mourning to “adding rafters” to the Longhouse, i.e. making Constitutional changes as required. You may be wondering also about my choice of verbal tense, so I will tell you now that although Haudenosaunee communities are governed by the Indian Act’s band and council system, the clan-based system does still exist. In later essays I will look with more care into the contemporary issue of governance, which is a matter of some controversy and even acrimony in the communities. Only, the controversies of today and tomorrow will make little sense if one has not given due consideration to the controversies of earlier times. The past lives, you see.
I could go on in wooden prose, perhaps boring you with the desiccated timber of long ago. What knowledge is necessary? This question I find difficult to answer. There is much I could convey, but I want to tell a story and not pile up the mere facts and curiosities. Near all that I know about the Haudenosaunee came to me in story, from elders and family and friends. The fact of the matter is that a good deal of the story concerned war, betrayal, and suffering. First we fought among ourselves, and then we fought the French, and then our British allies betrayed us and Canada took to forcible assimilation and extinguishment of the Haudenosaunee. There are some proud and happy moments too, and some great accomplishments, but the origins of the Haudenosaunee lie in war and misery, plain and simple. That is why the League of Nations and the Great Law of Peace are such remarkable and unparalleled human accomplishments, in my opinion. Everything at the time seems to me to have been weighing against these accomplishments. Because we prevailed then, I have some faint hope we may prevail today.
Next in the series: Part Two, Ohentonkariwatehkwen