American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Hiawatha

As an historical figure, Hiawatha (ca. 1100–ca. 1180) was a Mohawk who lived at a time of great turmoil among the Iroquoian peoples. A brutal civil war had split the Five Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Oneida) into polarized factions. Along with the Peacemaker ( Deganawida) and Jigonsaseh (the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] Confederacy's founding clan mother), Hiawatha helped establish the Gayansshä'gowa (Great Law of Peace). Hiawatha is also credited with inventing wampum (freshwater shells strung together), which became vitally important to the day-to-day operations of the Iroquois League. Evolving from the strings of the Condolence Ceremony into larger and more complex belts and based on Hiawatha's original vision of wampum as a container of messages that could be passed meaningfully from person to person, wampum knotting became a form of writing essential to the administration and record keeping of the Five, and later Six, Nations. The beautiful Condolence Ceremony, which wipes the tears from the eyes of the bereaved, makes daylight for them, and covers the graves, was his creation. Hiawatha's special message was one of compassion for human suffering and, as such, was an essential complement to the Peacemaker's message of the nonviolent resolution of disputes.

At the root of the Iroquoian civil war was the blood feud, a constant series of revenge killings that seemingly could never stop. Visionaries among the Iroquois such as Hiawatha, who lived among the Onondagas, tried to call councils to eliminate the blood feud, but they were always thwarted by the evil and twisted wizard, Tadodaho, an Onondaga who used magic and spies to rule by fear and intimidation. Failing to defeat Tadadaho, Hiawatha traveled to Mohawk, Oneida, and Cayuga villages with his message of peace and brotherhood. Everywhere he went, Hiawatha's message was accepted with the proviso that he persuade the formidable Tadodaho and the Onondagas to embrace the covenant of peace.

Facing despair, Hiawatha met the prophet Deganawidah, who changed the nature of things among the Iroquois. Together, Hiawatha and Deganawidah developed a powerful message of peace. Deganawidah's vision gave Hiawatha's oratory substance. Through Deganawidah's vision, the Iroquois formulated their Constitution.

In his vision, Deganawidah saw a giant evergreen (White Pine), reaching to the sky and gaining strength from three self-counterbalancing principles of life. The first axiom was that a stable mind and healthy body should be in balance so that peace between individuals and groups could occur. Secondly, Deganawidah stated that good humane conduct, thought, and speech were requirements for equity and justice among peoples. Finally, he foresaw a society in which physical strength and civil authority would reinforce the power of the clan system.

Deganawidah's tree had four white roots that stretched to the four directions of the earth. From the base of the tree a snow-white carpet of thistledown covered the surrounding countryside. The white carpet protected the peoples that embraced the three double principles. On top of the giant pine perched an eagle. Deganawidah explained that the tree was humanity, living within the principles governing relations among human beings. The eagle was humanity's lookout against enemies who would disturb the peace. Deganawidah postulated that the white carpet could be spread to the four corners of the earth to provide a shelter of peace and brotherhood for all mankind. Deganawidah's vision was a message from the Creator to bring harmony into human existence and unite all peoples into a single family guided by his three dual principles.

With such a powerful vision, Deganawidah and Hiawatha were able to subdue the evil Tadodaho and transform his mind. In part by combing snakes from his hair, they removed evil feelings and thoughts from the head of Tadodaho and turned his mind toward reason and peace. The evil wizard became reborn into a humane person charged with implementing the message of Deganawidah. After Tadodaho had submitted to the redemption, Onondaga became the central fire of the Haudenosaunee and the Onondagas became the fire-keepers of the new Confederacy. To this day, the Great Council Fire of the Confederacy is kept in the land of the Onondagas.

After Tadodaho's conversion, the clan leaders of the Five Nations gathered around the Council Fire at Onondaga to hear the laws and government of the Confederacy. The fundamental laws of the Iroquois Confederacy espoused peace and brotherhood, unity, balance of power, the natural rights of all people, the impeachment and removal of the abusers of power, and the sharing of resources. Moreover, the blood feud was outlawed and replaced by a Condolence Ceremony. Under the new law, the bereaved family of a murder victim could accept twenty strings of wampum from the slayer's family (ten for the dead person and ten for the life of the murderer himself) in place of the traditional practice of exacting clan revenge. If a woman was killed, the price was thirty wampum strings. Through this ceremony, the control over legally sanctioned violence was enlarged from the clan to the League.

Hiawatha's wampum was long kept as a sacred item. One wide belt, said to have been made by Hiawatha himself, became the symbol of League unity. It contained thirty-eight rows of black wampum with a white heart in its center, flanked on either side by a white square. Everything was connected to everything else by white lines of wampum (white signifying uki, peace and goodness). Called the Hiawatha Belt, it was purchased by John Boyd Thatcher of Albany and deposited in the Library of Congress around the turn of the twentieth century.

The Hiawatha wampum belt symbolizes the structure of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, with four connected squares representing the Senecas, Cayugas, Oneidas, and Mohawks. The tree of peace symbol in the center (an elongated triangle) represents the Onondagas, who tend the Central Council Fire. The belt is presently 10.5 inches wide and 21.5 inches long, but its frayed edges suggest it may have been longer in the past. The white squares and tree of peace symbol are made of purple wampum, against a background of white wampum. The Hiawatha Belt has been dated by the scholar William N. Fenton to the mideighteenth century, but this is probably not an origin date. Belts were repaired and thus replaced bead by bead over time; so they may be several centuries older than the scientific dating of existing belts indicates. A belt may have been repaired several times over the centuries, gradually changing as bead-making technology (such as the introduction of glass beads by Europeans) evolved.

In the nineteenth century, European-American ethnographers started "collecting" various Native oral traditions that, for the most part, they did not understand. Standards of scholarship were much lower at the time, and little heed was paid to the large cultural distinctions among Native American groups. Some very questionable material thus made its way into the Western chronicles, not the least of it from the fallible pen of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. He freely made up, interpolated, and gutted traditions, mixing and matching them as he saw fit. Native sensibilities mattered little to him. One of his most fanciful and least grounded works, his Algic Researches (1839, 1856), contained a fractured "Myth of Hiawatha." ("Algic" was Schoolcraft's invented word for woodland cultures.)

Schoolcraft's tale about Hiawatha bore no resemblance to the historical figure cherished in Haudenosaunee tradition. Schoolcraft turned him into an Anishinabe (Ojibway, also known as Chippewa) and confused him with the Anishinabe culture hero Nanapush (also known as Manabozho). Schoolcraft knew the difference, but simply liked the sound of "Manabozho." In addition, probably out of ignorance, Schoolcraft confused Hiawatha with Tarachiawagon, one name for the Peacemaker. Finally, Schoolcraft plagiarized Joshua Clark's Onondaga, or, Reminiscences of Earlier and Later Times (1849), pretending that the research was his own.

The issue was only confounded further when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used Schoolcraft's mangled version of tradition as the basis of his epic poem, "The Song of Hiawatha" (1855). Longfellow himself plagiarized the Finnish poem Kalevala and lifted lore from the Icelandic epic Edda to write his dubious "Song," creating an Iroquoian nightmare that not only cast Hiawatha as an Anishinabe-Finnish-Icelander, but also turned him into a Christian philosopher as well. Knowing nothing of the true Hiawatha and hopelessly confusing him with the Peacemaker, Longfellow presented Hiawatha as a fey imitation Jesus. Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" became wildly popular with nineteenth-century Euro-American readers.

Although these Western versions of the Hiawatha story are completely without foundation in Haudenosaunee oral tradition, some modern west-of-the-Mississippi Algonquins reenact Long-fellow's version of "The Song of Hiawatha" at powwows, to the extreme discomfort of Haudenosaunee onlookers. The Iroquoian Hiawatha of history needs to be firmly disengaged from these fantastic nineteenth-century misrepresentations. Hiawatha's unflagging speakership for the Peacemaker, his message of compassion, his creation of the Condolence Ceremony, his invention of the Iroquoian writing system, and his combing the snakes from the hair of Adodaroh (Tadadaho) are what should be told about him.

Barbara Alice Mann and Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Howard, Helen A. 1971. "Hiawatha: Co-Founder of an Indian United Nations." Journal of the West 10, no. 3: 428–438.; Mann, Barbara A. Spring. 1995. "The Fire at Onondaga: Wampum as Proto-Writing." Akwesasne Notes New Series 1, no. 1: 40–48.; Parker, Arthur Caswell. 1916. The Constitution of the Five Nations, or The Iroquois Book of the Great Law. Albany: University of the State of New York.; Wallace, Paul A. W. 1946. The White Roots of Peace. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.; Wallace, Paul A. W. 1948. "The Return of Hiawatha." Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association 29, no. 4: 385–403.
 

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