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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 8: Legend of the "Great Peace."

[This information is from Vol. I, pp. 162-166 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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The legend of Dekanawida and Hayonwatha, the two adopted Mohawk chieftains and their "great peace" — Gayanashagowa, the great binding law of the council of the great peace — comment on the versions of the legend.

The annals of the Mohawks, following the time of their migration to our Valley about 1595 and their location here along the Iroquois Trail, belong to the history of the Mohawk Valley. In this period, the first great item of historical importance is the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy or League of Five Nations. This was the Inspiration of Dekanawida, seconded by Hayonwatha, both chiefs of the Mohawk tribe.

The second important event of this period was the coming of the white man and his settlement close to the territory of the Mohawks — the Frenchmen at Quebec in 1608 and the Hollanders at present Albany in 1614. To these white men as well as to the Iroquois themselves and the world at large, the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy was of the greatest importance. That it was originated by the Mohawks in the Mohawk Valley is substantiated by the legend of Dekanawida and Hayonwatha, the two great Iroquois heroes — chiefs of the Mohawk nation, who formulated "The Great Peace". The Mohawk origin of this noted confederacy is further supported by the myths and legends of the other nations of the League.

The white man knows of the legend of Hiawatha through the beautiful poem of that name by Henry W. Longfellow. Few, however, are conversant with the original Indian legend from which the central idea of Longfellow's epic was derived. Rarer still is the knowledge that this is an Iroquois legend, that it has a basis of historical truth, that it involves the creation of the Confederacy or League of Five Nations, that the working plan of this "Great Peace" was evolved in the land of the Mohawks, and that the great hero of the Iroquois and of the legend, is Dekanawida and not Hayonwatha (Hiawatha) who was his disciple and spokesman. Longfellow's poems has an Algonquin setting while he uses the Iroquois name of Hiawatha for his hero.

There can be no doubt that Dekanawida and Hiawatha were actual Mohawk chiefs who developed the idea of a union of the Five Nations in the Mohawk country, where they were adopted as Mohawk chieftains, probably at a date very soon after the entrance of the Mohawks into our Valley, and their location along the Iroquois trail (about 1580 or 1590). The writer believes that the story of Dekanawida and Hiawatha and their Great Peace, deserves a place here because of its Mohawk Valley background, its mystical and poetic rendering of a great historical event, and because the actual Iroquois interpretation of the legend should be given historical publicity.

There is also much of historical suggestion in the story of the Great Peace, and a very evident mingling of folk lore and wonder tales with matter that is historic. The making of the Great Peace and the Confederacy of the Five Nations is generally assigned to a period just prior to 1600. Since that time, the story has taken on a legendary, symbolical and heroic character. But with all this, the salient facts of the historic event push themselves into view, and even the differing characters of Dekanawida and Hiawatha are somewhat clearly developed.

De-ka-na-wi-da is a Huron who is born of a virgin Huron maiden, or Wyandot, as the latter name is also given. Because of his handsome face and good mind he was hated by the Hurons and "Their hearts were bitter against a man who loved not war better than all things". So Dekanawida journeys to the country of the Mohawks bearing the tidings of the Great Peace, which is his mission in the world.

Ha-yon-wat-ha or A-yon-wat-ha is the Iroquois name of Hiawatha who is a Royaneh or Lord of the Onondagas, and is their leader in this legend, who combats the bad influence of Adodarho. He is the evil spirit of the nation, who lives in a swamp and has a headdress of live snakes and other revolting attributes in keeping with his symbolical character as a "bad mind" or the "bad mind" or evil spirit of the Iroquois Five Nations, as well as of the Onondagas.

A famous Onondaga "dreamer" now tells the troubled chieftains that a newcomer (Dekanawida) will prevail with Hayonwatha, but that all earthly ties must be severed which bind Hayonwatha to love of life, family and his people, so that he will live only for the furtherance of a great ideal. This is but one of the many symbolistic features of this greatest of savage legends. According to the dreamer's vision, Hayonwatha loses all of his beloved seven daughters and, in despair, sets out, a wanderer on the face of the earth. Destiny guides his steps from the Onondaga country to a path along the Mohawk River which he follows to a Mohawk town at the great falls of the Cohoes. On his journey he has many adventures which probably embody some of the Iroquois wonder tales.

Before Hayonwatha's coming, Dekanawida had already converted the Mohawks to his idea of the Great Peace. At Cohoes, the two heroes meet, Dekanawida condoles with Hayonwatha over his great sorrow and "the mind of Hayonwatha was made clear". Mr. A. C. Parker has made an interesting map of the wanderings of Hayonwatha which appears in his "Constitution of the Five Nations."

Dekanawida reveals the Great Peace to Hayonwatha and together they set about its accomplishment. The breaking down of evil opposition to the union is symbolically expressed when, after a pilgrimage of Dekanawida, Hayonwatha and the Mohawk chiefs, carrying the news of the Great Peace to the Onondaga country, Dekanawida there sings the Peace Hymn "to cure the mind of Adodarho," the Iroquois evil genius. Again, when Dekanawida rubs the sorcerer's misshapen body, "Adodarho was made straight and his mind became healthy." The people of the United States could hark back to some national crises, involving certain ethical principles, and express the triumph of right in much the same sort of metaphor.

One of the interesting phases of the legend is that the Mohawk town to which Dekanawida and Hayonwatha both journeyed and where they developed the plan of the Great Peace, is stated to have been "on the lower fall of the river of the Flint (Mohawk) nation — a short way from the fall". There is generally some basis for such locality designations and the Cohoes Falls town of the Mohawks may have been one where the Canienga lived temporarily, during their migration from the banks of the St. Lawrence to their final locations in the middle Mohawk Valley. When Dekanawida and Hayonwatha and their Mohawk companions start on their mission of the Great Peace, they pass old Mohawk town locations. These, however, may have been of a later date and, in the years intervening, have become involved in the legend.

The Dekanawida Legend is taken from "The Constitution of the Five Nations," by Mr. Arthur Caswell Parker, State Archaeologist, and himself (Gawasowaneh), a chief of the Seneca nation of the New York State Iroquois. The version printed here is that given precedence in Mr. Parker's work.

Mr. Parker comments as follows on the Great Binding Law, "Gayanashagawa," adopted by the Five Nations at the Council of the Great Peace.

"The Great Peace as a government system was an almost ideal one for the stage of culture with which it was designed to cope. I think it will be found to be the greatest ever designed by barbaric man on any continent. By adhering to it the Five Nations became the dominant native power east of the Mississippi and, during the Colonial times, exercised an immense influence in determining the fate of English civilization on the continent. They, as allies of the British, fought for it and destroyed all French hopes for colonization.

"The authors of the great immutable law gave the Iroquois two great culture heroes almost without equal in American Indian annals. Through the law, as a guiding force and through the heroes as ideals, the Iroquois have persisted as a people, preserved their national identity and much of their native culture and lore. Today, in their various bodies, they number more than 16,000 souls. This is a remarkable fact when it is considered that they are entirely surrounded by a dominant culture whose encroachments are persistent and unrelenting in the very nature of things.

"The Canadian Iroquois indeed govern themselves by the laws contained in these codes, proving their utility even in modern days.

"The two principal manuscripts that form the basis of this work were found in the Six Nations Reservation, Ontario, Canada, in 1910.

"The first manuscript was a lengthy account of the Dekanawida legend and an account of the Confederate Iroquois laws. This material has been brought together by Seth Newhouse, a Mohawk, who has expended a large amount of time and given the subject a lengthy study. His account, written in Indian English, was submitted to Albert Cusick, a New York Onondaga-Tuscarora, for review and criticism. Mr. Cusick had long been an authority on Iroquois law and civic rites, and had been a chief informant for Horatio Hale, William M. Beauchamp and, in several instances, for the present writer. Mr. Cusick was employed for more than a month in correcting the Newhouse manuscript until he believed the form in which it is now presented fairly correct and at least as accurate as a free translation could be made.

"In examining this code of Iroquois law it will be noted that no reference is made in the Canadian code to the 'Long House of the Five Nations.' Various reasons are assigned for this. Mr. Newhouse cut out all reference to it from his original manuscript because some of the older chiefs said that Handsome Lake, the destroyer of the old religious system, had successfully associated his religious teachings with the Long House. The force of this fact is apparent when we learn that a follower of the Handsome Lake religion is called among other names, Ga-nun-sis-ne-ha. 'Long House Lover'. Another reason is that the historic Long House territory is in New York State and that the Ontario Iroquois who left New York after the Revolution to cling to the British, dislike any reference to their former habitation that seems to bind them to it. The Dekanawida code provides a refuge for the confederacy in distress, and in Canada they believe they have found 'the great elm' under which they may gather in safety to continue their national existence.

"In presenting these documents the original orthography has been retained."

The legend of Dekanawida and Hayonwatha follows in the next chapter, together with the first seven sections of Guyanshagowa, which shows the prominent part the Mohawks bore in this "Great Binding Law", and in "The Council of the Great Peace."

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