Legend has it that Dekanawida (“The Great Peacemaker”) was born to a virgin mother in the nation of the Hurons and became known as a visionary thinker in the 15th century. The modern-day NY state region consisted, at the time, of five indigenous tribes with distinct languages and customs that were in endless cycles of war. Dekanawida received an idyllic vision of peace that he would dedicate his life to.
He wandered east toward the conflicts and into the land of the Mohawks with his great plan, but due to a speech problem, he had little ability to express his genius. The Mohawks had been stuck in endless war with the neighboring Onandagas. Then from out of the wilderness came Dekanawida—an objective man of no tribal loyalty, only a vision of great peace. He proposed his great vision to the Mohawks but they were unconvinced. So what he lacked in mortal speech, he decided to prove in supernatural deed. He climbed a tall pine over a deep gorge that descended into the Mohawk River and then asked the Mohawks to cut down the tree. They accepted the test. Dekanawida plunged into the rapids below and a few moments later mysteriously climbed out of the gorge completely unharmed. The Mohawks needed no further proof but convincing their Onondanga foes of the vision would be quite another matter.
At this point, Dekanawida met an Onondaga man whose wife and seven daughters had recently been killed in the senseless violence at the hands of his own chief Ododarhoh. Ododarhoh ruled with an iron fist. He was said to be an evil man whose hair crawled of snakes. The depressed wanderer was a very articulate man. Dekanawida respected this attribute and soon taught the wanderer his vision for Great Peace and the importance of loving everyone, including enemies. The wanderer’s vengeful heart underwent a miraculous transformation and he became Dekanawida’s loyal disciple.
Together with Dekanawida, the wanderer approached the evil Ododarhoh. The wanderer, through his moving speech, managed to convert the monster into a dedicated adherent to the Great Peace. In so doing it is said the wanderer combed the snakes from Ododarhoh’s hair, thus receiving the name Hiawatha or “he-who-combs.” With the Mohawks and Onondagas as the nucleus, the Cayugas, Oneidas and Senecas soon saw the wisdom in joining the confederacy that came to be known as the League of Five Nations.
Dekanawida crowned the achievement with this speech:
I Dekanawida with the confederate lords of the Five Nations plant the tree of the Great Peace. I plant it in your territory, Ododarhoh, and in that of the Onondaga nation, in the territory of which you are the firekeeper.
We spread the soft, white, feathery down of the globe thistle as seats for you and your cousin lords.
If any man of any nation outside the Five Nations shall desire to obey the laws of the Great Peace he may trace the roots to their source and he shall be welcome.
The shadow of the tree will be pleasant and beautiful. Never again shall man walk in fear. All the peoples of mankind will dwell there in peace and tranquility. We will have one head, one tongue, and one blood in our bodies. And at the top of the tree sits Skajina, the eagle. He watches all ways and will warn us when he sees approaching that which brings destruction and death.
So I, Dekanawida, and the confederate lords now uproot the tallest pine tree and into the hole we cast all the weapons of war. We bury them from sight forever and plant again the tree.
With his mission complete, Dekanawida said, “Now I shall be seen no more and go whither none can follow.” Then Dekanawida boarded a luminous white canoe on the shore of Lake Onondaga and paddled toward a setting sun, never to be seen again.
Three centuries later Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington would all become familiar with the Iroquois Confederacy and its Great Law of Peace. In the European examples of governance, they found no effective model for how to unite the colonies or frame a democratic constitution but in the Iroquois system, a clear blueprint was drawn from which to begin work on both of these tasks. In 1988 the US Senate formally recognized the contributions of the Iroquois Confederacy to the confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies and to the development of the United States Constitution itself. (From http://www.thegreatpeacemakers.com).