Great Peacemaker

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Great Peacemaker
  • Skennenrahawi
  • Deganawida (in special circumstances)
Onondaga, adopted Mohawk, or Huron orator and statesman
Personal details
Born 16th century[citation needed]

The Great Peacemaker, sometimes referred to as Deganawida or Dekanawida (as a mark of respect, some Iroquois avoid using his personal name except in special circumstances) was, along with Hiawatha, by tradition the founder of the Haudenosaunee, commonly called the Iroquois Confederacy. This was a political and cultural union of several Iroquoian-speaking Native American tribes residing in the present-day state of New York. The union created a powerful alliance of related Iroquoian peoples around the Great Lakes. Historians believe the confederacy may have formed in the 13th or 14th centuries.

Iroquois confederacy[edit]

Cohoes Falls in the 18th century AD by Pehr Kalm.

The Haudenosaunee name for the Great Peacemaker (Skennenrahawi in Mohawk) means "Two River Currents Flowing Together". There are numerous legends about the Great Peacemaker, some with conflicting information. It is reported that he was born a Huron, and by some accounts, his mother was a virgin, so the birth was miraculous.[1] Others say he was born an Onondaga and later adopted by the Mohawk. By all accounts, he was a prophet who counseled peace among the warring tribes, and he called for an end to cannibalism. His follower Hiawatha, a Mohawk renowned for his oratory, helped him achieve his vision.

According to the archaeologist Dean R. Snow, the Great Peacemaker converted Hiawatha in the territory of the Onondaga; he next made a solo journey to visit the Mohawk tribe who lived near what is now Cohoes, New York.[citation needed] Initially, the Mohawk rejected the message of the Great Peacemaker, so he decided to perform a feat to demonstrate his purity and spiritual power. After climbing a tree high above the Ga-ha-oose, the cataract now known as Cohoes Falls, the Great Peacemaker told the Mohawk braves to chop the tree down. Many onlookers watched as the Great Peacemaker disappeared into the swirling rapids of the Mohawk River. They believed he had perished until they saw him the next morning sitting near a campfire. Greatly impressed by the Great Peacemaker's miraculous survival, the Mohawk became the founding tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy.[1]

The dates Dekanawida lived have not been identified with certainty.


In attempting to date the Great Peacemaker, historians and archeologists have researched an incident related to the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy, the life work of the prophet. One rendition of the oral history eventually written down by scholars involves a conflict among the Seneca, the last Iroquois nation to join the confederacy as a founding member. A violent confrontation began; it stopped when the sun darkened and the day seemed to turn to night. Since 1902 scholars have studied the possibility that this event was a solar eclipse, when William Canfield wrote Legends of the Iroquois; told by “the Cornplanter'.[2] Other scholars who refer to this event have been (chronologically): Paul A. W. Wallace,[3] Elizabeth Tooker,[4] Bruce E. Johansen,[5][6] Dean R. Snow,[7] Barbara A. Mann and Jerry L. Fields,[8] William N. Fenton,[9] David Henige,[10] Gary Warrick,[11] and Neta Crawford.[12]

Since Canfield's first mention,[2] and the majority view,[3][4][7][9][11] scholars have widely supported a date of 1451 AD as being of a known solar eclipse and the likely founding date based on this oral account and other evidence. Some argue it is an insufficient fit for the description, and favor a date of 1142, when there was also a documented solar eclipse.[5][8] A few question dating the founding of the confederacy based on the mention of the eclipse.[10]

Archeological investigation has contributed to discussions about the founding date, as its evidence can be dated and correlated to natural events. In 1982 archeologist Dean Snow said that evidence from mainstream archeology did not support a founding of the confederacy for any dates of an eclipse before 1350 AD (thus ruling out the 1142 AD date.)[7] By 1998 Fenton considered an eclipse earlier than the 1451 AD majority view unlikely, but possible as long as it was after 1000 AD.[9] By 2007/8 reviews considered an 1142 AD eclipse as a possible point of reference, even if most scholars supported 1451 AD as the safe choice.[11][12]

Prophecy of the boy seer[edit]

The Great Peacemaker worked all his life to bring his vision to fruition. He prophesied that a "white serpent" would come to his people's lands and make friends with them, only to deceive them later. A "red serpent" would later make war against the "white serpent", but an Indian boy would be given a great power. He would be accepted as a chosen leader by the people of "the land of the hilly country." The boy stays neutral in the fight, and he speaks to the people, who number as the blades of grass, but he is heard by all. After a season, a "black serpent" would come and defeat both the "white" and "red serpents". According to the prophecy, when the people gathered under the elm tree become humble, all three "serpents" would be blinded by a light many times brighter than the sun. Deganawidah said that he would be that light. His nation would accept the "white serpent" into their safekeeping like a long-lost brother.[13]

The Great Peacemaker established a council of clan and village chiefs to govern the confederacy. In each tribe, which had matrilineal systems of descent and property-holding, power was shared between the sexes. Most decisions in council were made by consensus, to which each representative had an equal voice. Using the system of the Great Peacemaker and Hiawatha, the Iroquois became the dominant Native American group in the northeast woodlands. The oral laws and customs of the Great Law of Peace became the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, established by the 16th century or earlier.


  1. ^ a b Nelson Greene, editor. "Chapter 9: Dekanawida and Hiawatha", History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925, at Schenectady Digital History Archive
  2. ^ a b William W. Canfield (1902). The Legends Of The Iroquois: Told By "The Cornplanter". A. Wessels Co. pp. 219–220. 
  3. ^ a b Wallace, Paul A. W. (October 1948). "The Return of Hiawatha". New York History Quarterly Jounral of the New York State Historical Association XXIX (4): 385–403. JSTOR 23149546. 
  4. ^ a b Elizabeth Tooker (1978). "The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Ritual". In Sturtevant, William; Trigger, Bruce. Handbook of North American Indians. Government Printing Office. pp. 418–41. GGKEY:0GTLW81WTLJ. 
  5. ^ a b Johansen, Bruce (1979). Franklin, Jefferson and American Indians: A Study in the Cross-Cultural Communication of Ideas (Thesis). University of Washington. Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  6. ^ Bruce Elliott Johansen (January 1982). Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shaped Democracy. Harvard Common Press. ISBN 978-0-916782-90-0. 
  7. ^ a b c Snow, Dean R. (September 1982). "Dating the Emergence of the League of the Iroquois: A Reconsideration of the Documentary Evidence" (PDF). Historical Archeology: A Multidisciplinary Approach (Rensselaerswijck Seminar) V: 139–144. Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  8. ^ a b Barbara A. Mann; Jerry L. Fields (1997). "A Sign in the Sky: Dating the League of the Haudenosaunee". American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21 (4): 105–163. ISSN 0161-6463. Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  9. ^ a b c William Nelson Fenton (1998). The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 70–71. ISBN 978-0-8061-3003-3. 
  10. ^ a b Henige, David (1999). "Can a Myth Be Astronomically Dated?". American Indian Culture and Research Journal 23 (4): 127–157. ISSN 0161-6463. Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  11. ^ a b c Gary Warrick (2007). "Precontact Iroquoian Occupation of Southern Ontario". In Jordan E. Kerber. Archaeology of the Iroquois: Selected Readings and Research Sources. Syracuse University Press. pp. 124–163. ISBN 978-0-8156-3139-2. 
  12. ^ a b Neta Crawford (15 April 2008). "The Long Peace among Iroquois Nations". In Kurt A. Raaflaub. War and Peace in the Ancient World. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 348–. ISBN 978-0-470-77547-9. 
  13. ^ Buck, Christopher (1996). "Native Messengers of God in Canada? A test case for Baha'i universalism". The Bahá'í Studies Review (London: Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe): 97–132. Retrieved 2015-04-24. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Snow, Dean R. (2008). Archaeology of Native North America, New York: Prentice Hall.
  • Henry, Thomas R. (1955). Wilderness Messiah: the story of Hiawatha and the Iroquois. Bonanza Books, New York. ISBN 0-517-13019-X.
  • Gibson, John Arthur (1992). "Concerning the League: the Iroquois League as Dictated in Onondaga", newly elicited, edited and translated by Hanni Woodbury in collaboration with Reg Henry and Harry Webster on the basis of A.A. Goldenweiser’s Manuscript. Memoir 9 (Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics, Winnipeg).
  • Mann, Charles C (2005). 1491 New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 978-1-4000-4006-3.
  • Sidis, W.J. (1982). The Tribes and the States. Wampanoag Nation.

In film[edit]

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