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Native American Faces

Hiawatha

Mohawk Indian (He-Who-Makes-Rivers)

Hiawatha was a statesman, reformer, lawgiver, shaman, and great unifier who lived around 1570. He is celebrated as one of the founders of the League of the Iroquois, the Confederation of Five Nations. Later, in 1721, the Tuscarora nation joined the Iroquois confederacy, and they became the Six Nations.

A follower of The Great Peacemaker (Dekanawida) Hiawatha was a skilled statesman and charismatic orator who was instrumental in persuading the Iroquois peoples, the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Mohawks, a group of Native North Americans who shared similar languages, to accept The Great Peacemaker's vision and band together to become the Five Nations of the Iroquois confederacy. While The Great Peacemaker was considered the man behind the ideas, Hiawatha was the one who actually implemented the reformation.

These two sought to bring about reforms which would end all strife, murder, and war, and promote peace and well-being among the tribes. One reform was the regulation to abolish intratribal blood-feud by fixing a price of 10 strings of wampum, a cubit in length, as the value of a human life. It was decreed that the murderer or his kin must offer to pay the bereaved family not only for the dead person, but also for the life of the murderer who by his sinister act had forfeited his life to them, and that therefore 20 strings of wampum should be the legal tender to the bereaved family for the settlement of the homicide of a co-tribesman.

By birth, Hiawatha was most likely a Mohawk, but he began his reform work among the Onondaga, where he encountered bitter opposition from one of their most remorseless tyrants, Wathatotarho (Atotarho). When his attempts at reform failed, Hiawatha left the Onondaga and sought the aid of the Mohawk and other tribes. But, meeting with little success among the former, he continued his mission to the Oneida, who accepted his plan provided that the Mohawk do the same.

The Mohawk, the Cayuga, and the Oneida finally formed a tentative union for the purpose of persuading the Onondaga to adopt the plan of confederation, and the latter accepted it on condition that the Seneca should also be included. A portion of the Seneca finally joined the confederation, and the Onondaga, through Wathatotarho, accepted the proposed union.

As the Onondaga chieftain was regarded as a great sorcerer, it was believed that he must have been overcome by a superior magic power exercised by Hiawatha and Dekanawida. In time, the character of Hiawatha became couched in mystery, and he was reputed to have done things which properly belong to some of the chief gods of the Iroquois. As a result, he became the central figure of a group of interrelated mythic legends.

In "The Song of Hiawatha", a popular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the character of Hiawatha is actually drawn from the writings of Henry R. Schoolcraft, who had confused the real Hiawatha with a Chippewa deity. Longfellow's version of events and character, therefore, in any way relates to the great Iroquois reformer. Unfortunately, there are no known images of Hiawatha.

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