(This post is based mostly on what I learned in a talk given by Jack Rossen, a professor at Ithaca college, at the Ecovillage of Ithaca on Oct. 22nd, 2015. Although I have done my best to present information accurately and with sensitivity to the first nations people of this land I am not an expert and welcome feedback, corrections, and comments and also encourage you to seek out your own truth)
Many of you will know of the Haudenosaunee confederacy as the Iroquois confederacy but Iroquois was not a name these people chose themselves. Haudenosaunee is the name by which these people, who come from the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and later the Tuscarora nations, call themselves. These are the first nations people of the area in which I now live; They inhabited much of central, upstate and western New York, extending down into Pennsylvania.
The Haudenosaunee are a people who traditionally kept their history through oral tradition, with faithkeepers who are appointed by clan mothers, and stories that are passed down from one generation to the next. For most western, modern world scholars, oral tradition is not to be trusted, a belief that a Haudenosaunee person would find incredibly disrespectful. Imagine you knowing the stories of your family- where they immigrated from, how they ate, what they celebrated, where your ancestors are buried- and then being told by an outsider, a “scholar,” that no, you have it all wrong and since you cannot prove it with written paper documents or artifacts we do not have to return the bones of your ancestors that we dug up and now have in our museum basements. This has been the story of some of these people, including the Cayuga, whose homeland is in the Ithaca area.
One archeologist names Jack Rossen has been doing his best to work with the Cayuga and other Haudenosaunee people to keep their history from being revised by outsiders and give it back to them. And this is the story of one such way in which he is helping them gain acceptance from the wider world for a truth they already knew.
Oral traditions says that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, perhaps one of the earliest known forms of democracy, was born 1000 years ago, around 1000 AD. But most western scholars say the confederacy was founded either only a generation before contact, in 1451, after contact as late as the mid 15,00’s.
To the Haudenosaunee the creation of the confederacy is known through the legend of the Peacemaker, a messenger of the creator who was sent in a time when there had been much conflict for centuries. It is said that the peacemaker traveled in a white stone canoe, seeking out the leaders of the five warring nations, the Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. In his searching he came across a woman who had no alliances and fed and sheltered all who passed through, including men from all tribes as they traveled to war upon each other. This woman’s name was Jikonsahseh and she was the first person to accept the Peacemaker’s Great Law of Peace and some say she is what inspired the tradition of the Clan Mother, a tradition that still lives on today.
The last of the tribes to be convinced of the Peacemaker’s Great Law of Peace was the Seneca. As the Peacemaker asked them to consider the Law of Peace he told the Seneca to look for a “Sky sign” and legend has it that as the tribe leaders gathered at high sun (noon) when the corn was high (late summer) that the sky grew dark and the stars came out and this convinced them to lay down their weapons under the great white pine.
The white pine has long been a symbol of peace for the Haudenosaunee people and Jack Rossen found and carbon dated a piece of pottery with the great white pine at a Cayuga archaeological site to 1100 AD. This little artifact gave validity to the claim of the first nations people that their Haudenosaunee confederacy was indeed formed much earlier then western scholars have believed, closer to the 1000 year old date that their oral history says.
With needles in clusters of 5, like the five tribal nations that made up the original confederacy, and that stay green and never fall, just as the Great Law of Peace must be able to weather all seasons, the peacemaker made the Great White Pine a forever sacred tree to the Haudenosaunee people.
As Jack Rossen looked to other evidence that would further corroborate his finding and support the oral history of the Haudenosaunee he went and looked back at the records of full solar eclipse, the most likely explanation for the sky sign that the Seneca saw. Solar eclipses are not an everyday event, and to find one that would have been visible from Seneca territory, occurred in late summer when the corn would have been high, around noon, when the leaders always gathered and would have caused the sky to darken enough for the stars to come out seemed like an even more unlikely event to find. But indeed Jack Rossen found one. In the year of of 909, on august 18th, the sun reach full annular eclipse at 17:13 UT which would have been 1:15pm New York time. And so it seems that indeed, the Haudenosaunee oral history is correct that their confederacy was formed over 1000 years ago.
The confederacy is unique for many reasons. One such way is that the Peacemaker established a matriarchal system, called the clan system, to help to bridge these nations that had been warring for centuries. One’s clan is determined by your mother, so if you mother is of the bear clan, you also are of the bear clan. But one is not allowed to marry within the same clan and so through marriage there became members of each clan throughout the Haudenosaunee Confederation. And anyone in your clan is family, no matter whether they are Cayuga, Seneca, Mohawk, Onandaga, Oneida or any other nation. This allowed one to find family no matter where you were, traveling throughout the confederacy. There are nine clans within which they are divided into three elements; air (Heron, Hawk, and Snipe), water (Turtle, Ell, and Beaver), and land (Bear, Wold, and Deer). And within some clans, such as the bear and turtle clans, there are three different species. Even today, if you meet a first nations person they will often introduce themselves by their tribe and clan name (ei: I am ____ of the Onandaga nation and of the Heron clan.) Clan mothers hold great power in the nations, as they are the ones who appoint chief, faithkeepers and other important positions within the tribe. And they can also take these positions away if they feel an individual is no longer suited for it.
As a modern day resident of these lands I am grateful to be learning about the history of the people that were here before me, and not only for historical reasons but also because they are still alive here amongst us, and their struggles are still current. Two years ago I participated in the Two Row Wampum, an event that asked for a 400 year old treaty to be recognized and honored, a clear illustration of how these struggles are still alive today. Also, as we enter a time of the year where the veil between the worlds is thin and we often honor our ancestors, through holidays such as Halloween and Day of the Dead, if feels right to call attention to the ancestors of this this land that I now stand on and have chosen to build my house on. The Haudenosaunee were and are a wise people from which we could stand to learn many lessons from, about peace and living in harmony with the land, as well as many other things. And they are also a people that need our support, understanding, and recognition as they struggle to keep what is left of their culture alive.