Stories of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy

(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.

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9 Comments

  1. Thank you sharing this. I our school, the students study a lot about Wampanoags and they make the story telling belts in the tradition of Two Row Wampum. We decided to celebrate the Indigenous People’s Day from this year on on Columbus Day. It’s good to see there is more effort to acknowledge the true history of the original people.

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  2. Good story. The part about the clan mother origin especially interests me. You indicated that the last nation to join was the Seneca’s, from the many time I have heard this story told from those who hold representative positions with the Council Fire, it was, in fact, the Onondaga who was the last nation to join. This is where Tadadaho lived, the worker of dark magic that kept the nations at war. This was also the home nation to Hiawatha, who was the orator of the Great Peacemakers message. The Great Peacemaker had a speech issue which made communication difficult. It was in the confrontation of the Tadadaho on Onondaga territory that the Eclipse happened. The Seneca nation was the last of the first four to join.

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  3. After speaking with Chief Jake Edward of Onondaga nation he informed me that the Seneca Nation was the site of the Eclipse, I am still finding out about the last nation to join part. But this is a public post to say I apologize for questioning this aspect of your writing piece without a full understanding. Thanks for putting this story up and so far as I can tell being accurate.

    Jhakeem Haltom

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  4. Thank you Jhakeem for the apology and the transparency. I do not claim in any way to be an expert in this and think it is important for us all to question and seek the truth for ourselves and be open to being corrected and discovering a different truth. I wrote this to share and to remember for myself what I learned. And if you discover new or corrected information I do want to know! I think, if I remember correctly, what I learned was that the Seneca was the last of the original tribes to join, allowing the original peace treaty to form. And then I think the Onondaga joined a good bit later, but the original confederacy was already formed was not dependent on their joining. This I am saying purely by memory though and I may have it mixed up, so please correct me if I am wrong! I am curious about Tadadaho, the worker of dark magic. This part of the story is new to me.

    Thank you again and I am humbled that my post has been useful for many it seems and glad to have the conversation to get the story right.

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  5. Actually, as I think about it more, there was I think a tribe that joined later by it was not the onondaga as that would have made the original confederacy only 4 tribes, but there were 5 as the white pine has 5 needles. So I also am not sure which was the last to join. Let me know if you find out.

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  6. Ok, I discovered that the Seneca and Onondaga entered into the confederacy established by the Great Peacemaker at the same time, it was the eclipse that triggered this unity on Seneca territory, runners from Onondaga ran to Seneca and witnessed this event. The sixth nation to join in the 1730’s was the Tuscarora not apart of the original 5 brought together by the work of the Peacemaker.

    Tadadaho was the worker of evil magic who thrived off of the 5 nations being at war and worked to ensure it stayed that way. It is said that he could magically see through the eyes of the owl to monitor the state of this perpetual war built on revenge and retaliation between the nations. Hiawatha worked for him as a skilled maker of war or assassin. It was the pain of Hiawatha at losing his daughters during these years of war that brought him to excepting the Peacemakers message of peace before any of the nations had joined. Like I said he became a spokesperson for The Great Peacemaker. In the Christian tradition, he might be likened to a John the Baptist for Jesus. Not an exact metaphor but it has similarities. Lol. What a beautiful and inspiring story for us to look to in the troubled political times.

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    1. Hmm thank you for this. Tadadaho’s way of perpetuating war feels like a relevant lesson for today. How perhaps are we letting Trump and others keep us, the people, in a cycle of fear, hate, revenge, and retaliation? What does it take to break these cycles and bring peace?

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