Document: The Founding of the Iroquois League

See p. 64 of Goldfield, et al, The American Journey, for a brief explanation of what and where the Iroquois League was.

Introduction: Among the Native Americans who inhabited what is now the United States and Canada, the most complex and successful political alliance was the Iroquois Confederation. It was formed in the fifteenth century, and established a working peace among the principal "nations" that formed part of the Iroquoian language group.

What is known about Native American life during the long centuries before European contact has been pieced together from the material evidence of archaeology, and read backward from legends taken down and codified in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here is an excerpt from a nineteenth-century version of the legend of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy, beginning with an account of a virgin birth north of Lake Ontario (a detail that may have been part of Iroquois culture, and may have been an adaptation of Christian ideas of the birth of Christ).

Iroquoian Village, with longhouses

North of the beautiful lake, in the land of the Crooked the village lived a good woman who had a virgin daughter. Now strangely this virgin conceived...The daughter about this time went into a long sleep and dreamed that her child should be a son whom she should name Dekanawida. The messenger in her dream told her that he should become a great man and that he should go among the Flint people to live and that he should also go to the Many Hill Nation and there raise up the Great Tree of Peace.

The Ongwe-oweh had fought long and bravely. All the Ongwe-oweh fought other nations sometimes together and sometimes singly and ofttimes they fought among themselves. The nation of the Flint had little sympathy for the Nation of the Great Hill, and sometimes they raided one another's settlements. Thus did brothers and Ongwe-oweh fight. The nation of the Sunken Pole fought the Nation of the Flint and hated them...Everywhere there was peril and everywhere mourning. Men were ragged with sacrifice and the women scarred with the flints, so everywhere there was misery. Feuds with one another, feuds with outer nations, feuds with brother nations, feuds of sister towns, and feuds of families and of clans made every warrior a stealthy man who liked to kill.

Then in those days there was no great law. Our founder had not yet come to create peace and give united strength to the Real Men, the Ongwe-oweh.

In those same days, the Onondagas had no peace. A man's life was valued as nothing. For any slight offense a man or woman was killed by his enemy and in this manner feuds started between families and clans. At night, none dared leave their doorways, lest they be struck down by an enemy's war club. Such was the condition when there was no Great Law.

South of the Onondaga town lived an evil-minded man...His body was distorted by seven crooks and his long tangled locks were adorned by writhing living serpents. Moreover, this monster was a devourer of raw meat, even of human flesh. He was also a master of wizardry, and by his magic he destroyed men but he could not be destroyed. Adodarhoh was the name of the evil man.

Not withstanding the evil character of Adodarhoh the people of Onondaga, the Nation of Many Hills, obeyed his commands and though it cost many lives they satisfied his insane whims, so much did they fear him for his sorcery...

Dekanawida requested some of the Mohawk chiefs to call a council, so messengers were sent out among the people and the council was convened.

Dekanawida said, "I, with my co-worker, have a desire to now report on what we have done on five successive midsummer days, of five successive years. We have obtained the consent of five nations. These are the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, and the Senecas. Our desire is to form a compact for a union of our nations. Our next step is to seek out Adodarhoh. It is he who has always set at naught all plans for the establishment of the Great Peace. We must seek his fire and look for his smoke...

Then Dekanawida taught the people the Hymn of Peace and the other songs. He stood before the door of the longhouse and walked before it singing the new songs. Many came and learned them so that many were strong by the magic of them when it was time to carry the Great Peace to Onondaga...

The frontier of the Onondaga country was reached and the expedition halted to kindle a fire, as was customary. Then the chiefs of the Onondagas, with their head men, welcomed them and a great throng marched to the fireside of Adodarhoh, the singer of the Peace Hymn leading the multitude...

Then Dekanawida himself sang and walked before the door of Adodarhoh's house. When he finished his song he walked toward Adodarhoh and held out his hand to rub it on his body and to know its inherent strength and life. Then Adodarhoh was made straight and his mind became healthy.

When Adodarhoh was made strong in rightful powers and his body had been healed, Dekanawida addressed the three nations. He said, "We have overcome a great obstacle. It has long stood in the way of peace. The mind of Adodarhoh is now made right and his crooked parts are made straight. Now indeed may we establish the great peace.

Before we do firmly establish our union each nation must appoint a certain number of its wisest and purest men who shall be rulers, Rodiyaner. They shall be the advisers of the people and make the new rules that may be needful. These men shall be selected and confirmed by their female relations in whose lines the titles shall be hereditary.

Excerpted from Compton's Encyclopedia of American History Copyright (c) 1994 Compton's NewMedia, Inc.