The birth of American democracy and the enduring political wisdom of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy.

According to the National Park Service’s attractive and information rich website

“The Five Nations, comprised of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, united in confederation about the year A.D. 1200. This unification took place under the “Great Tree of Peace” and each nation gave its pledge not to war with other members of the confederation. Around 1720, the Tuscarora nation was admitted into the league as the sixth member. Confederacy members referred to themselves as “Haudenosaunee,” which translates to “The People of the Longhouse.” They saw their confederacy as a symbolic version of their traditional longhouse dwellings, stretching across most of what is today New York State. The Mohawks were the guardians of the eastern door in the lower Mohawk Valley area. The Oneidas occupied the upper Mohawk Valley and the area of modern day Oneida, NY. The Onondagas were the keepers of the council fire in the center of the “longhouse,” in the modern day greater Syracuse area. The Cayugas occupied the finger-lakes area and the Seneca were the guardians of the western door in the modern Rochester-Buffalo NY area.”

The Six Nations Confederacy

In principle, if not overt recognition, the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy is the model for the United States Constitution. Firstly, it had well thought out elastic clauses which kept the confederacy adaptable and relevant over the centuries. Secondly, it had a robust system of checks and balances installed to mitigate the proclivity towards autocratic control by powerful chiefs and clans alike. Significantly, it did not rest on the idea of monarchy. And thirdly, it had clearly defined human rights such as freedom of speech, liberty from fear and ill health, and the inalienable right to be represented as a valued member of the community. Universal health care, dignified work, political representation, and civil liberties were a given.

All of these principles are directly linked to the philosophical vision of thinkers such as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and other so-called “American” forefathers and foremothers of western political enlightenment. Nearly 600 hundred years after the Six Nations Confederacy was established in the mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, lakes and dense forests of pre-European New York State, it would serve as a proven blueprint for the colonists to borrow for their own democratic experiment after the Revolutionary War.

To understand how these culturally distinct and perpetually warring nations came to unionize in a vast and robust confederacy -with territorial claims as far west as Illinois and as far south as Maryland- it is necessary to explain the legend of Dekanawida and Hiawatha. The retelling below is a classic version which describes the spiritual roots of this “league of clans” and the birth of the first true participatory democracy. This legend is not only an enchanting story to tell youth as they learn about their primal origins as Americans, it is a depiction of the highest ideals which the confederacy stands for even to this day. If we can agree on anything as brother and sister citizens of this earth, it is that humans are capable of tremendous acts of terror and tremendous acts of beauty. The rules we choose to adopt and live by will be the difference between chaos and harmony.

The Legend of the White Roots of Peace

Legend has it, Dekanahwideh (Deganawidah, Dekanahouideh, the Heavenly Messenger), reputed founder of the Five Nations Confederacy, and the cultural hero of the Iroquois, was born the son of a virgin mother in the nation of the Hurons in modern-day Ontario.  Dekanawida was a visionary thinker.  Indeed his name means “he-the-thinker.” 

He received an idyllic vision of peace that he would dedicate his life to.  He wandered east toward the conflicts and into the land of the Mohawks with his great plan, but due to a speech problem, he had little ability to express his genius.

The Mohawks had been stuck in endless war with the neighboring Onandagas. Then from out of the wilderness came Dekanawida—an objective man of no tribal loyalty, only a vision of great peace.

Indian MapHe proposed his great vision to the Mohawks but they were unconvinced.  So what he lacked in mortal speech, he decided to prove in supernatural deed.  He climbed a tall pine over a deep gorge that descended into the Mohawk River and then asked the Mohawks to cut down the tree.  They accepted the test.  Dekanawida plunged into the rapids below and a few moments later mysteriously climbed out of the gorge completely unharmed.  The Mohawks needed no further proof but convincing their Onondanga foes of the vision would be quite another matter.

At this point, Dekanawida met a deeply depressed wanderer–an Onondaga man whose wife and seven daughters had recently been killed in the senseless violence.  Ironically, the man had lost his family not at the hands of the enemy Mohawks but at the hands of his own chief Ododarhoh.  Ododarhoh ruled with an iron fist.  He was said to be an evil man whose hair crawled of snakes.

images9XH6Y4TN The depressed wanderer was a very articulate man.  Dekanawida respected this attribute and soon taught the wanderer his vision for Great Peace and the importance of loving everyone, including enemies.  The wanderer’s vengeful heart underwent a miraculous transformation and he became Dekanawida’s loyal disciple.

Together with Degandiwida, the wanderer approached the evil Ododarhoh. The wanderer, through his moving speech, managed to convert the monster into a dedicated adherent to the Great Peace.  In so doing it is said the wanderer combed the snakes from Ododarhoh’s hair, thus receiving the name Hiawatha or “he-who-combs.”

With the Mohawks and Onondagas as the nucleus, the Cayugas, Oneidas and Senecas soon saw the wisdom in joining the confederacy that came to be known as the League of Five Nations.  Dekanawida crowned the achievement with this speech:

I Dekanawida with the confederate lords of the Five Nations plant the tree of the Great Peace.  I plant it in your territory, Ododarhoh, and in that of the Onondaga nation, in the territory of which you are the firekeeper.

We spread the soft, white, feathery down of the globe thistle as seats for you and your cousin lords.

If any man of any nation outside the Five Nations shall desire to obey the laws of the Great Peace he may trace the roots to their source and he shall be welcome.

The shadow of the tree will be pleasant and beautiful.  Never again shall man walk in fear.  All the peoples of mankind will dwell there in peace and tranquility.  We will have one head, one tongue, and one blood in our bodies.  And at the top of the tree sits Skajina, the eagle.  He watches all ways and will warn us when he sees approaching that which brings destruction and death.

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Hopewell Mound in Lewiston, NY

So I, Dekanawida, and the confederate lords now uproot the tallest pine tree and into the hole we cast all the weapons of war.  We bury them from sight forever and plant again the tree.


With his mission complete, Dekanawida said, “Now I shall be seen no more and go whither none can follow.”  Then Dekanawida boarded a luminous white canoe on the shore of lake Onondaga and paddled toward a setting sun, never to be seen again.
(This version of the legend was borrowed from Steve Simon’s beautiful website The Great Peacemakers )
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Hopewell Mound Structure in Lewiston, NY (Photo by George Payne)
At a time in history when nearly every single day there is another car bombing in a cratered out city in the Middle East; when police brutality is live streamed on CNN like a snuff box version of the Truman Show, and when major U.S. presidential candidates giddily lift white supremacy propaganda from Neo- Nazi websites, the voice of the Great Peace Maker is needed now more than ever. In a world that is starving because food is treated like a commodity and our bodies are treated like happiness machines rather than holy temples, the law of checks and balances is needed now more than ever. And in a world where people skin and burn each other alive in cages because they worship a different God or love a person of the same sex, the Great Peace Maker’s law of compassion, conservation and sustainability is needed now more than ever.
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Seneca structures at the Lower Falls gorge in Rochester, NY
With that said, it should be no wonder why Benjamin Franklin believed the [Indians] “are in that natural state, being restrained by no Laws, having no Courts, or Ministers of Justice, no Suits, no prisons, no governors vested with any Legal Authority. The persuasion of Men distinguished by Reputation of Wisdom is the only Means by which others are govern’d, or rather led — and the State of the Indians was probably the first State of all Nations.” Or that John Adams wrote in his Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of the “precise” separation of powers that were present in American Indian nations.
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Native American statue in Niagara Falls State Park (Photo by George Payne)
Nor should it come as a surprise that  Thomas Pain said, “Among the Indians there are not any of those spectacles of misery that poverty and want present to our eyes in the towns and streets of Europe.” [Poverty was a creation]  “of what is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. . . . The life of an Indian is a continual holiday compared to the poor of Europe.”
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Seth Green Trail on east side of the Genesee River
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“Hawk’s Feather” by George Payne
In fact, on June 11, 1776 while the matter of independence was being argued, the visiting 6 Nations chiefs were formally invited into the meeting hall of the Continental Congress. There a famous address was offered, in which they were called “Brothers” and told of the delegates’ wish that the “friendship” between them would “continue as long as the sun shall shine” and the “waters run.” The speech also expressed the desire that the new Americans and the 6 Nations Confederacy act “as one people, and have but one heart.” After this speech, an Onondaga chief requested permission to give John Hancock an Indian name. The Congress graciously consented, and so the president was renamed “Karanduawn, or the Great Tree.”
(It should be noted that the colonists also had a long tradition of compacts and constitutions hearkening back to Anglo-Saxon tradition.)
We must not forget this history. When we forget this history, we forget ourselves. We forget who we are as a nation. We forget what our purpose on this planet really is.
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2016 World on Your Plate Conference
For as the European Union wobbles from the devastation of Britexit; when there is constant squabbling and gridlock between Democrats and Republicans in Congress; and global instability rages on every front- from religious fundamentalism to climate change- now is the time to refer back to the formation of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. To survive as a civilization we must absorb whatever wisdom we can from these ancestors and their offspring who have preserved the teachings. Simply put: It was the most grounded, practical, rational, humane, creative, and responsive form of representative democracy ever devised.
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Seneca scene

Casconchiagon and the Rochester Connection

Here in Rochester we have a special connection to the enduring legacy of the Six Nations Confederacy and a unique responsibility to preserve the Great Peace Maker’s teachings. For over a thousand years the O-non-dowa-gah, (pronounced: Oh-n’own-dough-wahgah) which means “Great Hill People,” occupied the Genesee River Lower Falls gorge. Referred to as the “Keeper of the Western Door,” the  O-non-dowa-gah are the westernmost of the Six Nations and they used the river and Lake Ontario for fishing, hunting, dwelling, and recreation. (Lacrosse, it should be noted, was more than just a game for these people. It was a ceremonious activity which allowed them to cleanse their mind and give recognition to the Creator.)

Although many Rochesterians are familiar with the story of the “Great Hill People” and especially the heritage of lacrosse, many do not realize that this history is accessible through an impressive network of well preserved, scenically beautiful, and archeologically interesting trails. One such site is called Casconchiagon and it can be located in Maplewood Park in the northwest sector of the city. About Seneca Nation

 Casconchiagon’s Location

According to the website New York Historic, “to the west is Lorimer Hill, now the residential Maplewood neighborhood and home to Nazareth School and Sisters of St Joseph. The area is located west of Lake Ave and North of Lexington.  The Seneca village known as Casconchiagon, after the Seneca name for the Genesee River, was located on this hill. The trail, located near the historic marker here, that leads down to the gorge was most likely the village’s access point to the Genesee River. It is also possible that some of the village crept into the area that is now Maplewood Park and Lower Falls Park.”

New York Historic

The site goes on to say that “The sign is now within Maplewood Park in Rochester, near the Genesee Riverway Trail entrance across from the park’s rose garden. This is a picnic area near a parking lot and restroom facility. The trail is used to reach Lower Falls Park to the south, or an unofficial trail to the north which leads into the Genesee Gorge.”

Regarding the Gorge Trail, anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience this space  knows how blessed our community is to have such a remarkably well preserved series of Native American trails in the heart of our urban backyard. To walk on the Gorge Trail and Seth Green Trail (on the east side of the Genesee) is to go back to another era. It is to walk alongside the ghosts of our ancient ancestors and to experience some of the same trees that they did; to sit on some of the same rocks as they did; and to hear the same sounds of chipmunks scurrying on the forest floor, hares jumping through thick bushels, blue jays squawking and trout splashing on the water’s surface. It is truly one of the most significant cultural and ecological sites in North America.

 

Sadly, many of these trails are unknown, underutilized, undervalued, and in some cases under-protected. One of the goals of the Lower Falls Foundation is to help raise awareness about the importance of keeping the teachings of our native ancestors alive through purposeful acts of social and ecological entrepreneurship. We need to preserve these cultural landmarks not just because it is our civic duty to be good stewards of public land; we need to stay emotionally and spiritually connected to the worldview of people who were more sensitive to Mother Earth and more responsible to each other. If we become totally isolated from their knowledge, we will lose out on thousands of years of highly sophisticated wisdom.

For more information about the work of the Lower Falls Foundation, or to get involved as a volunteer on one of our upcoming projects visit our website at www.lowerfallsfdn.com. Our ultimate goal is to make the Lower Falls of the Genesee River a UNESCO World Heritage Site by 2020. For more information about UNESCO and our campaign visit UNESCO Campaign for the Lower Falls

 “We first knew you a feeble plant which wanted a little earth whereon to grow. We gave it to you; and afterward, when we could have trod you under our feet, we watered and protected you; and now you have grown to be a mighty tree, whose top reaches the clouds, and whose branches overspread the whole land, whilst we, who were the tall pines of the forest, have become a feeble plant and need your protection.” Chief Red Jacket
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