DEKANAHWIDEH (Deganawidah, the Heavenly Messenger), reputed founder of the Five Nations Confederacy, and the culture hero of the Iroquois.
The legend that grew up about him long served as a guide to Iroquois conduct, at home and abroad. In its various recorded versions it now appears a strange medley of religion, mythology, constitutional law, wisdom literature, animal lore, and folk custom. But the core of the narrative, which describes the practical steps taken by Dekanahwideh, the “Heavenly Messenger,” to establish a firm League of Nations under the Tree of Peace, has a grandeur of conception unsurpassed in popular tradition anywhere in the world.
According to the legend, Dekanahwideh was born among the Huron Indians near the Bay of Quinte, on what is now the Thayendanaga or Deseronto Reservation. His virgin mother had been informed in a dream by a messenger from the Creator that she was to bear a son destined to plant the Tree of Peace at Onondaga (Syracuse, New York).
When the child was born, he was named Dekanahwideh. On reaching manhood, he explained to his mother the mission on which the Great Spirit had sent him, which was to bring “the good news of peace and power” to men: to show them how to make their desire for peace and justice effective by union under civil authority backed by military potential. When the time came to say farewell, he took his mother to a tree on a hill near the water and instructed her to come there once a year after his departure and strike the tree with a hatchet. If blood flowed from the cut, she would know that he had failed; if sap, that he was alive and successful. The hill is still held in reverence by the Iroquois people. Chiefs from the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, visit it at least once a year to burn sacred tobacco and offer prayer to the Great Spirit.
Crossing Lake Ontario in a canoe made of white stone (his first miracle), Dekanahwideh came to the country of the Onondagas. There he sought out a notorious murderer and cannibal, resolved to make this encounter the first test of his power. Finding the man’s cabin empty, Dekanahwideh climbed to the bark roof and, lying prone, peered down through the smoke hole. Below him he saw a kettle of water on the fire. When the Onondaga warrior returned to his cabin and looked into the kettle, he saw a reflection of Dekanahwideh’s face. Since no one else was in the cabin, the warrior thought it was a reflection of his own face; and he was struck by the contrast between the brutal life he was leading and the strong, gentle nobility of the face looking up at him out of the water. In revulsion, he emptied the kettle of its human contents and sat brooding by the fire over his failure to live up to what he now recognized to be his own true nature. When Dekanahwideh entered the cabin and delivered his message of peace and power, the warrior eagerly “tookhold,” offering himself as a disciple. Together the two laid plans for a campaign to bring neighbouring nations into a peaceful confederacy, with the intent that, as a 17th-century Iroquois was to say, “The land shall be beautiful, the river shall have no more waves, one may go everywhere without fear.” The great obstacle to such a union was Atotarho, head chief of the Onondagas, a hideous tyrant whose body had seven crooks in it and whose hair was a tangle of live snakes. “You shall be called Hiawatha [He Who Combs],” said Dekanahwideh to his disciple, “for you shall comb the snakes out of Atotarho’s hair.”
Hiawatha (from whom Longfellow took little but the name) served as Dekanahwideh’s spokesman. Some such arrangement appears to have been necessary, for, if the late William Dewaserage Loft of Ohsweken was correct, the name “Dekenahwideh” means “double row of teeth.”
The two men separated for a time, Dekanahwideh going alone to the Canienga or Flint Nation (Mohawk). There the message of peace and power won many adherents, but sceptics demanded a sign. To satisfy them, Dekanahwideh climbed a tall tree on the edge of a cliff over-looking the Mohawk River. He instructed them to cut the tree down so that it would fall with him into the rapids. If he survived, they would know that his words were true. Having cut down the tree as directed, the Mohawks waited long on the bank, hoping to see cause to believe in him; but, as time passed and he did not reappear, they returned sadly to their village. Early next morning, a curl of smoke was seen on the bank where Dekanahwideh had fallen, and the Heavenly Messenger was observed sitting quietly beside his fire eating breakfast. The Mohawks reassembled, took hold of his message, and have forever since ranked as founders of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Hiawatha joined him here and the two were adopted into the Mohawk nation. Heading a band of Mohawk warriors and singing the peace hymn – “To the Great Peace bring we greeting . . .” which ranks as the Iroquois national anthem – they proceeded west to the country of the Oneidas. These good friends of the Mohawks quickly took hold and joined the marching train. By-passing the Onondagas, who were terrorized by Atotarho, they went on to the Cayugas, who joined them, and all entered the Seneca country.
Here they found division, one party among the Senecas accepting but another rejecting the “good news.” Dekanahwideh was constrained to perform another miracle. At his command, according to one version of the legend, “the sun went out and it was complete darkness.” That sign was sufficient, and the dissident Senecas took hold.
Then the warriors of the four nations advanced on Atotarho in his “bulrush swale” near the shore of Onondaga Lake. Modern Indians locate the site on what is now the campus of Syracuse University. The threat of visible power, sweetened by the offer of the head-chiefship of the united nations if he would come in, brought Atotarho to reason, and Hiawatha combed the snakes out of his hair.
Thereupon Dekanahwideh “planted the Tree of Peace”: a great white pine with “white [healthy] roots” extending to the four quarters of the earth in order to guide men everywhere who desired to trace peace to its source. Above the tree, he placed the “eagle that sees afar, symbol of military preparedness, to spy out danger. Under it he opened a cavern into which he threw the weapons of war. He put antlers on the heads of 50 chiefs representing the Five Nations (their names to become titles for the chiefs who succeeded them), and delivered to them the words of the “great law” – the constitution of the Five Nations.
His work accomplished, Dekanahwideh took leave of his people, instructing them to bring in other nations to sit with them under the Tree of Peace. He admonished the chiefs to exercise patience: “Your skins must be seven thumbs thick to withstand the darts of your enemies.” He encouraged them to stand fast should evil days come upon them. If a high wind (war) should uproot the Tree of Peace, they were to look about for a great swamp elm and re-form the confederacy under its shelter. (After the Revolutionary War they found such an elm on the banks of the Grand River in Ontario.) If they ever found the league in extreme danger, he said, “Call on my name in the bushes and I will return.” Today this last promise is much in Iroquois minds. Several times in the present century the chiefs have seriously debated whether the time had come to call on his name in the bushes.
At Deseronto, Ontario, the Mohawks have erected a stone monument on which are inscribed the traditional words of the founder: “I am Deganawidah, and with the Five Nations’ Confederate lords I plant the Tree of the Great Peace . . .”
But the best monument to Dekanahwideh is the Six Nations Reserve by the Grand River. There the ancient forms of the league are still preserved. There the matrons nominate the chiefs, who are installed with the solemn rites instituted, it is traditionally believed, by Dekanahwideh. On such occasions, old nostalgic chants are heard: “Hail. my grandsires! Now hearken while your grandchildren cry mournfully to you – because the Great League which you established has grown old . . . You have it as a pillow under your heads in the ground where you are lying . . . although you said that far away in the future the Great League would endure.”
The confederacy is officially known as Kayanerenh-kowa (the Great Peace), a term which describes its function. It is also known as Kanonsionni (the Long-house), a term that describes both its geographical extent and its constitutional form. The long-house, typical Iroquois dwelling built of saplings and bark, was in shape not unlike a modern Pullman car but 80 to 100 or more feet in length. Several families of the same lineage occupied it, each within its own bark-partitioned apartment and with its own hearth fire, but all under the superintendence of an elder matron of the lineage.
So the Five Nations – Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas – stretched west along a war-path or ambassadors’ road that extended through the Mohawk Valley and the Finger Lakes region; and so also each nation retained its sovereignty while at the same time joining its neighbours in giving a measure of authority to the Great Council at Onondaga, where chiefs of the Five Nations met to discuss their problems round “the fire that never dies.” The sense of unity among these fiercely independent peoples was fostered by many ingenious devices, not least of which was the legend of Dekanahwideh and the sense of mission it evoked.
Women were highly honoured in Iroquois life, their status being in no way inferior to that of men. Not only was descent reckoned in the female line, but matrons of those lineages holding chiefly titles had power both to appoint the civil chiefs and, if these failed in their duty, to recall them – always, however, after consultation with the incumbent chiefs as well as with the “warriors and women,” that is, the general public.
Although these and many other details of the social and political organization of the Five Nations are traditionally attributed to Dekanahwideh, it is probable that his function was. not so much to create new laws as to codify existing customs among the several nations and provide a final stimulus for union.
Some scholars, while not denying historical foundation of a kind for the legend, question the historicity of Dekanahwideh himself. It has been suggested (see Anthony F. C. Wallace, “The Dekanawideh myth analyzed . . . ,” Ethnohistory, V (1958), 118–30) that Dekanahwideh may have been the projection of an Indian prophet’s vision. Undoubtedly popular imagination has contributed much to the growth of the legend over centuries of oral transmission. Nevertheless the substantiality of the league itself, a phenomenon that the legend seeks to explain, is sufficiently attested by events in North American history.
That the league is very old can hardly be disputed. Benjamin Franklin in 1750 wrote that “it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble.” In 1654 the Jesuit missionary Le Mercier noted in his Relation (JR (Thwaites), XLI, 87) that it had been in existence de tout temps, “from the earliest times.” But the date of the founding is a subject of debate. There is evidence that the final union was the culmination of a long process of consolidation marked by a series of local confederacies – of Mohawk with Oneida and Seneca with Cayuga. Horatio Hale, a Canadian scholar who was at home among the Iroquois on the Six Nations Reserve as well as at Onondaga and who published The Iroquois book of rites in 1883, came to the conclusion that the union was completed “about the middle of the fifteenth century.” The fact that, according to astronomical calculation (see Theodor von Oppolzer’s Canon der Finsternisse (Vienna, 1887)), a total eclipse of the sun was visible in the Seneca country in 1451 (cf. Dekanahwideh’s blotting out of the sun) is a curious coincidence if it is nothing more.
For information about Dekanahwideh and the founding of the Five Nations, the best sources are surviving versions of the legend: Seth Newhouse’s MS, prepared on the Six Nations Reserve (with an English translation) in 1885, a photocopy of which is in the Amer. Philos. Soc. Library, Philadelphia; Newhouse’s revision, published by Arthur C. Parker as “The constitution of the Five Nations, or the Iroquois book of the great law,” N. Y. State Bull., 184 (Albany, 1916); a version prepared by chiefs on the Six Nations Reserve in 1900 and published by D. C. Scott as the “Traditional history of the Confederacy of the Six Nations,” RSCT, 3d ser., V (1911), sect.ii, 195–246; a fuller and more philosophical version dictated by Chief John Arthur Gibson of the Six Nations Reserve to J. N. B. Hewitt of the Smithsonian Institution, 1899, and translated by William N. Fenton, still in MS at the Smithsonian; a still longer version by Chief Gibson dictated to Alexander A. Goldenweiser of Ottawa in 1912, now reposing, untranslated, in the Smithsonian. See also Paul A. W. Wallace, The white roots of peace (Philadelphia, 1946), a synthesis of the foregoing versions. Horatio Hale, The Iroquois book of rites (Philadelphia 1883; reprinted Toronto, 1963).
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Cite This Article
Paul A. W. Wallace, “DEKANAHWIDEH (Deganawidah, Dekanahouideh, the Heavenly Messenger),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 7, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dekanahwideh_1E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Paul A. W. Wallace|
|Title of Article:||DEKANAHWIDEH (Deganawidah, Dekanahouideh, the Heavenly Messenger)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1966|
|Year of revision:||1979|
|Access Date:||June 7, 2023|