Sunday, July 19, 2015

Dekanawida and the Iroquois Confederacy

Forced assimilation, the scalping of Indians, broken treaties, and driving Indians off their ancestral lands -- welcome to the what is now the Eastern United States before the white settlers came. The Iroquois nation was five tribes of former cannibals who, although few in number, controlled what is now New York, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia by 1711. To put that in perspective, 66 million people now live in an area controlled by 20,000 Indians just three centuries ago.

All this was begun by Dekanawida, the Great Peacemaker, a leader with a speech impediment whose mother, according to legend, tried to drown him several times in his infancy.

Not much is known about Dekanawida. His birth could have been anywhere from the 12th century to the 16th century, based on when the five original tribes formed the Iroquois Confederacy. This is a drawback on having no written language, for no matter how liberals spin "oral tradition" as somehow superior to documentation; the fact is they are just stories told around the campfire that are subject to the same temptations of embroidery and revisionism to suit the teller's political ambitions.

Thus Dekanawida acquired a virgin mother over the years, in an attempt to put him on par with Christ.

But we do know that he was born in the Huron tribe in Canada. Legend holds that his mother tried to drown him in infancy because of a superstition. He left his tribe and went to the Mohawks to sell them on the idea of the five Iroquois tribes ending their warring and cannibalistic ways, and band together. His poor speaking skills meant he needed Hiawatha, a great oratory who was exiled from the Onondaga tribe, after a falling out with Chief Ododarhoh, who ordered the killing of Hiawatha's wife and seven daughters.

The two convinced the Mohawks first to be part of the confederation. The Onondaga were next. The Iroquois Confederation of five Great Lakes tribes -- the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca -- brought peace to them, and war to others. Some say the tribes came together following a solar eclipse on August 31, 1142, but more than likely, the coalition came later. We do know that in 1720, the Tuscarora joined as a non-voting member.

Theirs was a matrilineal system in which women held property and inheritances ran through the mother. But a matriarchal society was just as blood-thirsty as it patriarchal opposite. Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria greatly expanded the British empire through a series of wars. The Iroquois matriarchy was no different.

The confederation was in place before the Europeans arrived. Other Indian tribes also formed confederations, as did European states. In capturing tribes, the Iroquois adopted the captives, which bolstered their numbers. Disease and constant war inhibited population growth.

The Iroquois Confederacy was not unique, but its importance was its great success in building a woodland empire. The arrival of the French in the 16th century boosted the fur trade. Throughout the 17th century, the Iroquois engaged in Beaver Wars with the French and other tribes to expand their empire.

The confederation was based in upper New York state. Their first beaver war began in 1609 against the French and the Huron. The Iroquois exterminated the Neutral Nation and the Erie. In 1628, the Mohawks defeated the Mahicans to gain trade with the Dutch at Fort Orange. In 1645, the confederation reached a treaty with the French, Alonquins and the Huron. The next year the Mohawks broke the treaty by attacking Jesuit priests, killing Jean de Lalande and Isaac Jogues on October 18, 1646. The Catholic Church recognizes the men as two of the eight North American martyrs in the Church.

In 1649, the Mohawks purchased guns from the Dutch to attack the Huron. The idea that Native Americans were noble and corrupted by the white man is laughable. Only a child indoctrinated by socialists would be gullible enough to believe that Indians were better than Caucasians. All men are created equal -- equally bad as well as good.

The Iroquois Confederacy, however, was a remarkable empire. Seldom have so few people controlled such a large, fertile area. They were valuable allies throughout the four French and Indian Wars the British fought in the 18th century, each being an extension of European wars.

But as white settlers came in, the Iroquois began selling off land, perhaps in the realization that they lacked the numbers and firepower to keep the settlers out. William Penn and his heirs paid for every inch of Pennsylvania over the years, and Virginia paid 200 pounds sterling for what is now West Virginia. However, whether the Iroquois owned the land is open to debate.

What did the Iroquois in was the American Revolution. Four of the Iroquois Confederacy tribes -- the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga -- backed the British. But unlike many other tribes, the Iroquois continued to live in upstate New York, even as white settlers crowded them out. Part of this was Northern attitudes. Presidents Jefferson and Jackson, both Southern slave-owners, advocated removing Indians in the South to a place west of the Mississippi because white plantation owners wanted more land for cotton fields. Jackson and his successor, President Van Buren of New York, succeeded. The U.S. government marched the Choctaw out of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana in 1831; the Seminoles from Florida in 1832; the Creek from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in 1834; the Chickasaw from Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee in 1837; and the Cherokee from Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. The evil of slavery was a bottomless pit of sorrow.

But united we stand worked for the Iroquois, which has led to a myth -- that the Constitution is modeled after the confederation. No. That is silly. The Iroquois did not have a president, or bicameral legislature, or Supreme Court. What they did have was unity. In 1751, Ben Franklin, urging the colonies to band together, said in a letter to James Parker: "It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests."

Dekanawida was an exceptional American who helped pave the way for the United States, but not in the manner anyone could foresee. The Great Peacemaker got the Five Nations (later six) to quit warring among themselves. But they warred against others, creating an empire that they later were forced to sell. It became much of the early United States.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. What was the "Neutral Nation"?

    1. Oneida backed the colonies, Tuscarora were neutral

  2. They gave us lacrosse. A game to make men warriors.
    Thank you, Iroquois. Sorry about the tide of history, but you were on the wrong side.