Hiawatha the Unifier - An Iroquois Legend. (2022)

An Iroquois Legend

Hiawatha (Haion-Hwa-Tha / He-Who-Makes-Rivers) is thought tohave been a statesman, lawgiver, shaman, and unifier who lived around 1570.

According to some sources, he was born a Mohawk and sought refugeamong the Onondaga when his own tribe at first rejected his teachings.

His efforts to unite the Iroquois tribes were opposed by a formidablechieftain, Wathatotarho, whom he eventually defeated and who killedHiawatha's daughter in revenge......... But this is the legend.

The slumber of Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon, Upholder of Heavens, was disturbedby a great cry of anguish and woe.

He looked down from his abode to earth and saw human beings moaningwith terror, pursued by horrifying monsters and cruel, man-devouring giants.

Turning himself into a mortal, Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon swiftly descendedto earth and, taking a small girl by the hand, told the frightenedhumans to follow him.

By trails known only to him, he led the group of shivering refugeesto a cave at the mouth of a great river, where he fed them and told them to sleep.

After the people had somewhat recovered under his protection, Ta-ren-ya-wa-gonagain took the little girl by the hand and led them toward the rising sun.

The band traveled for many days until they came to the confluenceof two mighty rivers whose waters, white with spray, cascaded overtremendous rocks. There Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon halted and built a long-housefor himself and his people.

For years they lived there, content and growing fat, their childrenturning into strong men and handsome women. Then Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon,the Sky Upholder became mortal, gathered the people around him andspoke: "You, my children, must now spread out and become greatnations. I will make your numbers like the leaves of a forest insummertime, like pebbles on the shore of the great waters."

And again he took one little girl by the hand and walked towardthe setting sun, all the people following him.

After a long journey they came to the banks of a beautiful river.Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon separated a few families from the rest and toldthem to build a long-house at that spot and found a village. "Youshall be known by the name of Te-ha-wro-gah, Those-of-Divided-Speech,"he told them, and they grew into the Mohawk tribe.

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And from the moment he had named them, their language changed andthey could no longer understand the rest of the people.

To the Mohawks Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon gave corn, beans, squash, and tobacco,together with dogs to help them hunt game. He taught them how toplant and reap and pound corn into meal. He taught them the waysof the forest and the game, for in that long-ago time, people didnot yet know all these things.

When he had fully instructed them and given them the necessitiesof life, Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon again took one little girl by the handand traveled with the remaining people toward the sunset.

After a long journey they halted in a beautiful well-watered valleysurrounded by forests, and he commanded another group to build theirvillage at that spot. He gave them what was necessary for life,taught them what they needed to know, and named them Ne-ha-wre-ta-go,the Big-Tree people, for the great forests surrounding them.

And these people, who grew into the Oneida nation, also spoke atongue of their own as soon as he had named them.

Then once more Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon took a little girl's hand and wanderedon, always toward the setting sun, and the rest of the people followed him.

They came to a big mountain which he named O-nun-da-ga-o-no-ga.At its foot he commanded some more families to build a long-house,and he gave them the same gifts and taught them the same thingsthat he had the others. He named them after the mountain toweringabove them and also gave them a speech of their own. And these peoplebecame the Onondaga nation.

Again with a small girl at his side, Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon wanderedon, leading the people to the shores of a lake sparkling in thesun. The lake was called Go-yo-gah, and here still another groupbuilt their village, and they became the Cayugas.

Now only a handful of people were left, and these Ta-ren-ya-wa-gonled to a lake by a mountain called Ga-nun-da-gwa. There he settledthem, giving them the name of Te-ho-ne-noy-hent - Keepers of the Door.

They too received a language of their own and grew into the mighty Seneca nation.

There were some among the people who were not satisfied with theplaces appointed to them by the Upholder of Heavens. These wanderedon toward the setting sun until they came to a river greater thanall others, a river known as the Mississippi.

They crossed it on a wild grapevine that formed a bridge from bankto bank, and after the last of them had crossed over, the vine toreasunder. None could ever return, so that this river divided thewestern from the eastern human beings.

To each nation the Upholder of Heavens gave a special gift.

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To the Senecas he gave such swift feet that their hunters couldoutrun the deer.

To the Cayugas he gave the canoe and the skill to guide it throughthe most turbulent waters.

To the Onondagas he gave the knowledge of eternal laws and thegift to fathom the wishes of the Great Creator.

To the Oneidas he gave skills in making weapons and weaving baskets.

To the Mohawks he gave bows and arrows and the ability to guidethe shafts into the hearts of their game and their enemies.

Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon resolved to live among the people as a human being.Having the power to assume any shape, he chose to be a man and tookthe name of Hiawatha.

He chose to live among the Onondagas and took a beautiful youngwoman of that tribe for his wife. From their union came a daughter,Mni-haha, who surpassed even her mother in beauty and womanly skills.

Hiawatha never ceased to teach and advise, and above all he preachedpeace and harmony.

Under Hiawatha the Onondagas became the greatest of all tribes,but the other nations founded by the Great Upholder also increasedand prospered. Traveling in a magic birch-bark canoe of dazzlingwhiteness, which floated above waters and meadows as if on an invisiblebird's wings, Hiawatha went from nation to nation, counseling themand keeping man, animal, and nature in balance according to theeternal laws of the manitous. So all was well and the people lived happily.

But the law of the universe is also that happiness alternates withsorrow, life with death, prosperity with hardship, harmony with disharmony.

From out of the north beyond the Great Lakes came wild tribes,fierce, untutored nations who knew nothing of the eternal law; peoplewho did not plant or weave baskets or fire clay into cooking vessels.All they knew was how to prey on those who planted and reaped thefruits of their labor.

Fierce and pitiless, these strangers ate their meat raw, tearingit apart with their teeth. Warfare and killing were their occupation.

They burst upon Hiawatha's people like a flood, spreading devastationwherever they went. Again the people turned to Hiawatha for help.He advised all the nations to assemble and wait his coming.

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And so the five tribes came together at the place of the greatcouncil fire, by the shores of a large and tranquil lake where thewild men from the north had not yet penetrated.

The people waited for Hiawatha one day, two days, three days. Onthe fourth day his gleaming-white canoe appeared, floating, glidingabove the mists. Hiawatha sat in the stern guiding the mystery canoe,while in the bow was his only child, his daughter.

The sachems, elders, and wise men of the tribes stood at the water'sedge to greet the Great Upholder. Hiawatha and his daughter steppedashore. He greeted all he met as brothers and spoke to each in his own language.

Suddenly there came an awesome noise, a noise like the rushingof a hundred rivers, like the beating of a thousand giant wings. Fearfully the people looked upward.

Out of the clouds, circling lower and lower, flew the great mysterybird of the heavens, a hundred times as big as the largest eagles,and when ever he beat his wings he made the sound of a thousand thunderclaps.

While the people cowered, Hiawatha and daughter stood unmoved.Then the Great Upholder laid his hands upon his daughter's headin blessing, after which she said calmly, "Farewell, my father."

She seated herself between the wings of the mystery bird, who spiraledupwards and upwards into the clouds and at last disappeared in tothe great vault of the sky.

The people watched in awe, but Hiawatha, stunned with grief, sankto the ground and covered himself with the robe of a panther.

Three days he sat thus in silence, and none dared approach him.The people wondered whether he had given his only child to the manitousabove as a sacrifice for the deliverance of his people. But theGreat Upholder would never tell them, would never speak of his daughteror of the mystery bird who had carried her away.

After having mourned for three days, Hiawatha rose on the morningof the fourth and purified himself in the cold, clear waters ofthe lake. Then he asked the great council to assemble.

When the Sachems, elders, and wise men had seated themselves ina circle around the sacred fire, Hiawatha came before them and said:"What is past is past; it is the present and the future whichconcern us. My children, listen well, for these are my last wordsto you. My time among you is drawing to an end.

My children, war, fear, and disunity have brought you from yourvillages to this sacred council fire. Facing a common danger, andfearing for the lives of your families, you have yet drifted apart,each tribe thinking and acting only for itself. Remember how I tookyou from one small band and nursed you up into many nations. Youmust reunite now and act as one. No tribe alone can withstand oursavage enemies, who care nothing about the eternal law, who sweepupon us like the storms of winter, spreading death and destruction everywhere.

My children, listen well. Remember that you are brothers, thatthe downfall of one means the downfall of all. You must have onefire, one pipe, one war club."

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Hiawatha motioned to the five tribal firekeepers to unite theirfires with the big sacred council fire, and they did so. Then theGreat Upholder sprinkled sacred tobacco upon the glowing embersso that its sweet fragrance enveloped the wise men sitting in thecircle. He said: "Onondagas, you are a tribe of mighty warriors.Your strength is like that of a giant pine tree whose roots spreadfar and deep so that it can withstand any storm. Be you the protectors.You shall be the first nation.

Oneida, your men are famous for their wisdom. Be you the counselorsof the tribes. You shall be the second nation.

Senca, you are swift of foot and persuasive in speech. Your menare the greatest orators among the tribes. Be you the spokesmen.You shall be the third people. Cayuga, you are the most cunning.You are the most skilled in the building and managing of canoes.Be you the guardians of our rivers. You shall be the fourth nation.

Mohawk, you are foremost in planting corn and beans and in buildinglong-houses. Be you the nourishers.

You tribes must be like the five fingers of a warrior's hand joinedin gripping the war club. Unite as one, and then your enemies willrecoil before you back into the northern wastes from whence theycame. Let my words sink deep into your hearts and minds. Retirenow to take counsel among yourselves, and come to me tomorrow totell me whether you will follow my advice."

On the next morning the sachems and wise men of the five nationscame to Hiawatha with the promise that they would from that dayon be as one nation.

Hiawatha rejoiced. He gathered up the dazzling white feathers whichthe great mystery bird of the sky had dropped and gave the plumesto the leaders of the assembled tribes.

"By these feathers," he said, "you shall be knownas the Ako-no-shu-ne, the Iroquois."

Thus with the help of Hiawatha, the Great Unifier, the mighty Leagueof the Five Nations was born, and its tribes held sway undisturbedover all the land between the great river of the west and the greatsea of the east.

The elders begged Hiawatha to become the chief sachem of the unitedtribes, but he told them: "This can never be, because I mustleave you. Friends and brothers, choose the wisest women in yourtribes to be the future clan mothers and peacemakers, let them turnany strife arising among you into friendship. Let your sachems bewise enough to go to such women for advice when there are disputes.Now I have finished speaking. Farewell."

Note :
The finishing part of this legend was lost and destroyed in an accident,but was only a sentence or two more, literally. However, it is saidby many that Hiawatha died and was buried on the shores of that lake.

Return to Iroquois Legends


Hiawatha the Unifier - An Iroquois Legend.? ›

Hiawatha (Haion-Hwa-Tha / He-Who-Makes-Rivers) is thought to have been a statesman, lawgiver, shaman, and unifier who lived around 1570. According to some sources, he was born a Mohawk and sought refuge among the Onondaga when his own tribe at first rejected his teachings.

Was Hiawatha part of the Iroquois? ›

Hiawatha, (Ojibwa: “He Makes Rivers”), a legendary chief (c. 1450) of the Onondaga tribe of North American Indians, to whom Indian tradition attributes the formation of what became known as the Iroquois Confederacy. In his miraculous character, Hiawatha was the incarnation of human progress and civilization.

What is the true story of Hiawatha? ›

Hiawatha was a legendary Onondaga or Mohawk Chief who lived in the sixteenth century, before European colonialization of the Americas. He was also known as Ayenwathaaa and Aiionwatha. He co-founded the Iroquois Confederacy (Five Nations League), which comprised the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida Nations.

What is the theme of Hiawatha the unifier? ›

There are many things that are valued by Native Americans but from this story it can be concluded that the ideals are that when you work together as a whole you can accomplish much more. Hiawatha created the clans of people and then united them to create the Iroquois.

What Indian tribe was Hiawatha from? ›

Hiawatha was not another name for the Ojibwe trickster, but rather a 16th century Iroquois leader, renowned in his own right. The true Hiawatha, who aided peace and cooperation among the Iroquois tribes, has had his identity overshadowed by the renown of Longfellow's poem.

Who is a famous Iroquois? ›

Hiawatha was a skilled orator, and he was instrumental in persuading the Five Nations to accept the Great Peacemaker's vision and band together to become members of the Iroquois confederacy. The Tuscarora joined the Confederacy in 1722 to become the Sixth Nation. Little else is known of Hiawatha.

What is the Iroquois tribe known for? ›

Iroquois Society

The Iroquoi Tribes, also known as the Haudenosuanee, are known for many things. But they are best known for their longhouses. Each longhouse was home to many members of a Haudenosuanee family. The longhouse was the center of Iroquois life.

What does the word Hiawatha mean? ›

(fl. c. 1570), the name means “He Makes Rivers.” A member of the Mohawk tribe, he is credited with establishing the Five Nations League, an Iroquois confederacy comprising the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. His name was used for the hero of Longfellow's narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855).

What does the Hiawatha Belt symbolize? ›

The Hiawatha belt is one of the most recognized wampum. It symbolizes the agreement between the 5 original Haudenosaunee nations and their promise to support each other in unity.

What was the nickname of the Iroquois? ›

The Iroquois (pronounced /ˈɪrəkwɔɪ/), also known as the Haudenosaunee or the "People of the Longhouse", are a group of tribes of indigenous people of North America.

What was the nickname of the Iroquois? ›

The Iroquois (pronounced /ˈɪrəkwɔɪ/), also known as the Haudenosaunee or the "People of the Longhouse", are a group of tribes of indigenous people of North America.

What tribe were Simon and his family members the Hiawatha? ›

Although the legendary Hiawatha is usually cited as a member of the Mohawk tribe, some Iroquois traditions hold that he belonged to the Onondaga tribe. Given the uncertainty about his tribal affiliation, it has been suggested that the legendary Hiawatha is in fact a composite of several historical personages.

Where does the name Hiawatha come from? ›

The name Hiawatha is boy's name of Iroquoi origin meaning "he makes rivers". Journalist Hiawatha Bray is a singular contemporary bearer of this name of a Native-American leader immortalized in a Longfellow poem.

Who were the Peacemaker and Hiawatha? ›

The Great Law of Peace, credited largely to two visionary culture heroes, Hiawatha and Deganawida (a.k.a. “The Peacemaker”), established a model for federalism, separation of powers and participatory democracy that would inspire leaders like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison during the formation of the United States.


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