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. His efforts to unite the Iroquois tribes were opposed by a formidable chieftain, Wathatotarho, whom he eventually defeated and who killed Hiawatha’s daughter in revenge.
But this is the legend:
The slumber of Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon, Upholder of Heavens, was disturbed by a great cry of anguish and woe. He looked down from his abode to earth and saw human beings moaning with terror, pursued by horrifying monsters and cruel, man-devouring giants.
Turning himself into a mortal, Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon swiftly descended to earth and, taking a small girl by the hand, told the frightened humans to follow him. By trails known only to him, he led the group of shivering refugees to 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-gon again 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 confluence of two mighty rivers whose waters, white with spray, cascaded over tremendous rocks. There Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon halted and built a longhouse for himself and his people.
For years they lived there, content and growing fat, their children turning into strong men and handsome women. Then Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon, the Sky Upholder became mortal, gathered the people around him and spoke:
“You, my children, must now spread out and become great nations. I will make your numbers like the leaves of a forest in summertime, like pebbles on the shore of the great waters.” And again he took one little girl by the hand and walked toward the 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 told them to build a longhouse at that spot and found a village. “You shall be known by the name of Te-ha-wro-gah, Those-of-Divided-Speech,” he told them, and they grew into the Mohawk tribe. And from the moment he had named them, their language changed and they 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 to plant and reap and pound corn into meal. He taught them the ways of the forest and the game, for in that long-ago time, people did not yet know all these things. When he had fully instructed them and given them the necessities of life, Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon again took one little girl by the hand and traveled with the remaining people toward the sunset.
After a long journey they halted in a beautiful well-watered valley surrounded by forests, and he commanded another group to build their village 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 a tongue 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 wandered on, 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 longhouse, and he gave them the same gifts and taught them the same things that he had the others. He named them after the mountain towering above them and also gave them a speech of their own. And these people became the Onondaga nation.
Again with a small girl at his side, Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon wandered on, leading the people to the shores of a lake sparkling in the sun. The lake was called Go-yo-gah, and here still another group built their village, and they became the Cayugas.
Now only a handful of people were left, and these Ta-ren-ya-wa-gon led to a lake by a mountain called Ga-nun-da-gwa. There he settled them, 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 the places appointed to them by the Upholder of Heavens. These wandered on toward the setting sun until they came to a river greater than all others, a river known as the Mississippi. They crossed it on a wild grapevine that formed a bridge from bank to bank, and after the last of them had crossed over, the vine tore asunder. None could ever return, so that this river divided the western from the eastern human beings.
To each nation the Upholder of Heavens gave a special gift.
To the Senecas he gave such swift feet that their hunters could outrun the deer.
To the Cayugas he gave the canoe and the skill to guide it through the most turbulent waters.
To the Onondagas he gave the knowledge of eternal laws and the gift 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 guide the 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 took the name of Hiawatha. He chose to live among the Onondagas and took a beautiful young woman 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 preached peace and harmony.
Under Hiawatha the Onondagas became the greatest of all tribes, but the other nations founded by the Great Upholder also increased and prospered. Traveling in a magic birch bark canoe of dazzling whiteness, which floated above waters and meadows as if on an invisible bird’s wings, Hiawatha went from nation to nation, counseling them and keeping man, animal, and nature in balance according to the eternal laws of the Manitou’s. So all was well and the people lived happily.
But the law of the universe is also that happiness alternates with sorrow, 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; people who 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 the fruits of their labor. Fierce and pitiless, these strangers ate their meat raw, tearing it apart with their teeth. Warfare and killing were their occupation. They burst upon Hiawatha’s people like a flood, spreading devastation wherever they went. Again the people turned to Hiawatha for help. He advised all the nations to assemble and wait his coming.
And so the five tribes came together at the place of the great council fire, by the shores of a large and tranquil lake where the wild men from the north had not yet penetrated. The people waited for Hiawatha one day, two days, three days. On the fourth day his gleaming-white canoe appeared, floating, gliding above 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’s edge to greet the Great Upholder. Hiawatha and his daughter stepped ashore. 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 rushing of 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 mystery bird 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 head in blessing, after which she said calmly, “Farewell, my father.” She seated herself between the wings of the mystery bird, who spiraled upwards and upwards into the clouds and at last disappeared in to the great vault of the sky.
The people watched in awe, but Hiawatha, stunned with grief, sank to 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 Manitou’s above as a sacrifice for the deliverance of his people. But the Great Upholder would never tell them, would never speak of his daughter or of the mystery bird who had carried her away.
After having mourned for three days, Hiawatha rose on the morning of the fourth and purified himself in the cold, clear waters of the lake. Then he asked the great council to assemble.
When the Sachems, elders, and wise men had seated themselves in a circle around the sacred fire, Hiawatha came before them and said:
“What is past is past; it is the present and the future which concern us. My children, listen well, for these are my last words to you. My time among you is drawing to an end. My children, war, fear, and disunity have brought you from your villages to this sacred council fire. Facing a common danger, and fearing for the lives of your families, you have yet drifted apart, each tribe thinking and acting only for itself. Remember how I took you from one small band and nursed you up into many nations. You must reunite now and act as one. No tribe alone can withstand our savage enemies, who care nothing about the eternal law, who sweep upon us like the storms of winter, spreading death and destruction everywhere. My children, listen well. Remember that you are brothers, that the downfall of one means the downfall of all. You must have one fire, one pipe, one war club.”
Hiawatha motioned to the five tribal fire keepers to unite their fires with the big sacred council fire, and they did so. Then the Great Upholder sprinkled sacred tobacco upon the glowing embers so that its sweet fragrance enveloped the wise men sitting in the circle. He said:
“Onondagas, you are a tribe of mighty warriors. Your strength is like that of a giant pine tree whose roots spread far 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 counselors of the tribes. You shall be the second nation. Seneca, you are swift of foot and persuasive in speech. Your men are 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 building longhouses. Be you the nourishers. You tribes must be like the five fingers of a warrior’s hand joined in gripping the war club. Unite as one, and then your enemies will recoil before you back into the northern wastes from whence they came. Let my words sink deep into your hearts and minds. Retire now to take counsel among yourselves, and come to me tomorrow to tell me whether you will follow my advice.”
On the next morning the sachems and wise men of the five nations came to Hiawatha with the promise that they would from that day on be as one nation. Hiawatha rejoiced. He gathered up the dazzling white feathers which the great mystery bird of the sky had dropped and gave the plumes to the leaders of the assembled tribes. “By these feathers,” he said, “you shall be known as the Ako-no-shu-ne, the Iroquois.”
Thus with the help of Hiawatha, the Great Unifier, the mighty League of the Five Nations was born, and its tribes held sway undisturbed over all the land between the great river of the west and the great sea of the east.
The elders begged Hiawatha to become the chief sachem of the united tribes, but he told them:
“This can never be, because I must leave you. Friends and brothers, choose the wisest women in your tribes to be the future clan mothers and peacemakers, let them turn any strife arising among you into friendship. Let your sachems be wise enough to go to such women for advice when there are disputes. Now I have finished speaking. Farewell.”
At that moment there came to those assembled a sweet sound like the rush of rustling leaves and the song of innumerable birds. Hiawatha stepped into his white mystery canoe, and instead of gliding away on the waters of the lake, it rose slowly into the sky and disappeared into the clouds. Hiawatha was gone, but his teaching survives in the hearts of the people.