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FROM THE Heritage Minutes COLLECTION
A part of our heritage...
Centuries ago, the Iroquois nations found a way to establish peace and unity among themselves. Even today, they rediscover the source of their peace in the story of Peacemaker. It is said that somewhere in "the land of the crooked tongues," the region that is now eastern Ontario, an old woman had a dream that a messenger from the Great Spirit was standing before her.
"Your daughter will bear a child," said the messenger. "And when this child has grown to manhood he will leave home and become the Peacemaker among the nations." When the child, whose name was Tekanawite, was a young boy he received a vision of the Good Message of Peace, and he knew the mission of his life. He grew to be a strong and handsome man, honest and straightforward, but his people held him in low respect because he valued peace rather than war.
One day Tekanawite called his grandmother and mother to him and spoke to them.
"I shall now build my canoe," said Tekanawite, "for the time has come for me to stop the shedding of blood among the people." Tekanawite did not fashion a birch bark canoe, but carved it from solid stone.
He called his grandmother and mother to the shore, and told them, "This stone canoe will float, and this shall be a sign that my words are true." It is said that when Tekanawite took his place in the stone canoe, it began to move, without the help of a paddle, out onto Sganyadaií-yo, the Beautiful Great Lake now called Lake Ontario, and then turned south toward the land of the People of the Longhouse.
In those days, the people lived in constant conflict. The five Iroquois nations, which are known as the Mohawk, the Onondaga, the Oneida, the Cayuga, and the Seneca, had become entrapped by unceasing warfare brought on by their chiefs.
The pattern was the same in every settlement. The young men were glorified for their bravery and fighting strength, winning praise and admiration for their feats of daring, and for the spoils they brought back from their raiding parties. Such activity, however, generated a perpetual cycle of bloodshed, revenge and hatred between the settlements. Fear and mistrust clouded people's minds. It was a time of great anxiety and suffering.
It is said that when the warfare between the people of the five nations was most intense, Tekanawite appeared in one settlement after another, bearing the message of the Longhouse, the Good Message of Great Peace, and the Power of the Good Mind.
"Let the people love one another," Tekanawite would say. "We are all children of the great Spirit. We are brothers and sisters. Forego and forget your revenge. Let us live in peace." The people listened and were impressed, for in their hearts they were tired of the bloodshed. They longed to tend their crops of maize and melons without the menace of raiders from the forest. And so they welcomed the proposal of Tekanawite that there should be a permanent alliance between the nations.
Of course there was opposition to Tekanawite's message of peace. There were those who had become so accustomed to the life of the warrior that they could not imagine life without warfare. One such hold-out was old Atotárho, a sorceror of the Onondagas.
It is said that Atotárho had a twisted body that matched his twisted mind, and that his hair was a mess of tangled snakes. People were afraid to look at him, and the sound of his voice carried terror throughout the land.
Ai:ionwatha was a Mohawk living among the Onondagas. He had grown weary of the bitter strife among the people, and had tried to set up a peace council. This attempt, however, brought him into direct conflict with Atotárho, who used witchcraft to kill Ai:ionwatha's three daughters, and political pressure to drive Ai:ionwatha from the Onondaga community.
An outcast and a wanderer, Ai:ionwatha lived alone in the forest without human company. One day, while sitting on the bank of a small river, weeping over his mourning beads, Ai:ionwatha looked up to see Tekanawite.
"My brother," said Tekanawite, "I see you are suffering some deep grief. You are a chief among your people, and yet you are homeless." When Ai:ionwatha had recounted his sad story, Tekanawite began his mission of peace among the Iroquois people by healing Ai:ionwatha's grief. The Peacemaker's bitter-sweet condolence dried the tears from Ai:ionwatha's eyes, cleared his ears, and opened his breathing. Ai:ionwatha's grief left him.
"Now let reason return," said Tekanawite. "Join me now to bring a new understanding among the people of the five nations." Thereafter the two men travelled together, carrying the Good Message of the Great Peace to the Iroquois nations. The Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Cayugas and the Senecas received the message and joined together in a Confederacy. The Onondagas, too, joined the Confederacy, but the powerful sorcerer, Atotárho, refused.
"We must seek the fire of Atotárho," said Tekanawite. "He alone stands across our path. His mind is twisted and there are seven crooks in his body. These must be straightened if the Confederacy is to survive." "You and I must visit the Great Wizard. I shall sing the Peace Song and you shall explain the Words of the Law. Then you will comb the snakes from his hair and I will straighten the crooks from his body." "What are these foolish words?" screamed Atotárho, as Tekanawite and Ai:ionwatha stood before him, chanting their songs of peace and speaking the words of the great Law of the Longhouse.
"We bring a new understanding," said Tekanawite. "Our words tell of a new life for the people. Our words are for those who wish to raise their families in peace and harmony. There shall be order when the people desire justice, health when they obey reason, and power when they accept the Great Law of the Longhouse." "And what is that to me?" asked Atotárho.
"You, Atotháro," replied Tekanawite, "shall be the Fire Keeper of the League of Five Nations. You shall tend the Council Fire, the fire that never dies. And the smoke of that fire shall reach the sky and be seen by all the people." Then Ai:ionwatha combed the snakes from Atotárho's hair, fulfilling his name, "He Combs the Hair." Tekanawite laid his hand on Atotárho and straightened the crooks from his twisted body.
"You, Atotárho," announced Tekanawite, "will preside over the Great Council, and strive in all ways to make reason and peace prevail. Your voice shall be the voice of the Great Law." And as Tekanawite spoke these words, the mind of Atotárho was made straight and clean.
As a symbol of the League of the Five Nations, Tekanawite chose the pine tree. Under the tree was a great hole filled with rushing water. Into this hole the warriors flung their hatchets and war-clubs. Then they raised the fallen tree together, planting it firmly in the land of the Onondagas, the place of the Great Council Fire.
Under the shade of the Tree of Peace sat Atotárho and other Onondaga chiefs, caretakers of the Great Peace. The tree had long roots spreading north, east, south and west. If any nation wished to join the League, it could follow the roots to the source and take shelter under the tree's shade. Atop the tree, Tekanawite placed the Eagle-that-sees-far to watch and scream a warning at the approach of danger.
"We bind ourselves together," said Tekanawite, "by taking hold of each other's hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break, so that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle in peace, security and happiness." The Iroquois people trace their great Confederacy back more than 1,500 years. In 1713 the five nations were joined by the Tuscaroras to create the League of the Six Nations, the Confederacy that has lasted down to the present day. The Great Peace was accepted across North America by all of the native nations.
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