Hiawatha is an important figure in the precolonial history of the Haudenosaunee
most famously for uniting the Five Nations—Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk—into a political confederacy.
1722, the Tuscarora, a tribe from much farther south, joined the Confederacy
forming what we now know as the Six Nations.
Hiawatha takes place in the precolonial context of blood feuds, also known as mourning wars
From roughly the 15th to the early 17th century
various groups waged war on one another, often as a means of vengeance, in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence
A tradition of replacing fallen warriors with captives taken in battle was meant to help mourners deal with the deaths of their loved ones. Instead, it often prolonged the cycle, causing neighbouring nations to take their own captives to replace lost tribesmen.
War perpetuated famine because it drew on the food stores of the villages and prevented hunters from hunting for the meat necessary to survive the winter months. Many perished during this time because warriors held the honours of warfare above all else. It is from within this deadly and violent context that the story of Hiawatha emerges.
Hiawatha, an Onondaga warrior, whom, having lost not only his wife, but also his daughters, represented the inconsolable victim of the blood feuds.
describe Hiawatha as deeply depressed following the death of his family.
Atotarho, was a war chieftain of the Onondaga,
He is represented as the aggressor in the blood feuds.
All of those who wanted to speak out against him did not, for fear of fatal retribution.
Finally, there is Deganawida, or the Great Peacemaker, who was an outsider, traditionally seen as coming from the north, from the nation of the Wyandot or Huron people, to bring a message of peace to unite the Five Nations.
Her encouragement and approval of the Great Peacemaker's message of peace symbolizes the ritual of gaining consent of a council of women, or clan mothers, before major political actions were taken.
Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker are often attributed as the founders of the Ne Gaynesha'gowa / Kaianere’ko:wa (“Great Law of Peace”) or Iroquois League, as represented by the longhouse. Known as the “People of the Longhouse,”
the Haudenosaunee hold this symbol sacred. The longhouse describes not only the building within which they lived, but their way of life and internal political structure. Archaeological records place the founding of the League sometime in the late 1400s.
the Great Peacemaker, a prophet and chief, travelled south from his homeland to reside in the land of the Mohawk. It was here, following Hiawatha's self-exile after the death of his wife and daughters, that these two men met and shared their passions for ending the war and violence amongst the Haudenosaunee.
The Great Peacemaker’s message was to replace the blood feuds and mourning wars with peace.