DEGANAWIDA by Lucy Dupertuis
Far to the north lived the girl called "Her face is new, pure, and spotless." The last of her clan had died out; she had no other name. She and her mother lived in a tumble-down lodge outside their village, begging in order to stay alive. The girl was lovely, yet she was aloof to young men, and no visitors ever came by their home. Then one summer she found herself with child. The mother could not believe her daughter was innocent; she scolded and beat her until one night a luminous figure spoke to her in a dream. Her daughter's child was divine, he said, and had been miraculously conceived. They would call him Deganawida – and one day he would indirectly cause the ruin of the Huron people. She woke trembling with fear, and hurried to convince her daughter that the child must not be allowed to live.
In the dead of winter the baby was born. They took him to a frozen stream, chopped a hole in the ice, and pushed him through. But the next morning they woke to find him sleeping innocently between them. Twice more they tried to drown the child, and twice more he was returned to them. Perhaps the Master of Life wanted him to live.
When he grew to manhood, Deganawida had a vision: he saw a giant spruce tree whose topmost branches broke through the sky into pure light. Five great roots anchored it in the ground, and a luminous carpet white
The Master of Life once walked the earth and lived among men. When he left them, he promised to send an ambassador to help them again when evil became rampant and their need was great. Iroquois legend
as snow spread from its base over rocky hills in all directions. A guardian eagle was perched on top of the tree. This tree was the Sisterhood of Humanity. It would spring from the peaceful union of five Indian tribes and stretch upward to unite with the light of the Master of Life. Peace and light would spread out from this union until all peoples of the earth would be protected. Among the Hurons Deganawida would always be outcast. So after his vision, he traveled southward. searching for the land where his mission would he fulfilled. His face was handsome, his eyes knowing and serene; yet he stammered, and people lacked the patience to listen. He needed a spokesman.
At length Deganawida arrived in the land we now call New York State. Thick forest then blanketed the mountains and broad green valleys. The lakes were clear. At dusk silhouettes of bear and deer could be seen drinking at the water's edge. Evening was haunted by the cry of loons. Only the heart of man was out of balance, hardened against himself.
Here lived the Iroquois. or "Rattlesnake People." Deganawida learned that for years the different tribes had been locked into blood-feuds with one another; in the game of revenge, only murder could pay for murder. The neighboring Algonquin nations had seen the confusion and declared war.
A few Iroquois elders had understood that their na-
tion was on the brink of ruin. Some prayed to the Master of Life. Others prophesied His return. One man, a reknowned orator called Hiawatha, gathered many chiefs together at a great council to discuss a way to end the feuds. But when the council met, strange sorcerers suddenly broke into the longhouse and ran whooping among the elders, knocking them down and chilling their hearts with vile threats. The chiefs scattered into the wilderness, and Hiawatha returned home to find one of his daughters murdered.
Only the tyrant Tadodaho could have devised such cruelty. His power thrived on the feuds. He ruled through a secret network of spies and sorcerers. When Hiawatha's second peace council met, Tadodaho's men broke it up even more violently and murdered another of his daughters. Months later, on the day planned for a third council, not a single chief dared appear. Instead, Tadodaho strutted boasting among the people. His men found Hiawatha's one remaining daughter and knocked her to the ground. She was pregnant, and died from the fall.
Hiawatha was defeated. He decided to flee, and to return only when he had found a way to help his people. Just outside the village, by a spring, he passed Tadodaho sitting motionless, eyeing him with a mocking stare.
Sometimes despairing, sometimes praying, always searching, Hiawatha wandered in the mountains, floated down rivers in a bark canoe, paddled across broad lakes. He became strange and morose. Half- starving, he became weak and feverish, but within him something nagged and would not give up. Finally he settled in an abandoned lodge and waited, knowing neither for what nor for whom.
Deganawida heard Hiawatha's story and was deeply moved. He was drawn to the area where the hermit lived, and though people reminded him that Hiawatha was a recluse and an exile, Deganawida decided to visit him.
One day while Hiawatha was away, Deganawida climbed stealthily on top of his but and waited. A few hours later Hiawatha returned with food for his dinner. Deganawida watched through the smoke-hole in the roof as Hiawatha cut up the food and stirred the pieces into a large kettle. Suddenly Hiawatha noticed Deganawida's face mirrored in the stew-water, calmly watching him. He jumped up and suspiciously looked around. No one was there. He peered up through the smoke-hole. No one was there either. Deganawida had drawn his face back and was rocking in silent laughter on the roof.
Hiawatha returned to his stew and saw the face again. It was a beautiful face, calm and knowing. Hiawatha contemplated its beauty and became absorbed.
That night, Hiawatha went hunting. On the way back to his hut, Deganawida met him. Hiawatha recognized that face. In Deganawida he sensed the same mysterious calm which settles over the earth at dusk; from him radiated a warmth like the sunlight of early spring which gently dries soggy leaves just after the snow has melted. Hiawatha knew instantly that Deganawida was his guide.
Deganawida described his vision of the Sisterhood of Humanity. The great spruce tree would be nourished by fertile soil: family communities centered in clarity and peace, righteousness and justice, and "orenda," the subtle spiritual energy which pervades all beings. The prophet's words seemed, to Hiawatha, to be coming from deep within his own heart. Something inside him had opened; he was in perfect peace. Only this serenity, he realized, experienced by every soul, could show the Iroquois people how to live in peace.
By canoe and on foot along forest trails, Deganawida and his new disciple were soon traveling among the five tribes of the Iroquois, preaching their plan for
peace. Rivalry between the feuding tribes was bitter, but Hiawatha the orator now spoke with Deganawida's spiritual power. Hatred melted; the people understood. The Oneida tribe, or "Standing Stone People," and the Mohawks, or "Flint People," agreed to help establish a League of Iroquois tribes. The neighboring Senecas and Cayugas also decided to participate. But while the tyrant Tadodaho still controlled the Onondagas, the most powerful of all the tribes, the League had no chance. Deganawida told Hiawatha that he must learn to love even those he might have feared and hated most; the time had come to confront Tadodaho directly.
The tyrant is said to have looked like a monster, twisted in mind and body, with thoughts so evil they grew out of his head as snakes. Deganawida and Hiawatha approached him lovingly, singing. With haughtiest contempt Tadodaho had watched Hiawatha slinking off into the forest after the murder of his last daughter. Now Hiawatha's gentle beauty overwhelmed him. As Hiawatha and Deganawida sang, Tadodaho slowly forgot everything else. Gradually his body was restored to normal human form. Then Hiawatha combed out the snakes dangling from his head. When the evil thoughts were cleared from his mind, Tadodaho became human once again.
Deganawida proposed that the Onondagas be "Keepers of the Fire" in the new Iroquois League. They would moderate in council debates, and after each issue had been discussed by two bodies of representatives, they would ratify the final decision. Tadodaho felt honored, and agreed. He sent runners to every Iroquois tribe to summon representatives for the first council.
The council convened around the fire in a large bark longhouse. Deganawida rose and spoke: "We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each others' hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it." He advised the representatives to carry no anger and to hold no grudges. They must not be warriors, but should have skins "seven thumbs thick," that others' opinions and gossip might not affect the clarity of their minds. "Do not think of yourselves, but act to serve others, and to be in harmony with one another." Under the great spruce tree people would bury their differences, and in its shadow they would never again walk in fear, but would dwell together in peace and tranquility.
Silence fell. One by one, the representatives from the Mohawks and Senecas, sitting to the east of the fire, then the Oneidas and Cayugas, west of the fire, nodded their agreement. Last of all the Onondagas, and finally Tadodaho bowed his head. The League was formed. The prophet spoke again. "I, Deganawida, and the confederate lords, now uproot the tallest pine tree and into the depth of the earth, down into the deep underearth currents of water flowing into unknown regions, we cast all weapons of war. We bury them from sight forever and plant again the Tree."
The League of the Iroquois was to last intact for over three hundred years. The white carpet of peace would in time spread to most other Indian nations east of the Mississippi. Then pale strangers from across the sea would appear and pull the Indians into their own wars, setting sister nations against each other. The carpet would be stained and torn and, as Deganawida's grandmother had dreamed, the Iroquois and the British would ruin the Huron nation.
Some of these pale strangers would also utilize what Iroquois chiefs had taught them. To unite their thirteen small colonies under one government, Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues would write a constitution inspired by the Iroquoian model. Representatives from each colony would be organized into two decision- making bodies, with an executive moderator.
A hundred years later, the German philosophers Marx and Engels would weave anthropologists' romanticized accounts of the Iroquois Sisterhood into an ideology which would spread over half the world. But though both the United States and the Communist bloc would use Deganawida's ideas to achieve harmony in their own camps, they would forget the essence of his teaching, become rivals, and plan hideous ways to make war on one another. Neither side (nor even the 20th century Iroquois) would know true peace until Deganawida's prophecy would be fulfilled:
"The Iroquois will face a time of great suffering. But a great message will come to them and make them ever so humble, and, when they become that humble, they will be waiting for a young leader, an Indian boy, possibly in his teens, who will be a choice seer. Nobody knows who he is, but he will be given great power, and will be heard by thousands, and he will be the accepted leader … A light many times brighter than the sun will be coming from the east to the west. I will be that light."
When Deganawida finished speaking, he blessed the people and turned to climb into a snow-white bark canoe. They watched him for the last time paddle away across the water of Lake Onondaga, into the most brilliant sunset they had ever seen.