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WHO WOULD think that researching the Watkins Glen race circuit would lead to the Iroquois Confederacy and a debunking of a Longfellow poem? And what about the Hiawatha Belt? Benjamin Franklin’s approval? Not to mention today’s skyscraper ironworkers.
This is a tale of the Haudenosaunee, five Native American nations cooperating from the 13th or 14th century in what is now New York and northern Pennsylvania. Principal among them was the prophet Deganawida who earned the title Great Peacemaker by bringing together warring tribes. The Great Peacemaker was aided in his efforts by Jigonhsasee, a Native American woman whose hearth became something of a United Nations of the time, and by Hiawatha, a follower known for his eloquence.
The Native American nations, in order of their consolidation, were the Onondaga (“People of the Hills, Keepers of the Fire”) and Oneida (“People of the Standing Stone”), the Mohawk (“Keepers of the Eastern Door”), the Cayuga (“People of the Great Swamp”) and the Seneca (“People of the Great Hill, Keepers of the Western Door”). Much later, in 1772, the Tuscarora (“The Shirt-Wearing People”) joined in making it a confederation of six nations.
The time of the original formation is unknown, but there’s a tantalizing clue of an eclipse. Astronomical and archeological evidence suggests 1451 AD as a likely year for the Mohawk’s joining the confederation.
According to oral tradition, the Mohawks were a particularly tough sell for the Great Peacemaker’s message. Demonstrating his spiritual power, he climbed a tall tree near what is now Cohoes Falls, N.Y., had it chopped down and tossed into the nearby Mohawk River.
The Mohawks thought that the Great Peacemaker perished in the rapids. Yet the next morning they found him sitting at the campfire, and they joined the confederation. Legend has it that a Tree of Peace was planted, with war hatchets buried at the site.
The Haudenosaunee entry at the National Museum of the American Indian website has a Guide for Educators noting that its confederacy is the oldest governmental institution in North America still maintaining its original form.
Benjamin Franklin was aware of the confederacy. In arguing for the U.S. colonies’ union, he wrote, “It would be strange if [the Haudenosaunee] could execute a union that persisted ages and appears indissoluble, yet a like union is impractical for twelve colonies to whom it is more necessary and advantageous.”
There’s another link with U.S. Founding Fathers. The Great Peacemaker contrasted fragility of a single arrow with the strength of five arrows tied together. In designing the Great Seal of a fledgling nation in 1782, Francis Hopkinson suggested a bundle of arrows in the eagle’s left talon, 13 chosen to represent the 13 colonies.
American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow chose the name Hiawatha for The Song of Hiawatha, his 22-chapter epic composed in 1855. From chapter IX and oft-recited back when kids memorized such stuff: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee/Of the shining Big-Sea-Water/Stood Nokomis….”
Don’t take The Song of Hiawatha too seriously, though. Longfellow based his Native American lore on the writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an ethnographer and U.S. Indian agent. With due respect to these 19th-century personages, the poem’s Hiawatha is comparable to a Washington Redskin or a Cleveland Indian.
By contrast, the Hiawatha Belt is revered by the Haudenosaunee. This wampum belt consists of 6574 beads, 38 rows by 173 columns. Its design uses 5682 purple beads showing the universe and 892 white ones representing purity of the confederacy’s five nations.
The Hiawatha Belt dates from the mid-1700s. One of its beads has been identified as being of colonial leaded glass. The belt’s central tree represents the Onondaga, home of the council fire. Its leftmost square is the Seneca nation, the western door. Then the Cayuga and, on the other side of the Onondaga tree, the Oneida followed by the Mohawk, the eastern door.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy flag, created in the 1980s, displays the same symbolism. It also appears as one of the reverse images on the Sacagawea dollar. In 2010, the Haudenosaunee Nation had a population of around 45,000 in Canada and 80,000 in the U.S.
The first Haudenosaunee “skywalkers” helped in building a bridge high over the St. Lawrence River in 1886. By 1916, Native American ironworkers were working on New York City’s Hell Gate Bridge. Since then, Haudenosaunee men have specialized in high-steel fabrication on such projects as the George Washington Bridge, 1927 – 1931, Empire State Building, 1930 – 1931, and rebuilding the World Trade Center, completed in 2014, the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere and sixth-tallest in the world.
Having demonstrated his spiritualty in a tall tree in Cohoes Falls, the Great Peacemaker would approve. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016