Deganawida was instrumental in founding the League of the Iroquois.
Deganawida is best known as the great leader who, with Hiawatha, founded the League of the Iroquois. Although the story of Deganawida's life is based primarily on legend, all accounts of the league's formation credit Deganawida for his efforts. In addition to his persuasive vision of unified Iroquois tribes, Deganawida was instrumental in defining and establishing the structure and code of the Iroquois league.
It is believed that Deganawida was born around the 1550s in the Kingston, Ontario, area and was one of seven brothers born to Huron parents. According to legend, Deganawida's birth was marked by a vision his mother had that her newborn son would be indirectly responsible for the destruction of the Hurons. She, along with Deganawida's grandmother, tried to protect the Hurons by attempting three times to drown him in a river. Each morning after the attempts, Deganawida was found unharmed in his mother's arms. After the third unsuccessful attempt, Deganawida's mother resigned herself to her son's existence.
When Deganawida was grown, he journeyed south to carry out his mission of peace among the Iroquois. He met Hiawatha (not the Hiawatha of Longfellow's poem), a Mohawk, who joined him in his efforts to create an alliance of the Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Senacas, and Mohawks. Deganawida acted as the visionary and, because Deganawida had a speech impediment, Hiawatha served as his spokesman. Deganawida's message to the Iroquois was that all men are brothers; therefore, they should cease their practices of killing, scalping, and cannibalism. Together, Deganawida and Hiawatha convinced the five tribes to make peace and join together in an alliance of friendship, rather than persist with their attempts to destroy each other. The powerful Onondaga chief, Thadodaho (also known as Atotarho, Adario), who initially had been strongly opposed to the union of the five tribes, marked the beginning of the alliance when he made the decision to join. Deganawida also tried, without success, to encourage the Erie and neutral tribes to join the alliance. Their refusal resulted in their eventual dispersal by the Iroquois in the 1650s. Deganawida's effort to persuade them to join may have been prompted by their friendly disposition toward the Hurons, unlike the other Iroquois. Sometime after Deganawida's death, his mother's earlier vision was realized when the Huron nation was destroyed by the Iroquois.
The alliance of the five tribes was referred to as the League of the Iroquois (also known as The Iroquois Five Nation Confederacy; after the Tuscaroras joined in the early eighteenth century, it was known as the Six Nations). The exact date of the founding of the league is unknown. The purposes of the league were to bring peace, to build strength, and to create goodwill among the five nations in order for them to become invulnerable to attack from external enemies and to division from within. The code of the league summarized the intent of Deganawida and the confederate chiefs to establish "The Great Peace." Out of this code was created the Pine Tree Chiefs. Deganawida served as one of those chiefs, who were chosen by merit rather than by heredity.
A grand council of all the chiefs of the five tribes gathered at Onondaga, the most centrally located of the five tribes, to establish the laws and customs of the league. Each tribe had an equal voice in the council despite the fact that the number of chiefs representing each tribe varied. As the council developed over the years, it became immersed in matters of diplomacy, including war and peace, associations with other tribes, and treaties with the European settlers on their borders. Deganawida is credited with the development of the advanced political system of the league, which was primarily democratic and also allowed women a major role. Many of the principles, laws, and regulations of the league are attributed to Deganawida.
By 1677, the league had developed into the most powerful of all the North American Indian confederations and consisted of approximately 16,000 people. The successful union begun by Deganawida flourished into the nineteenth century. After its peak of influence, the league began its collapse as a result of many contributing factors, including the influence of outsiders, the supply of trade goods, the control of military posts, the old covenants with the whites, the rivalry between warriors and chiefs, and structural weaknesses. However, the league owed the several centuries of influence it enjoyed to the prominent leadership of Deganawida, as evidenced by his astuteness in negotiations and by his wisdom in framing the laws and principles that served as the basis for the entire structure of the league.
Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977; 71-72.
Graymont, Barbara, The Iroquois in the American Revolution, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1972; 14, 47, 128, 296.
Handbook of American Indians, edited by Frederick Webb Hodge, New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 1971; 383-384.
Leitch, Barbara A., Chronology of the American Indian, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, Scholarly Press, Inc., 1975; 82.
Tooker, Elisabeth, "The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Rituals," in Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant, Smithsonian Institution, 1978; 422-424.
Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, New York, Facts on File, 1990; 96-97.
Wallace, Anthony F. C., The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, New York, Knopf, 1969; 42, 44, 97-98.