The Native American honored as a leader of the Iroquois nation in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" is not an actual person, although Hiawatha (c. 1400) has entered American legend as such. Although the legendary Hiawatha is usually cited as a member of the Mohawk tribe, some Iroquois traditions hold that he belonged to the Onondaga tribe. Given the uncertainty about his tribal affiliation, it has been suggested that the legendary Hiawatha is in fact a composite of several historical personages. The founding of the confederacy and the time of Hiawatha have been assigned to sometime between the late 14th to the early 17th century.

Legend of the Iroquois Confederacy

The Mohawk people once inhabited what is now New York state. They were a fierce, warlike tribe whose members frequently sought to subdue neighboring tribes by attacking them. According to a traditional Iroquois legend recounted in Arthur C. Parker's Seneca Myths and Folk Tales, sometime after 1390 a Mohawk chief named Dekanawida recognized the hopelessness of his tribe's constant aggressions toward their neighbors. When his tribal council gathered Dekanawida spoke out against these incessant battles, pointing out that all the Mohawk warriors would eventually lose their lives if such warfare continued. Eventually frustrated by the council's lack of response to his request, Dekanawida left his tribe and journeyed to the west to escape the fighting. Reaching the shore of a lake, he paused to rest.

As he reflected, Dekanawida heard the paddling of a canoe in the lake. Looking up, he saw a man fishing for periwinkle shells by dipping his basket into the shallow water of the lake. Paddling to shore with a canoe full of quahog or round clam shells, the canoeist built a fire and proceeded to shape the shells into wampum beads. Varying in color from white to purple, these half-inch-long wampum bead were strung in patterns on elm fiber or sinew thongs and worn as belts. As he finished each belt, the canoeist touched the shells and spoke.

After the man had made the last of his wampum belts, Dekanawida announced his own presence, and the canoeist introduced himself as Hiawatha. Dekanawida asked Hiawatha about the wampum belts, and the canoeist explained that they represented the rules of life and good government. The white shells signify truth, peace, and good will, he explained, while the black shells stand for hatred, war, and an evil heart. Hiawatha went on to explain that the string in which black shells alternate with white indicates that peace should exist between tribes, while the string with white on the end and black in the middle means that wars must end and peace should be declared.

Dekanawida recognized the wisdom in Hiawatha's philosophy and thought his Mohawk kinsmen could benefit from it. Tribes speaking the same language should stop fighting each other, he realized, and instead unite against their common enemies. Hiawatha explained to Dekanawida that he had tried to share his philosophy with Chief Tadadaho of the Onondaga tribe, but that Tadadaho had forced him to leave. That was why he now professed his laws in seclusion, at the lake where Dekanawida now found him. The bands of wampum he created would one day serve to remind future generations of Hiawatha's laws and their meaning.

Dekanawida asked Hiawatha to return with him to his Mohawk village, and the two traveled east. After reaching his village, Dekanawida called a tribal council to listen to Hiawatha. The Mohawks were impressed with Hiawatha's philosophy and readily agreed to live by them. Dekanawida and Hiawatha next traveled to the neighboring Oneida and Cayuga tribes, and they too agreed to be bound by Hiawatha's guiding rules. Finally the two men journeyed to the Onadaga and confronted Chief Tadadaho. Upon learning that three of the Iroquois nations had already agreed to abide by Hiawatha's philosophy Tadadaho fled into the woods. Although the evil spirits possessing Tadadaho hung from his head as serpents, Dekanawida and Hiawatha bravely followed. Hiawatha assured Tadadaho he would be allowed to be the head chief of the Iroquois Confederacy if he promised to govern in accord with their philosophy of peace, at which Tadadaho relented and joined the confederacy. Dekanawida and Hiawatha also visited the Seneca and other tribes to the west, but only the Seneca agreed to join the Iroquois Confederacy.

Iroquois Longhouse

Dekanawida built the Iroquois Confederacy's Longhouse at Albany, New York, at the mouth of a stream emptying into the Hudson River. The longhouse is symbolic of the political structure of the confederacy. A long, narrow dwelling of over 10 feet wide and up to 250 feet long, it housed many families. At both ends were doors, while shelves for sleeping or storage ran along each side. Families in the longhouse lived in segmented units, and adjoining families shared a fire in the center aisle. Each nation in the confederacy was represented symbolically: the Mohawks, who lived furthest to the east, were portrayed as keepers of the eastern door; the Seneca, who lived to the west, kept the western door; the Onondaga, who lived in the middle, became the keepers of the central meeting fire. As keepers of the longhouse doors, the Seneca and Mohawk were expected to watch for potential danger on their fronts.

Dekanawida was given the honorary title "Pine Tree" because, according to tradition, he had a dream in which an evergreen tree grew so tall that it reached the heavens. The five supporting roots of the tree represented the five members of the confederacy. Another tradition holds that when the confederacy was founded a pine tree was uprooted and tomahawks, bows and arrows, armor, shields, and clubs were thrown into the hole where it had stood. In honor of Pine Tree, an Iroquois warrior who demonstrated particular courage became a member of the Pine Tree Society.

The Historical Confederacy

Also known as the League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, the Iroquois Confederacy was composed of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, and the Cayuga tribes. Scholars trace its origins to sometime between 1400 and 1600, when the tribes came together primarily as a means of preserving peace. The Confederacy consisted of a grand council of chiefs or sachems made up 9 Mohawk chiefs, 8 Oneida chiefs, 14 Onondaga chiefs, 10 Cayuga chiefs, and 8 Seneca chiefs; the Tuscarora nation, which would not join the confederacy until 1717, would be represented by the Oneida. All decisions were required to be unanimous, and if a unanimous decision could not be reached nations were allowed to act on their own. The confederacy existed only to mediate disputes among tribes, not within them. It had no police powers, so could not enforce its decisions, and had no power to tax its members. The position of chief was hereditary, with appointments made for life by the women in the matriarchal Iroquois society. If the chief performed less than satisfactorily, the individual was given three chances to reform before being removed from office.

The Confederacy's Great Law set out rules for settling blood feuds. Setting the value of a human life at ten strings of wampum, the confederacy compensated a bereaved family in the case of murder with the price of its lost member as well as the price for the murderer, who was required to forfeit his of her life to the bereaved family. The Great Law had the desirable effect of bringing to a close many longstanding feuds between families.

By 1500, at which time the Iroquois Confederacy was functioning, French traders had made their way into the St. Lawrence River valley. The confederacy doubtless had concerns about the French presence among the five nations. Now joined together, the united tribes were able to present a united defense against this new threat, as well as against hostile and longstanding threats such as the Algonquians. Their unity also guarded them against the risk of famine and other natural disasters.

Hiawatha's Legacy

Unfortunately, the Confederacy did not bring peace to the Iroquois and their neighbors. The Algonquian and other hostile tribes to the south, after being repeatedly repulsed and then attacked by the five united Iroquois nations, were eventually forced to ally themselves with European colonists. The Confederacy meanwhile sought to bring other tribes within its structure.

Following a French attack on Confederate villages during the French and Indian War, the Iroquois joined with the British to help drive the French from North America. However, they failed to unite against the Americans following the Revolutionary War that followed, and by 1851 the Iroquois confederacy was all but obsolete. Even so, the tradition of the tribal confederacy greatly impressed subsequent historians, some viewing it as a forerunner of the U.S. Constitution. Some scholars even speculated that the tribal Confederacy would have eventually dominated the Atlantic coast tribes had it not met resistance from European-born whites.

The Role of Wampum

As one of the founding chiefs, Hiawatha was assigned the position of Keeper of the Wampum. In this capacity he looked after the wampum belts with patterns representing the Great Law and the confederacy as well as those patterned in ways assigned by the council to remind the Iroquois of treaties, important personages, and other noteworthy things. Wampum belts were also carried to various villages to announce a decision reached by the Grand Council of Chiefs. When a particular wampum belt lost its significance, it could be assigned a new meaning. Among the Iroquois, wampum did not serve as a currency of exchange.

The traditions established by Hiawatha continue to be honored by the Iroquois into the 21st century. When a new leader is selected to head the chiefs of the Grand Council he takes the name Tadadaho, and the chief who takes the position of Keeper of the Wampum assumes the name Hiawatha. Observance of this tradition reminds members of the Confederacy of its origins. The original wampum belt representing Hiawatha was removed from the tribe but was eventually returned to the Onodaga by the New York State Museum in Albany.

Longfellow's "Hiawatha"

Several centuries later, in 1855, poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow muddied the waters of history when he published "The Song of Hiawatha." In fact, the hero of Longfellow's poem is not the founder of the Iroquois nation at all, but rather an Algonquian cultural hero named Nanabozho. Apparently deciding that the name Hiawatha had a more musical ring to it than Nanabozho, Longfellow decided to assign the Algonquian hero Hiawatha's name. The unplanned result created a century and a half of historical confusion before the traditions of Native Americans came under renewed scrutiny by revisionist historians late in the 20th century.


Edmonds, Margot, and Ella E. Clark, Voices of the Winds, Facts on File, 1989.

Page, Thomas, The Civilization of the American Indians, Minerva, 1986.

Parker, Arthur C., Seneca Myths and Folk Tales, University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Richter, Daniel K., The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization, University of North Carolina Press, 1992.


"Hiawatha," (January 20, 2003).