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The Oral Tradition of the Foundation of the Iroquois Confederacy

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


Very few written sources exist from the perspective of any North American Indians before European contact. This poses a huge challenge to scholars wishing to learn about the enormous economic, political, and cultural diversity of these groups before the arrival of Europeans. Historians are left with the archeological record, European accounts of first encounters, and Native American oral traditions. Oral traditions consist of stories handed down through generations, yet our records of these traditions were often compiled after European contact.

The Iroquois Confederacy was centered in what is today upstate New York and was one of two large chiefdoms that existed when English colonists arrived on the eastern seaboard (the other being the Powhatan Confederacy in eastern Virginia). The following source recounts the foundation of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, as the member nations refer to themselves. The confederacy is believed to date from c. 1570–1600; this version of its creation was first published in 1881 by a Tuscarora chief, Elias Johnson, in a work entitled “Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations and History of the Tuscarora Indians.”

Sourcing Questions

  1. What sources can historians consult when studying Native American groups prior to European contact?
  2. What is the focus of the oral tradition presented here?
  3. Who compiled and translated this tradition? What was his background?

Vocabulary Text

Hiawatha: According to tradition, Hiawatha was the cofounder of the Iroquois Confederacy alongside another leader, Dekanawida.

When another day had expired, the council again met. Hiawatha entered the assembly with even more than ordinary attention, and every eye was fixed upon him, when he began to address the council in the following words:

“Friends and Brothers:—You being members of many tribes, you have come from a great distance; the voice of war has aroused you up; you are afraid of your homes, your wives and your children; you tremble for your safety. Believe me, I am with you. My heart beats with your hearts. We are one. We have one common object. We come to promote our common interest, and to determine how this can be best done.

To oppose these hordes of northern tribes, singly and alone, would prove certain destruction. We can make no progress in that way. We must unite ourselves into one common band of brothers. We must have but one voice. Many voices makes confusion. We must have one fire, one pipe, and one war club. This will give us strength. If your warriors are united they can defeat the enemy and drive them from our land; if we do this, we are safe.

Onondaga, you are the people sitting under the shadow of the Great Tree, whose branches spread far and wide, and whose roots sink deep into the earth. You shall be the first nation, because you are warlike and mighty.

Oneida, and you, the people who recline your bodies against the Everlasting Stone, that cannot be moved, shall be the second nation, because you always give good counsel.

Seneca, and you, the people who have your habitation at the foot of the Great Mountain, and are overshadowed by its crags, shall be the third nation, because you are all greatly gifted in speech.

Cayuga, you, whose dwelling is in the Dark Forest, and whose home is everywhere, shall be the fourth nation, because of your superior cunning in hunting.

Mohawk, and you, the people who live in the open country, and possess much wisdom, shall be the fifth nation, because you understand better the art of raising corn and beans and making cabins.

five great and powerful nations: because the Iroquois Confederacy originally comprised five tribes, they were also sometimes referred to as the Five Nations. A sixth group, the Tuscarora, joined the Confederacy in the eighteenth century.

You five great and powerful nations, with your tribes, must unite and have one common interest, and to foes shall disturb or subdue you.

And you of the different nations of the south, and you of the west, may place yourselves under our protection, and we will protect you. We earnestly desire the alliance and friendship of you all. . . .

If we unite in one band the Great Spirit will smile upon us, and we shall be free, prosperous and happy; but if we shall remain as we are we shall incur his displeasure. We shall be enslaved, and perhaps annihilated forever.

Brothers, these are the words of Hiawatha. Let them sink deep into your hearts. I have done.”


Comprehension Questions

  1. Why has this council assembled?
  2. How does Hiawatha argue that the groups must band together?
  3. What five tribes are assembled at this gathering? What strengths did each bring?
  4. What final reason does Hiawatha give to convince the tribes to unite?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. What evidence can be gathered from this source regarding the context and purpose of the creation of the Iroquois Confederacy?
  2. What are the limitations of using this source to provide your answer to the previous question?
  3. In his introduction to his compilation in 1881, Elias Johnson wrote the following: “The Histories which are in the schools, and from which the first impressions are obtained, are still very deficient in what they relate of Indian History, and most of them are still filling the minds of children and youth, with imperfect ideas. I have read many of the Histories, and have longed to see refuted the slanders, and blot out the dark pictures which the historians have wont to spread abroad concerning us. May I live to see the day when it may be done, for most deeply have I learned to blush for my people. I thought, at first, of only giving a series of Indian Biographies, but without some knowledge of the government and religion of the Iroquois, the character of the Indians could not be understood or appreciated. I enter upon the task with much distrust. It is a difficult task at all times to speak and to write in foreign language, and I fear I shall not succeed to the satisfaction of myself, or to my readers.” According to this passage, what was Johnson’s purpose in publishing his book? What challenges did he face?
  4. Johnson was writing over one hundred years ago and wrote that schools were “deficient in what they relate of Indian History.” Do you think his assessment is still applicable? Explain.

The Oral Tradition of the Foundation of the Iroquois Confederacy:

Full book in which this source appears:

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