Oral Tradition and the Founding of the Iroquois League

Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of
Anthropology
Volume 11 | Issue 1
Article 11
6-21-2011
The Quest for the Historical Tekanawi·ta': Oral
Tradition and the Founding of the Iroquois League
Jonathan Bernier
The University of Western Ontario
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The Quest for the Historical Tekanawi·ta': Oral Tradition and the
Founding of the Iroquois League
Keywords
oral history, Iroquois League, Tekanawi·ta' Myth
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11
Bernier: The Quest for the Historical Tekanawi·ta'
The Quest for the Historical
Tekanawi·ta': Oral Tradition and the
Founding of the Iroquois League
In North America, "tribal historians
and religious leaders frequently rely on oral
tradition as literal records of ancient history"
(Echo-Hawk 2000:268).
Alternatively, "most
academically trained scholars respond with
skeptical rejection of verbal literature as a
vehicle for transmitting useful information over
long time spans" (Echo-Hawk
2000:268).
Although I do not believe that we should
unClitically accept oral literatures as literal
representations of the past, I do believe that an a
priori rejection of such literatures as potential
sources
of
historical
data
is
equally
unwarranted. We must evaluate the sources and
overall reliability of any historical data with
which we work; this is necessary whether the
historical data is transmitted in writing or orally.
One such myth that must be considered in this
fashion is the so-called "Tekanawfeta -I Myth".
This tradition purports to record the founding of
the Iroquois League and today is part of the
I Tekanawi
la' is a figure in the League Tradition who is
often referred to as the Peacemaker in English. There are a
number of variant spellings for Tekanawi la':
Dekanahwideh (parker, 1968), Dekanawida (Parker. 1968),
Tekanawitagh (Klinck and Talman, 1970) or Tekanawi ta'
(Gibson, 1992). The same is true for Hayehwritha' (often
called Hiawatha) and Thatota 110', Here. I have chosen the
spellings found in Gibson (1992), Of note. this is the only
full-length lroquoian language version of the Iroquoian
League Tradition in print.
larger "Iroquois League Tradition" (see Gibson
1992: xix-Ix, for a discussion of this); this larger
tradition discusses the philosophy behind the
League
and includes
rules
governing
its
operation.
In this paper, I will consider the
formation of the League of the Iroquois;
specifically, I will ask to what extent we can rely
upon the "Tekanawfeta'
Myth" to provide
biographical details about Tekanawfeta's life and
his role in the formation of the League.
The Iroquois are not one but rather five
nations which were located just south of Lake
Ontario in what is now upstate New York at the
time of European contact; from east to west, they
were the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and
Mohawk (Engelbrecht 1985; Snow 1994; Tooker
1978). They all were part of a language family
called Northern Iroquoian; they were not the only
members of this family, with the Erie, HuronPetun,
Neutral,
St.
Lawrence
Iroquoians,
Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Wenro and also being
classified as Northern Iroquoian (Lounsbury
1978l There were also the Southern Iroquoians,
represented by the various dialects of Cherokee;
these dialects are mutually intelligible to one
another and linguistically related yet quite distinct
from the Northern Iroquoians (Lounsbury 1978l
At some point, the Seneca, the Cayuga,
the Onondaga, the Oneida and the Mohawk came
together to form the League of the Iroquois
(Engelbrecht 1985; Snow 1994; Tooker 1978).
According to tradition, the League was formed by
Tebinawfeta' and his colleague, Hayehwatha' (i.e.
For more infonllation on the various groups, see also Boyce
1978; Trigger (ed,) 1978:296-544; Trigger 1985, 1987
3 For more infom1ation on the Cherokee,
see also Anderson
1991; Mooney 1891. 1900; Schroedl 1995,
2
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Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 11 [2003], Iss. 1, Art. 11
larger "Iroquois League Tradition" (see Gibson
1992: xix-Ix, for a discussion of this); this larger
tradition discusses the philosophy behind the
League
and includes
rules governing
its
operation.
In this paper, I will consider the
formation of the League of the Iroquois;
specifically, 1 will ask to what extent we can rely
upon the 'Tekanawfota'
Myth" to provide
biographical details about Tekanawfota's life and
his role in the formation of the League.
The Iroquois are not one but rather five
nations which were located just south of Lake
Ontario in what is now upstate New York at the
time of European contact; from east to west, they
were the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and
Mohawk (Engelbrecht 1985; Snow 1994; Tooker
1978). They all were pa11 of a language family
called Northern Iroquoian; they were not the only
members of this family, with the Erie, HuronPetun,
Neutral,
St. Lawrence
Iroquoians,
Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Wenro and also being
classified as Northern Iroquoian (Lounsbury
1978i, There were also the Southern Iroquoians,
represented by the various dialects of Cherokee;
these dialects are mutually intelligible to one
another and linguistically related yet quite distinct
from the Northern Iroquoians (Lounsbury 1978l
At some point, the Seneca, the Cayuga,
the Onondaga, the Oneida and the Mohawk came
together to form the League of the Iroquois
(Engelbrecht 1985; Snow 1994; Tooker 1978).
According to tradition, the League was formed by
Tekanawfota' and his colleague, Hayehwarha' (i,e.
The Quest for the Historical
Tekanawi·ta': Oral Tradition and the
Founding of the Iroquois League
In North America, "tribal historians
and religious leaders frequently rely on oral
tradition as literal records of ancient history"
(Echo-Hawk 2000:268).
Alternatively, "most
academically trained scholars respond with
skeptical rejection of verbal literature as a
vehicle for transmitting useful information over
long time spans" (Echo-Hawk
2000:268).
Although I do not believe that we should
uncritically accept oral literatures as literal
representations of the past, I do believe that an a
priori rejection of such literatures as potential
sources
of
historical
data
is
equally
unwarranted. We must evaluate the sources and
overall reliability of any historical data with
which we work; this is necessary whether the
histmical data is transmitted in writing or orally.
One such myth that must be considered in this
fashion is the so-called "Tebinawfota ,I Myth".
This tradition purports to record the founding of
the Iroquois League and today is part of the
I Tekanawi
ta' is a figure in the League Tradition who is
often referred to as the Peacemaker in English. There are a
number of variant spellings for Tekanawi la':
Dekanahwideh (parker, 1968), Dekanawida (Parker, 1968),
Tekanawitagh (Klinck and Talman, 1970) or Tekanawi ta'
(Gibson, 1992). The same is true for Hayehwatha' (often
called Hiawatha) and Thatota ho'. Here, I have chosen the
spellings found in Gibson (1992). Of note, this is the only
full-length Iroquoian language version of the Iroquoian
League Tradition in print.
HHI':,\I
Copnight
http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/totem/vol11/iss1/11
For more infoffilation on the various groups, see also Boyce
1978; Trigger (ed.) 1978:296-544; Trigger 1985,1987
3 For more information
on the Cherokee, see also Anderson
1991; Mooney 1891. 1900; Schroedl 1995.
2
mill
211112-21111.1
© 21111.1TOTI ':~1: The UWO .Journal of\nthropolog\'
Bernier: The Quest for the Historical Tekanawi·ta'
Parker 1968; Snow 1994; Tooker 1978). Most
scholars would suggest that this occUlTed
sometime between A.D. 1400 and 1600 (Tooker
1978:420).
Snow (1994:60), on the basis of
Seneca oral tradition,
suggests that the
formation of the League was completed in 1536
or, less likely, in 1451. Most attempts to date
the formation of the League make use of oral
traditions from one source or another; however,
the historical reliability of these traditions
suffers from the same limitations that I will
discuss below.
All surviving versions of the Iroquois
League Tradition are the product of oral
tradition rather then oral history. Echo-Hawk
(2000:270) defines oral literature as any
literature which is transmitted verbally and he
further distinguishes between oral history and
oral traditions. Oral history consists of "verbal
memoirs of first-hand observers" while oral
traditions are "verbal memoirs that first-hand
observers have passed along to others" (EchoHawk, 2000:270). Oral history is created when
individuals tell their own stOlies; oral history is
transformed into oral tradition when individuals
begin to tell the stOlies of others. However,
what degree of factual accuracy can we expect
from individuals who are composing and
producing their own oral history? Loftus and
Ketcham (1991 :77) assert that " ... facts don't
come into our memory and passively reside
there untouched and unscathed by future
events...
[Memory is] a constructive
and
creative pmcess ... After a week, memory is less
accurate than after a day"; consequently, even
within one's own lifetime, one will edit one's
own oral history.
Further. what degree of
factual accuracy can we expect will be
maintained when oral history is transformed
into an oral tradition via transmission from one
individual to another? These questions speak to
the ability of oral literature to accurately
transmit information over time.
In seeking to address these questions,
both Echo-Hawk (2000) and Mason (2000) cite
Vansina's
(1985:19-20)
example of three
versions of a conflict between groups of Hopi
and Navaho sometime between 1853 and 18564.
Two versions were recorded in 1892. At least
one of these accounts was provided by an
eyewitness; it is quite possible that both were
(Vansina 1985:19-20). The first was short and
generalized; the second was longer and more
detailed (Vansina 1985: 19-20); nonetheless,
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despite the difference in details, both are
primarily concerned with narrating a sequence of
events (Vansina 1985:20).
The third was
recorded in 1936 and displays significant
vmiation; indeed. a "lot of invention took place in
the years between the history and the tradition"
(Mason 2000:251). The story is framed in terms
of traditional Hopi mythology (Eggan 1967:4751; Vansina 1985:20); this was not the case in the
1892 versions (Vansina 1985:20). There was, in
tllis case, Following
Echo-Hawk
(2000)"s
distinction between oral history and oral tradition
we can identify the two 1892 accounts as oral
history and the 1936 version as oral tradition. In
this case, then, there is an unknown amount of
vmiation between the actual events and the
recording of the oral history: even though the
stories are similar to each other, we must
recognize that these are not independent accounts
as the individuals who gave them lived in
adjoining villages (1967:37). Additionally, there
is a measurable and significant amount of
variation between these records and that of the
oral tradition.
As in the above case of the Hopi oral
history and tradition. there are several extant,
written,
versions
of the Iroquois
League
Tradition.
These provide insight into the
tradition's content at different periods in its
development. Three versions to be considered in
this paper date from the 1910s and two date from
100 years earlier. As the more recent are better
known, we shall consider these first. In 1911
Duncan Campbell Scott (1911) published the socalled 'Chiefs' Version'; this was a document
originally prepared by a group of Six Nations
Iroquois chiefs around 1900. The next year,
1912, saw the Seneca chief John A. Arthur
transcribing an Onondaga text to anthropologist
A.A. Goldenweiser;
it was not, however,
published until 1992 (Gibson 1992). Often called
the Gibson-Goldenweiser
Version. this version
has become the only, complete. lroquoian
language version of the League Tradition ever to
appear in print (Gibson 1992: xi-xv). Four years
later, 1916, Parker published his Constitution of
the Iroquois, later republished in Parker (1968).
These documents. of course. cannot be
seen as independent sources. Indeed, John Arthur
Gibson, a Seneca chief. was a key figure in the
formation of the Chiefs
League Tradition
(Gibson 1992). Therefore. one would expect a
significant conespondence between his version
and the Chiefs' Version. Parker made use of the
Chief s version. along with the editorial services
of Albert Cusick and earlier manuscripts prepm'ed
II 211112-21111"
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\'01
Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 11 [2003], Iss. 1, Art. 11
by Seth Newhouse (Gibson 1992; Parker
1968:12-13).
To the best of my knowledge,
none of the earlier Newhouse manusClipts have
been published.
Although they vary, these texts seem to
agree
on
several
major
points
about
Tekanawfota's life. I will briefly summarize
those points I believe to be most relevant to this
discussion. First. in each text. a woman and her
daughter reside together. The daughter was a
virgin yet conceived a child (Gibson 1992:3;
Parker 1968: 14: Scott 1911: 198). Her mother
does not believe the daughter when she claims
not to have had sexual relations with any men
(Gibson
1992:4;
Parker
1968: 14; Scott
1911:198). The woman mistreats her daughter
(Gibson
1992:6;
Parker
1968:14:
Scott
1911: 198) and only stops after miraculous signs
convince her that the child is blessed (Gibson
1992:7; Parker 1968:14: Scott 1911:198). Once
born this child, Tekanawfota', grows rapidly and
becomes exceptionally
strong and healthy
(Gibson
1992:7:
Parker
1968:14;
Scott
1911:198).
When
he
reaches
manhood,
Tekanawfota' leaves his home and journeys to
the land of the Five Nations Iroquois to preach
the message of the Great Peace (Gibson
1968: 15; Parker 1968: IS: Scott 1911: 199). The
accounts differ in the order and circumstances
of the events but all agree upon the introduction
of two other key characters, Hayehwritha' and
Thatota ho' (Gibson 1968:101; Parker 1968:23:
Scott 1911 :203). In each account, Hayehwatha'
is an Iroquois chief whose daughters (or
granddaughters)
die within the narrative
(Gibson 1968:133-8: Parker 1968:18-19: Scott
1911 :205-6). Hayehwatha' is grief-stlicken and
searches out Tekanawfota' (Gibson 1968: 139:
Parker
1968:23-24;
Scott,
1911 :207).
Hayehwatha' is Tekanawfota" s first 'convert'
and works with him to bring the Iroquois
nations together into a confederacy (Gibson,
1968; Parker, 1968: Scott, 1911).
Thc
construction of the League requires that the fl\'(:
nations agree to join and that the Great (hut
evil) Sorcerer, Thatota 110', also agrees to join
(Gibson, 1992; Parker, 1968; Scott, 1911). Thc
rest of the narrative is focused upon cllling this
cannibalistic sorcerer of his evil and insanity.
At the end, he becomes the head of the Lcaguc
(Gibson, 1992:232-4; Parker 1968:90-91: SCOl!
1911:218-9). Tekanawfota' then gives a set of
rules to govern the operating of the Leaguc
(Gibson 1992; Parker 1968; Scott 1911).
For purposes of this discussion, I have
identified
five key biographical
details of
Tekanawfota"s
life as given by the Gibson
(1992), Parker (1968) and Scott (1911) traditions.
First, Tekanawfota' is born outside of lroquoia; he
is an outsider both geographically and socially.
Second, his birth is miraculous: like Jesus or the
Buddha, he is conceived in some sort of
supernatural fashion.
Third, the stories begin
with his birth and move promptly to his mission
to spread the Great Peace; he is the plimary actor
who sets the crucial events in motion. Fourth, he
is responsible for cuting Thatota 110'. Fifth, he
provides rules for the governance of the League.
As mentioned above, these may be the
best known versions of the Iroquois League
Tradition. However, they are not the only or even
the earliest ones, Indeed, they are relatively late
redactions.
About a century before these three
versions were produced in the 191Os, Joseph
Brant (Boyce 1'973) and John Norton (Klinck and
Talman 1970) provided accounts of the fonnation
of the League. They are significantly different
from the Gibson (1992), Parker (1968) and Scott
(1911) versions. Boyce (1973:288) observes that
Brant's account lacks any magical or symbolic
language;
he further suggests that Brant's
account, therefore, has a greater historical
credibility (Boyce 1973:288).
However, the
absence of magical or symbolic language does not
necessarily mean that this version contains more
accurate historical data. The lack of magical
symbolic language may have more to do with the
format of the account: The other accounts were
wlitten with an intention to either entertain others
or to preserve tradition whereas Brant's account
was given as a response to a questionnaire (Boyce
1973).
Brant's and Norton's accounts present a
very different understanding of Tekanawfota' then
that presented by the Gibson, Parker or Scott
versions. First, in both accounts, Tekanawfota' is
born within Iroquoia.
He is desclibed as a
respected
Mohawk chief (Boyce
1973:288;
Klinck and Talman
1970: 102): unlike the
Pcacemaker of the later versions, we see here a
man who is fully integrated into Iroquois society.
COITespondingly, there is no mention in either
Brant or Norton of his bil1h: hence, there is no
suggestion that he did not have a father.
In
Gihson (1992), Parker (1968). and Scott (1911)
his origins are moved both outside the realms of
Iroquois society and he is conceived in an atypical
fashion: he is extrasocietal and extrahuman.
Further. as in the Gibson, Parker and Scott
accounts, in the Brant account (Boyce 1973:288)
'I ( ) 1I \ I \ "I I 1 211112
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Bernier: The Quest for the Historical Tekanawi·ta'
Tekanawiota'
is the primary actor in the
formation of the League; from the beginning of
the account, he is actively seeking to unite the
tribes in some sort of confederacy. In Norton
(Klinck and Talman 1970:102), however, he
does not appear until the middle of the story.
Hayehwatha',
seeking aid in dealing with
Thatota oo"s anger, travels to a Mohawk
viJIage whereupon he meets Tekanawiota'.
As
in the later accounts, both Brant and N0l1on
portray Tekanawiota' as instrumental in the
"conversion"
and restoration of Thatota 00'
(Boyce
1973:288-9:
Klinck
and Talman
1970: 102-104); Brant (Boyce
1973:288-9)
portrays Thatota 00' as an obstinate Onondaga
chief rather then as an evil sorcerer. Finally,
contrary to the 20th century accounts, neither
account suggests that Tekanawfota' provided
any sort of rules for governing the League.
There is significant variation between
the conceptions of Tekanawfota' put forward by
Brant (Boyce 1973) and Norton (Klinck and
Talman 1970) in the 19th century and Gibson
(1992), Parker (1968) and Scott (1911) in the
20th. It would be tempting to suggest that the
early versions are more accurate. However, we
cannot do that. Unfortunately, they, too, are far
removed from the events they purport to record.
The oral tradition appears to have changed in
the 19th century; as in the case described by
Eggan (1967) and Vansina (1985), we cannot
determine
how much
variation
occurred
between the initial events and the first recording
of the tradition. Given the paucity of data, we
simply cannot chart the development of the
tradition as it moved through the. time. We
must recognize that we cannot verify the factual
veracity of these traditions.
This recognition is not to say that these
traditions are without meaning or that they are
untrue. Indeed, I believe that they are very true.
They convey social and cultural meaning. That
is perhaps more important then any factual data
they may or may not provide.
The really
important questions are questions that I have not
addressed in this paper. Those are questions
which
locate
these
traditions
within
contemporary Iroquois culture. Why did the
League Tradition undergo change in the 19th
century? What were the discursive reasons for
these changes? What do these traditions mean
to Iroquois peoples today?
These questions
transcend epistemology and move toward a
more existential realm.
That realm is a
discourse more of the heart rather then one of
the mind. In the end. that discourse far more
Cop\Tigh[
Produced by The Berkeley Electronic Press, 2003
important; unlike attempts to detemline "what
actually happened", this discourse is the one that
can make, unmake or remake the world.
Anderson, William L. (editor). 1991.
Cherokee Removal: Before and After.
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Iroquois Culture History Through the
Eyes of Joseph Brant and John
Norton". Proceedings of the
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117:286-294.
1978. "Iroquoian Tribes of the VirginiaNorth Carolina Coastal Plain". In
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Indians, Vol. 15. Bruce Trigger. ed.
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Tooker, Elizabeth. 1978. "The League of the
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---. 1991. An Ethnography of the Huron
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Trigger, Bruce (ed.). 1978. NOltheast.
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Sons.
---. 1985. Oral Tradition as History. Madison:
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Scott, Duncan C. 1911. "Traditional History of
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Society of Canada. 3rd Series.
5(2): 195-246.
TOTI·:i\1
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