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The actual Iroquois legend of Hiawatha bears no relation to the stories contained in Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Longfellow's work portrayed Hiawatha as a hero of the Algonquins, and not the Iroquois. Longfellow's work was set in the Lake Superior region, while the actual Iroquois homeland of Hiawatha was in central and western New York State. The myths retold by Longfellow were actually stories of the Algonquin deity Michabo.
The myth of Hiawatha is a wonderful example of the "civic myth," documenting the founding of a nation. In this case, the nation is the Five Nation Confederacy of the Iroquois, whose system of government was studied by the American founding fathers in their formulation of the U.S. Constitution.
Tarenyawagon, the upholder of the heavens, was awakened from his slumber by the horrible cries of anguish from earth. The humans were murdering each other, fighting against terrible giants, and falling into anarchy and deep despair. Taking the form of a mortal man, Tarenyawagon came to earth, taking a little girl by the hand, leading a miserable band of the human refugees to a cave where he told them to sleep, as hope had returned to humanity.
When the people had rested, Tarenyawagon again took a little girl by the hand and led the people toward the rising sun, where they built a great lodge house. There they lived happily. The former refugees prospered and had many children. Tarenyawagon called the people together and then told them to form five great nations and scatter. A few families were separated from the group; they were called Tehawroga, "those of different speech." From the moment that Tarenyawagon named them this, they began to speak a language different from the other people. To these "people of different speech," the Mohawk nation, Tarenyawagon gave tobacco, squash, corn, and beans, and also dogs to help them hunt. He taught them to be great farmers and hunters. Then he left, again taking a little girl by the hand.
Again, he separated some of the families and took them to a beautiful valley. He named them the Nehawretago, the "tall tree people," in honor of the fine forests in their new homeland. They also had their own separate language and became the Oneida nation.
Then, again taking a little girl by the hand, he led some families to a great mountain called Onondaga, which was the name of this new nation. They too began to speak their own language.
He separated more families, and taking another little girl by the hand, he took them to the lake called Goyoga, and the people became known as the Cayuga people.
There were now only a few families left, so Tarenyawagon took a little girl by the hand and led the families to another mountain called Canandaigua. This was to be the home of the people he named Tehonenoyent, the Seneca nation. Their name means "keepers of the door," as they are the sentinels of the five nations.
Now why did Tarenyawagon take a little girl by the hand as he founded these nations? The Iroquois people of the Five Nations are a matriarchal society, where the most respected leaders are the old women. These girls grew up to be the leaders of their nations. It is through the mother that one inherits among the people of the Five Nations.
Some of the people left the land of the Five Nations and went far to the west to the river called the Mississippi,* from where they never returned. Separated by the great river, none of the Five Nations ever saw them again. But the Five Nations who remained in their homeland prospered.
Tarenyawagon gave each of the Five Nations its own particular gift. To the Onondaga was given the knowledge of the universal laws and the ability to understand the great Creator. To the Oneidas was given skill in making baskets and weapons. To the Mohawks was given great ability in hunting. Then Tarenyawagon went to live among the Onondaga people, where he took the name Hiawatha.
In the laws of the universe it is written that for every joy there must be a sorrow, for every darkness a light, and for every death a life. Even as the Five Nations lived in peace, the Wild People [the Algonquin tribes] came and attacked them from the northwest, out of the Great Lakes region. These people were not as civilized as the Five Nations and were a threat to all the people of Tarenyawagon.
So the Five Nations met together for a common defense. The people waited for three days for Hiawatha to come to lead them. On the fourth day he appeared in his magic birch canoe, accompanied by his daughter Mnihaha [the "Minihaha" of Longfellow], who was his child by an Onondaga wife. Hiawatha met with all the leaders of the Five Nations, greeted them as his brothers, and spoke each of their languages.
Out of heaven came a great noise like rushing water and thunder. Out of the clouds appeared the Great Mystery Bird of Heaven who then carried away Hiawatha's daughter. He laid his hand on her head in blessing before he commended her to the Great Mystery Bird. Hiawatha was so saddened by her departure that he sat in silent mourning and meditation, wrapped in a panther skin, for three days. Hiawatha never explained this mystery to the people, but many old people say that the girl was given to God in exchange for peace.
After the mourning period had ended, Hiawatha purified himself in a clear lake and called the leaders of the Five Nations together. He told them that the Five Nations were to be as one nation forever. Never again would they act separately. The downfall of one nation would be the downfall of all, as the victory of one nation would be the victory of all. He told the people to choose the wisest of their women to rule them.
The Onondagas were to be the warriors of the Iroquois. The Seneca were to speak on behalf of the Five Nations. The clever Cayuga were to be the guardians of the rivers, while the Mohawk would farm and hunt for all the tribes.
Then Hiawatha slipped into his magic birch canoe and rode into the sky.