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From Hiawatha to Geronimo: The Assault on Native America

From Hiawatha to Geronimo: The Assault on Native America

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From Hiawatha to Geronimo: The Assault on Native America

423 pages
6 heures
Nov 15, 2013


Spanning three centuries, from Champlains first encounter in 1609 with primitive Iroquois warriors to Geronimos death in 1909, Hiawatha to Geronimo chronicles the demise of the native peoples of North America to the relentless encroachment of white European settlement.

From the forests of New England to the deserts of the American southwest, the indigenous peoples of America were driven mercilessly from the lands they had roamed for thousands of years. This is their story, the forgotten tribes and their heroic leaders: King Phillip, Blue Jacket, Tecumseh, Osceola, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise, Geronimo. Each of these, along with countless others, rose up to take the torch from his predecessor in a near-continuous cycle of conflict that spanned the continent and all but eradicated a people and a culture.

Taken together with our nations terrible history of slavery, the assault by whites on Native America formed the second of the great pillars of the American Tragedy. It was perhaps the most egregious of our Nations Original Sins.
Nov 15, 2013

À propos de l'auteur

Tom Lonergan is a novelist and historian. He summers with his wife and four children in their home in Tom Nevers on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.

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From Hiawatha to Geronimo - Tom Lonergan



Sky Woman arrived from a place beyond the stars. She found that a great flood had covered the earth. Only through the intervention of certain animals was she prevented from drowning. After many miracles, Sky Woman had mud brought from the floor of the ocean and deposited on the back of a turtle where it hardened becoming a great island. In time, the new land was populated by plants and animals. Then, heavy with child, Sky Woman gave birth to a daughter who, when she was grown, was impregnated by the west wind, becoming mother to us all …Iroquois myth of Creation

O nce, the land was so quiet a man could hear the whisper of a falling star. This was North America when the first people arrived here, so long before Columbus that if the human history of our continent were condensed into a single twenty-four hour day, the arrival of the first white Europeans would have occurred only in the last half hour before midnight. Like it or not, in the eyes of Creation and the great clock of Evolution, the North American continent has always been and will continue to be for scores of millennia, I ndian.

Consider the land. Vast. Astonishingly beautiful. Deep canyons. Wide, painted deserts. Endless grassland plains. Once Europe had its own crystal clear rivers. Once its wooded forests might well have extended as far and sheltered the same prayer-like quiet as in America. Perhaps even the towering Alps of Switzerland, France, Austria and Italy could be said to rival the thousand mile snow capped sweep of the granite escarped Rockies from Canada to Colorado. But what of the sandy, wave battered coasts? What of the limitless herds of game, bison, elk, deer? America was a paradise, Eden, ripe for the plunder. And in that last inglorious half hour before midnight, the European ancestors of everyone white in this land grabbed at it with the desperation of the damned seeking entry to Heaven.

Unlike the white European of modern history, the Native American of pre-history drew his identity from the bountiful land he roamed. From its shadowed forests, swift rivers and snow capped mountains he renewed himself, filling his heart with its quiet, letting his spirit soar and his body run free. The American Indian required no science, industry or wealth to define him. Rather, he worshipped the ground he trod and the species he shared it with.

Though the written history of America and its people began with Columbus, the land which his white descendants stole from the Indian tells a story richer and far more complete. From the secrets of the earth archeologists now know that native hunters were taking bison on the great American high plains more than 20,000 years ago. 15,000 years prior to that, the first prehistoric Americans may well have hunted the mastodon and the woolly mammoth to extinction. And in one of the great ironies of evolution, these same pesky aboriginal hunters at one time even managed to chase the planet’s first wild horses from the North American continent where the hoofed beasts evolved, only to see the creatures return again thousands of years later carrying the Spanish Conquistadors.

Where did these intrepid native people come from?

Most came by way of the Beringian land bridge, an eight hundred mile wide expanse of land that connected northeast Asia (Manchuria) to northwest America (Alaska) during the last Ice Age when so much of the earth’s water was locked in immense glaciers and ocean levels were hundreds of feet lower than now. Others may have come by sea, across the storm churned North Atlantic or drifting on the eastward trade currents of the Pacific from the Orient of prehistory, proving that, white and red, we both share the same nomadic ancestors of pre-history.

Modern scientific technology has for the first time enabled twenty-first century archeologists to prove pre-historic links between our European ancestors and the skeletal remains of North Americans who roamed our continent some eight thousand years before Columbus. But whether they came from the east or the west, aboriginal Americans were descended from a people with the same restless appetite for exploration as the great explorer himself. And over the millennia, they filled the continent, in densities that, even by 1492, rarely exceeded as many as a half dozen people in as little as a half dozen square miles.

Through intensive studies of the similarities of certain native dialects, archeo-linguists have traced several migratory waves of Indian peoples spreading across the North American continent from the Arctic northwest during the early Holocene period (approximately 14,000 to 10,000 BC). In the earliest millennia, Hohokam and Anasazis descended directly south along the Continental Divide and into the American southwest. Somewhat later, they were followed by Athapaskans, people who originally settled Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic north. Pushed by Iroquoian peoples, Algonquians spread across the north central plains and the Lakes territories, into the northeast and down the Atlantic coast as far south as Virginia. There they encountered Mississippians who had migrated from the central plains down the Mississippi valley to the Gulf of Mexico and east into Florida.

To the whites who found the descendant tribes of these aboriginal immigrants, the native peoples remained Stone Age relics. But with the same hunter/gatherer roots as his European counterpart, how was it that the American Indian had culturally progressed so little in relation to his white brothers? The answer is that the Native American, like his European counterpart, was shaped by the land in which he resided. In America, the Indian roamed his fecund environment, hunting and foraging among scores of species of wild food and game, while in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, hundreds of generations of the same human specie enjoyed the post Ice Age flourishing of grains and animals that would soon become the foundations of a stable agrarian culture.

In Euro-Asia and northern Africa were found wild sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, horses (escaped from the Indian hunters of the North American glaciers), cats, even chickens. In North America was merely the dog and, in places, the wild turkey, who showed any inclination toward domestication. As for plants, though the Native American managed over the millennia to cultivate maize, dramatically enriching the original horticultural strain, transporting it over enormous distances, through widely varied climates and soil conditions, from the arid deserts of Mexico and Central America to the rain soaked woodlands of the American northeast, maize alone proved hardly significant when compared to the thriving wild cereals of the Near East: barley and early precursors to wheat.

In the Jordan Valley and other choice locations of Euro-Asia, with undomesticated sheep and goats arriving on their own to partake of the plentiful wild cereals, a cycle of events was begun that ultimately spawned modern civilization. Domestication of animals led to the domestication of plants, which in turn led to the domestication of a people. And once the process was started, it could not be reversed. Once the Near East culture became dependent on the food it raised for itself, it found it impossible go back to its hunting and foraging ways. Dependence on agriculture forced people to settle in order to care for their domesticated animals and fields. The idea spread. Populations grew and, with them, the stresses and tensions of modern life.

With the great engine of agriculture enabling many to be fed by few, Euro-Asia experienced the rapid growth of large concentrated settlements whose citizens, over time, earned for themselves the free time to think about more than basic survival. From them came art, philosophy, science, technology, social structure, even organized religion. From them also came modern weaponry, disease and frequent economic calamity.

The American Indian, on the other hand, had few domesticated animals or plants and consequently no agrarian imperative. Why, after all, would anyone want to farm corn and tend to animals when he could find all the edible plants and wild meat he needed in close-at-hand oceans, rivers and forests? It was this simple dichotomy that launched the two groups on widely divergent and irreversible evolutionary paths. While his Euro-Asian counterpart settled, the American native pioneered, feeding his restless spirit from the fruits of a bountiful land.

And because he moved freely among territories and peoples, the Native American pioneer of pre-history retained simple, almost childlike patterns of behavior, remaining more adaptable and trusting in comparison to his civilized white counterpart. It can even be argued that this free, energetic, relatively stress free lifestyle resulted in some measure of literal immaturity in the Native American, explaining, some believe, why many Indian men develop no facial hair.

Conversely, those who experience the stresses of settlement become territorial and aggressive. Territorial aggressiveness is what led Europeans to exploration. By the time they figured out the earth wasn’t flat, Europeans had cleared vast tracts of land, destroyed their great forests with fire, wore out their rich soil from over planting and polluted their people with pox and plague, a deadly legacy they carried with them to the bucolic New World of the Native American.

The need to find new lands to despoil led Columbus to the unspoiled lands of North America. There he encountered a people whose predominant myth of Creation was of man risen from the earth, one with the mountains, rivers and vegetation that surrounded him. The native peoples thought of themselves as being of the land rather than resident on it and, therefore, had no concept of land ownership. To them, the ground they hunted and planted was for everyone, like the air they breathed, a concept that would cause them at first to welcome and then later put them at odds with their new European visitors.

In 1492, there were estimated to be between five and ten million native people, in nearly 1,000 different tribes, inhabiting North America. Among this simple people, the Spanish, Dutch, French and English arrived in a devastating four prong invasion. Five hundred years before them, the Norse had tried to conquer North America but were driven off because they lacked the sophisticated weaponry and deadly pathogens of the later Europeans. The fifteenth and sixteenth century invaders brought with them firearms and warhorses to promote an even more evolved and aggressive culture of conquest and settlement than their Dark Ages ancestors.

But far worse than these modern weapons of war were the domesticated animals the new arrivals brought: cattle, horses and sheep that grazed the land barren, and pigs that carried the deadly pathogens of Europe’s highly concentrated societies. Within a century of Columbus’ first landing, war, famine, bubonic plague and small pox had reduced the native populations of Florida, the lower Mississippi, Virginia, New England and other coastal areas of North American by as much as ninety-five percent.

The profound and menacing effects of European greed must also be considered. First encountered by the native peoples of the small Caribbean Islands where Columbus landed, white economic imperative had devastating consequences. Remarking at the gentle ways of the Indians he first encountered, the great explorer was quick to recommend to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that these newly discovered people be immediately expropriated as slaves. When vast numbers of this New World chattel died in transit to Europe, however, Columbus next hit on the idea of exploiting his human cargo closer to home. Using as his model the economically successful plantations of the Mediterranean where slavery enabled enormous profits from hugely labor intensive enterprises, Columbus ordered his newly enchained native force be put to work digging for gold. But the living conditions imposed by the Spanish were inhumane, so much so that one tiny Caribbean island, Hispaniola, saw its entire population destroyed within half a century, shrinking from three hundred thousand native souls to less than five hundred in just under fifty years.

Seeking to replenish their supply of slaves and multiply their wealth, these same greedy Spanish were quick to extend their brutal economic calculus to the North American mainland. Landing in Florida in 1513, claiming the land for their sovereign, they devastated, in their unquenchable quest for gold, the territories of the people who would, decades later, become Creek, Cherokee, Choctaws and Chickasaws.

Wanting to remain competitive with their ancient European rivals, the English were next, landing in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 where they were welcomed and fed by the Powhatan, the soon-to-be-doomed people of Pocahantas. Later, in 1620, a second British invasion brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth, Massachusetts where these self-righteous Christian fundamentalists expropriated farm land from the Wampanoag descendants of the same Massassoit and Squanto who had saved the English from starvation during their first cruel winter in America.

By 1608, the French had pushed up the St. Lawrence into Quebec where they met Huron and Algonquin peoples laden with precious furs that in time would dominate European fashion while destroying entire nations of red people. And, finally, the Dutch in 1617 under the intrepid explorer Henry Hudson, after forcing their way past unruly Manhattoe at the very door to the continent, managed to intrude far inland, moving more than one hundred miles up the Hudson River to Albany, New York where they encountered and later armed Mohawk descendants of the legendary Hiawatha.

Iroquois - Romans of the West

A mong the first to experience the effects of the clash of culture between white and red were the Iroquois. In two astonishing summer months in the early seventeenth century events took place that catapulted these Stone Age natives of New York State into the Gunpowder Age, sending shock waves throughout the northeast wilderness that would reverberate across three centuries of near continuous warfare. In July, 1609, Samuel de Champlain, traveling with his new found Algonkin and Huron friends on the northern fringe of Iroquois territory just below the St. Lawrence, encountered a vengeful war party of Mohawk and Oneida raiders from the Iroquois confederation. Stepping boldly to the front of his new found allies, Champlain raised and fired his menacing arquebus at their enemies, killing three Iroquois war captains, sending the rest fleeing in panic.

Two months later, on the southern fringe of Iroquois territory, Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch, anchored his ship the Half Moon below the Mohawk River at the narrows of the river that bears his name. And at the instant news of Champlain’s thunder stick and Hudson’s floating island reached the Iroquois capital in Onondaga, a decision was made by the leaders of the Five Nations: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk. With crafty genius, they determined to play one European power against the other, gaining an advantage over both while completing their dominance of their other enemies, thus establishing an empire that would stand as a bulwark between European expansionism and the native peoples of the interior of the continent for nearly two centuries. To understand the Sioux, Apache, Cheyenne, Shawnee, Cherokee, Creek, Chippewa, Fox and hundreds of others in their relations with the land hungry whites, it is first important to understand the Iroquois and their powerful influence on the Europeans.

The name Iroquois derives from the French pronunciation of the Algonquian word Hirokoa, meaning the killer people. The original name by which the Iroquois referred to themselves was Ongwe-oweh, or Men of Men. Later the name became Haudenosaunee, or people of the longhouse. The longhouse, some of which were nearly a hundred yards in length, appeared in upper New York as early as AD 900. They were constructed of stout poles and thick bark walls and could house up to a dozen families, each with its own hearth for cooking and warmth. As far back as AD 1100 longhouses could be found clustered in compact villages on high terrain, sheltered from wind and enemy behind heavily palisaded walls.

Most researchers believe that the Iroquois originally migrated a millennium ago into the Finger Lakes area of New York from the Allegheny plateau of western Pennsylvania. Before that, they may have been part of the eastern migration of the original peoples who populated the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, people who’d come north from the American southwest thousands of years earlier. Archeological evidence appears to confirm the beliefs of the Iroquois themselves who to this day refer to the Hopi Indians of the southwest as cousins.

According to the Iroquois, this great migratory surge from the southwest first halted at the eastern edge of the Great Plains where some of their group remained behind in an area near St. Louis. As the Iroquois tell it, these distant cousins became the Pawnee. And after continuing north and east along the Ohio River, the main group fractured again. Those who pointed north became Huron. Those who pointed south toward the Carolinas became Cherokee. Those who continued east into western Pennsylvania became Susquehannocks. And from the Susquehannock of the Allegheny plateau, the people of the Five Nations eventually separated, moving north and east along the shores of the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence where they settled in upper New York and lower Ontario.

Directly south of modern day Syracuse, New York, an ages’ old geological fault created an east/west running ridgeline which was to become home to the Onondaga people and, in time, the geographical and cultural center of the entire Iroquois Confederation. According to Iroquois tradition, this ridgeline was the spine of the mythological turtle on whose back Sky Woman formed the ground from which all red men had sprung. From this spiny ridge ran the rivulets and streams that filled the immense hollows of the Finger Lakes and, overflowing from these, spilled into the swift waterways that fed the mighty rivers of the Susquehanna, Delaware and Allegheny.

The arrival of the Iroquois among these central New York ridges, around the lakes and waterways spilling from the mythical turtle’s back, most likely occurred to the detriment of older, non-agrarian Algonquian peoples who were forced further east and north into New England and Quebec. They came possibly at the beginning of the Medieval warming period which occurred in the centuries before the Little Ice Age, a period of moderate global warming when longer growing seasons would have made the rich loamy soils of New York valuable to their maturing horticultural skills.

For the past century and a half, the Iroquois have captured the attention of the leading archeologists of their time, men and women who, through painstaking study of the many ancient sites of Iroquoian influence scattered across New York State, have illuminated a culture similar to ours in terms of its embrace of freedom, self-reliance and pioneering spirit. As with many other native cultures, for instance, the Iroquois social structure was remarkably close to what we would consider perhaps a truer form of democracy than our own. Freedom to choose was promoted from birth, with the young suffering little of the authoritarian parenting enjoyed by their white counterparts. It continued to young manhood when braves were encouraged to prove themselves and were often allowed to conduct raids on their own with no recrimination from tribal leadership, even in times of peace. Even tribal chiefs wielded surprisingly little authority in the community, maintaining little more than an advisory role except during battle.

Unlike the Algonquian neighbors they found in their new territory, the Iroquois were matrilineal, matrilocal and horticultural. Their clans and, later their tribes, based the location of their villages and their patterns of ascendancy on their women. Daughters most frequently brought their husbands home to live in the lodgings and within the clan of their mother. Leadership of the tribe was then passed on to descendents within the same clan. The primary value of matrilineal structure was to break up large groups of fraternal males, discouraging feuding, making it possible to raise larger families while maintaining a tight knit, cooperative environment for them to grow.

The prominence of women in the Iroquois culture was most likely due to their importance as crop growers and pottery makers. In addition to the hunting, gathering and fishing activities of the men, Iroquois women were known to have cultivated crops of domesticated maize, beans and squash, which they called the three sisters of sustenance. Crops were grown, not in small garden plots, but in fields covering many acres. The work was great, but the yield sufficient to feed hundreds, providing a basis for the large, densely packed communities that would eventually overwhelm and disperse the Algonquin.

Gift giving and sharing were also important components of the matrilineal Iroquois culture. Though early European visitors took it as childish the way the natives of the northeast plied them almost desperately with the most trifling gifts, the ritual had far more to do with proving one’s worth than begging favor. To the Iroquois, it was not the accumulation of wealth that most mattered, rather it was the redistribution of one’s wealth among friends that conveyed importance.

Seventeenth century Jesuit observers described the ritual of gift giving in detail. According to their journals, every important native mission was begun with an elaborate ceremony of exchange. During this ritual, a visiting Iroquois emissary might bring forward as many as twenty items of value to bestow on his host. One by one, the Iroquois leader would lay his gifts before the French Governor or his lieutenant, for instance, explaining the relevance of each one to his mission.

The first gift might be to apologize for a transgression. The second might signify the strength of the bond no misdeed could break. The third might signify the love of the Iroquois for Onontio, the French leader. And so on. For the Europeans, impatient to get down to business, it took considerable time to adjust to this painstaking native diplomacy. Most whites never fully understood its significance. But it was a testimony to the power and influence of the Iroquois that, despite the low value the sophisticated Europeans placed on the gifts they received, the white nonetheless happily tolerated the ceremony.

From Dean R. Snow’s remarkable book The Iroquois (Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 1994) we learn much of how early members of the Five Nations dressed. Before the availability of European broadcloth, the natives clothed themselves entirely in loosely tailored leggings, shirts and breechcloths or long skirts made of deer hides. Needing seventeen hides each year to clothe a family of five, the Iroquois hunted deer primarily for skins. Deer meat was a bonus, complimenting other game and fish they caught.

The arrival of European cloth greatly relieved pressure on the deer population of Iroquoia which, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, faced extinction. Snow has calculated that native populations and deer populations had reached such a delicate equilibrium that any further growth of the former or decline of the latter would have driven hunters to encroach on the lands of their rivals, illustrating perhaps one positive contribution the European had on the Native American: that the Iroquois and other native peoples may well have hunted and propagated themselves out of existence had the Europeans not intervened.

As broadcloth gained in popularity, deer hide was slowly replaced by leggings, shirts and skirts of cloth. Decorations and adornments also grew more elaborate with the arrival of wampum delivered by the Dutch from the coastal Algonquin tribes of southeast New England and Long Island. Beads of white and purple manufactured from quahog shells were stitched into garments, belts and necklaces. Arm bands and wrist bracelets made from European metals were also popular.

Women wore their hair long and down their backs or knotted on their heads. The men most frequently shaved one or both sides of their head, leaving long, loose or knotted warlocks. The men also painted their faces. Blue signified good health. Black was used for mourning or war. And red was used alternately to signify spirited life or violent death. The men marked themselves with tattoos and slit their ears to accommodate adornments of down, fur or wampum. Before battle, warriors would dress themselves as elaborately as possible, wearing thick porcelain collars, beaded belts and ear adornments. Their bodies would be smeared with grease against mosquitoes and other insects.

As discussed, the matrilocal nature of early Iroquois society allowed for less feuding, providing the foundation for more densely packed communities than the Algonquian. Still, as horticulture allowed for populations to increase, conflicts developed among the several matrilocalities of New York. During the last half century, archeologists have unearthed the remains of several native villages, all positioned on defensible high ground and surrounded by palisades, sometimes double walled and earthwork reinforced. In 1615, Champlain encountered one such Iroquois fortification which he described as having walls of interlaced poles standing thirty or more feet tall, with wooden parapets and gutters to rain water on any attempts to fire the structure from outside.

By the middle of the twelfth century, Iroquois population had risen considerably thanks to the success of corn and beans as sustenance, and a history of near constant mourning war among them had hardened the Iroquois into fierce militarists. Originally conceived to avenge the deaths of tribal members fallen to disease or battle, mourning wars originated from the imperative to maintain populations above survival levels. Since Iroquoian revenge was as frequently exacted by taking prisoners as by killing an enemy, mourning war became an effective way of maintaining appropriate numbers of warriors, workers for the fields and virile young men and women necessary for propagation. Upon returning to their village, for instance, victorious warriors would give their prisoners to the family of the deceased who would then torture the unfortunates to determine their worthiness. In some cases, women, children and the elderly were made victims of this barbarity.

Torture was brutal and inhuman, so cruel that it elevated the act of vengeance to a twisted religiosity, a hideous blood ritual in which both the tortured and his torturer participated. Fingernails were torn off to keep the captured from loosening his bonds. Fingers were bitten or cut off to keep him from holding a knife or drawing a bowstring. If the torture did not stop there, hands were next burned to hideous stumps. After that, those found unworthy, that is those who would not stand tall in the face of such galling punishment, would be tortured interminably and, ultimately, burned to death. Others, those who did not cry out, or perhaps even managed in their agony to mock their torturers, might be spared, made into slaves and, ultimately, absorbed into the tribe, with children of the slaves later qualifying as full Iroquois citizens. Many times, however, even the strongest were killed, dying in an agony of fire as they stoically sang the tribal chants of their people.

In many cases, cannibalism was involved, with the burned soul being eaten after his death so that his tormentors could absorb his strength and courage into themselves. In one extraordinary case witnessed and documented by Jesuit missionaries to New France, Iroquois warriors roasted and ate captured children in front of their mothers. Such cruelty had the apparent benefit of easing the pain of the loss of a loved one and deterring an enemy from risking such a fate himself. But the latter proved illusive as the cycle of violence, fueled by the horrible mistreatment of prisoners, increased.

In July, 1609, at the time of Champlain’s first armed encounter with the Iroquois, the French officer witnessed the cruelty of victorious Algonquin against their captured Mohawk enemy. Even as early as then, the cycle of violence between Iroquois and their enemies had reached an abominable level. Champlain wrote of men tied to stakes and burned repeatedly with flaming torches until the skin fell from their bodies. He saw prisoners with their nails torn out, their fingers severed, their scalps flayed and scalded with boiling oil. Some wore necklaces of red hot steel hatchets. And yet, when asked about such barbarity, the Algonquin responded that the Iroquois would have done far worse themselves.

More than once, the French adventurer and others were astonished at the way Iroquois captives stood tall in the face of the most excruciating punishment. Their toughness, according to most European witnesses to these atrocities, was unmatched. Some time after Champlain wrote, a Jesuit missionary was witness to yet another bloody torture. In this case, the Iroquois captive, a fifty year old man whose hands had already been horribly mutilated, asked his captives in a calm, unwavering voice how they planned for him to die. By fire, came the response. That is well, was what the captive answered. For, I have killed many of your tribe myself. And my people will kill many more in revenge of my death.

Accounts, original reports and missives written by Jesuit missionaries in New France, indicate numerous acts of such barbarity by the Iroquois and against them. If one were to try to make a case for the noble savage corrupted by European influence, how can he possibly explain such horror? Revenge seems too weak a motive for such inhuman behavior. And yet vengeance is the only explanation offered by the first whites to witness it. Blood feuds lasting several generations, group abhorrence at any wrong-doing performed by any member of one clan against another, was so engrained in the native cultural of the Iroquois and their neighbors that torture was elevated to the greatest human act of loyalty to his clan. And if one individual were to rise against it, mob fury driven by the horrors of battle would sweep him aside.

The hurt given to one poor enemy soul was inconsequential to the euphoric blood thirst of the clan in defending itself and its possessions. Perhaps the most telling statement in behalf of torture was that recorded by a Jesuit of an Algonquin warrior who called it a sign of shameful weakness for any man to value human life ahead of his wealth and possessions. Since war parties, especially Iroquois war parties, marched against their enemies in order to plunder their wealth, this wealth was to be valued over any life, taken by any means.

It is important to realize that survival itself was at stake when one tribe plundered the village of another. Not only were valuable lives lost, lives necessary for defense, propagation and provisioning, but also critical food and fur stores were taken or destroyed. How many men, red or white, could watch their wives and children starve to death without exacting the most violent retribution against the people who’d plundered their food? And how many could hold a frozen infant and not perhaps beat and horribly mutilate any of his enemy who’d stolen its warming fur? Torture, therefore, the most heinous of modern crimes, may well have arisen as just punishment and potent deterrent for the most heinous crimes of prehistory.

Though ritualistic torture is reprehensible to most, various societies throughout history have embraced it. According to Snow, six conditions were found to be present in cultures where the practice has been frequent. First was the prominence of militarism and group conflict. Second was the importance of taking prisoners. Third was a great emphasis on conformity and generosity within one’s own tribe which in turn transferred natural aggressiveness to outsiders. Fourth, and perhaps most important, was the need to find reasons for every daily occurrence, either in the supernatural or the behavior of others. To the Iroquois, for instance, there was no such thing as chance or accidental death. Someone or something was to blame for every tragedy. Fifth was the religious significance of sacrifice to the supernatural, usually blood sacrifice. And finally, was the requirement for intense competition among groups for scarce resources upon which survival was based. As Snow observed, all these conditions were present in seventeenth century Iroquoia and, as a result, the people of the confederation behaved precisely as had others in similar environments throughout history.

Hiawatha’s Legacy

C enturies before Champlain was to witness the savagery of the relentless, reciprocal style of clan warfare that dominated the upper and lower St. Lawrence territory, its enormous brutality threatened the very existence of the Iroquois tribes who at the time were bitterly warring among themselves. It wasn’t until an enlightened champion of peace stepped forward that a monumental alliance was formed among the warring tribes of the Iroquois that allowed them to turn their fury from destroying one another and outward toward their neig hbors.

Legend tells of Ayonwentah (Hiawatha of the Longfellow poem), the father of daughters, seven of whom were killed in agonizing years of wars with neighboring tribes. So distraught was Hiawatha at the loss of his last surviving daughter that he deserted his tribe, leaving his people and the remaining members of his family to wander the wilderness alone, speaking to no man, starving himself.

In the forests of central New York, Hiawatha was said to have encountered a great holy man, Dekanawidah, the Peacemaker. Legend tells of an extraordinary individual, an itinerant preacher who, when tested once by his Iroquois hosts, even defied death. Taken by skeptical Mohawk to the great falls of the Cohoes, the Peacemaker was thrown over the precipice to prove if in fact he was protected by the Great Spirit whose message he claimed to carry. When the frothy rapids swallowed the poor soul, the Mohawk were certain they’d had their answer. But, on returning to their village, they found to their astonishment and delight the Peacemaker safe and well waiting for them seated on a fallen log in the center of their camp.

From the Peacemaker, Hiawatha learned a profound message of peace, that the truly strong made allies of their enemies, resisting hostilities so that all might prosper. Returning to his people, Hiawatha preached this message, in time persuading the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk to

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