If there is one symbol by which the Rotinonhsón:ni are most well-known, it is the wampum belt that honors a founder of our confederacy, an Onondaga man of many sorrows named Aionwà:tha.
Aionwà:tha’s wampum belt was the inspiration for the flag flying proudly from one end of Iroquoia to the other. This iconic image-a white chain of four squares and a pine tree on a purple background-could not have been better conceived by a Madison Avenue advertising firm, for it is universally accepted by the people it represents. It is sewn in our clothing, tattooed on our skin, and incorporated into the logo of practically every company and sports team.
It is the meaning of the belt that resonates with the Rotinonhsón:ni. It represents not only The Great Law of Peace that unified the Five Nations, but an imagined “golden age” before European contact…as well as the hope that not all of our glory days are behind us.
Aionwà:tha’s story, the epic of confederation, is essentially a sequel to the Rotinonhsón:ni creation story. Told in sequence, there is no better introduction to our cultural world.
When the stories first caught my interest, I asked the question that many ask: Which of the written versions is considered “definitive?” I was told that there really is no such thing. Instead, there are a number of versions recorded at various times throughout history, sometimes in the native tongue, sometimes in translation, each of them forming a part of the overall tradition. While some have sought in vain for just such a definitive version, the true strength of these cultural epics is their variety. This means they’ve been fully digested by wide range of people, and are expressing themselves through us in all our diversity. What would it say about our confederacy if we all told the same story the exact same way?
This is not to say that there never was a definitive version of either of these stories. At one time, there may well have been. I have no doubt that both are based on true events. (The world was created, and I’m pretty sure the confederacy was too.) As you read this book, you will see that an evolution occurred with each new telling that reflected the times of each particular storyteller. I present several versions of the confederation epic, some in their entirety, in the order in which they appeared. The length of some quotes goes against the grain of modern conventions, but I felt the rarity of the sources warranted the extra attention given them.
That being said, this is not an exhaustive collection of all the known versions, nor a point-by-point comparison of each of them. For the confederation epic, I focus mainly on the characterization of Aionwà:tha and Tekanawí:ta, the principals actors of the drama, and how their roles evolved over time.
The chronological focus of this book is essentially “pre-contact,” but the sources I draw from are “post-contact.” The earliest of these is over three and a half centuries old, recorded by a Dutch settler. There is no doubt that the experience of colonization colored the way each of our chroniclers saw the past, whether native or colonist, just as our own experiences color the way we look back on history today. Nevertheless, a chronological focus on the colonial era will have to await another book-its unmistakable shadow will have to suffice for this one.
You will notice that my use and definition of “living history” throughout the text is slightly different than the way historical re-enactors employ the term. My concept of living history goes beyond getting dressed up in period clothing, although it can include that if one is so inclined.
As I have come to understand it, a nation or people with a living culture also have a living history. A living history is one that evolves with a people as time goes by, getting more complex as we need it to be. An example of this is the way a modern version of the creation story explains how Europeans, Africans, and Asians were created, when the original story only mentioned Native Americans. A living history is free to incorporate new information about the past. It may not bear any resemblance to a more “empirical” history recognized by scholars, but it contains a wealth of information on other levels.
That is not to say that a living history is simply an oral tradition, or, as the federal government’s lawyer fighting your land claim might suggest, historical revisionism. A living history can incorporate information found in historical documents, museum collections, and archaeological artifacts, in addition to that which is conveyed from tribal elders. The common wisdom says our ancestors were not a literate people, capturing their words only in petroglyphs and wampum belts, yet the texts I present say otherwise. Somehow, the Iroquois of old made sure their stories made it to print, either by telling them to some European scribe, or by learning to read and write themselves. Their efforts allow us to “time travel” to recover details of the story that may have been lost along the way. Reading their words, you will find that something of their spirit and attitude comes through-something that isn’t hard to recognize as our own.
Ultimately, a living history is one that has come to life in the minds of the people, an inner reality in which our ancestors continue to guide us. Eventually their story becomes our story…and goes on and on forever.