The Great Law of Peace

Mar 04, 2022 by Rose O'Keefe

The late Alvin M. Josephy was a white historian specializing in Native history. In the beautifully illustrated 500 Nations, he told how part of Native communities' spiritual life included respect for the spirit of life in all beings and things, as well as the tie each person had with the whole. So when a man died in warfare, his clan mourned his death and was obliged to avenge it. These bonds created a bitter cycle that threatened the Five Nations generations before the arrival of Europeans.


In The Iroquois Confederacy, Emerson Klees wrote about the legend in which a prophet, Deganawida, ended warring among the nations and established the “Great Peace.” Deganawida had a dream of an evergreen tree reaching through the sky to the land of the Great Spirit. It was the tree of sisterhood because the Iroquois are a matrilineal society, with five roots for the Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas. Klees is a white historian who has long studied the Finger Lakes area and its notable people.

In Genesee Valley Women, white historian Irene Beale wrote about a legend which of how the Ongweh-owheh, or Genuine People, fought amongst themselves. Then a Huron, Deganawida, brought a message of peace and power that was first accepted by a woman. She became called Jigonsaseh, meaning New Face or New Mind. After Deganawida and Jigonsaseh united with Ayonwartha (a.k.a. Hiawatha) the League of Five Nations was founded on the Great Law of Peace, about 1525 at a Great Council Fire in Onondaga. Ayonwartha who lived in an Onondaga village west of Syracuse, showed the group how one arrow can be broken, but five tied in a bundle could not.

The New York State Office of Parks booklet, Art from Ganondagan, included: “a lesser-known version of the saying, ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ is based on the bundle of arrows of the Five Nations that represents their strength.”

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