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Hiawatha Legend

The legend of Hiawatha incorporates the formation stories of the Five Nations of the Iroquois (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca), which would later influence Benjamin Franklin and the colonies in rebellion. While details on exactly which tribe Hiawatha was born into are sketchy, common belief states that he was born into the Mohawk.

Hiawatha Legend

Hiawatha is a pivotal figure in the history of the Iroquois' five nations. He was a shaman and unifier, a lawmaker and a statesman who's work to unite the tribes as a cohesive force inspired the founding fathers to form a republic based on democratic principles.

The Birth of Five Nations

Legends describe the five tribes of the Iroquois as created by the Great Spirit, each given a special gift to help others. When the five tribes could not get along, the Great Spirit charged Hiawatha, a shaman, to unite the people.

One legend suggests that during Hiawatha's work to unite the tribes, he was opposed by a chief named Wathatotraho. Following his defeat, Wathatotraho murdered Hiawatha's daughter for revenge. Other legends say it was a great bird sent by a powerful chief named Atotarho who killed Hiawatha's daughter. While the names vary, the tales of Hiawatha's opposition from a powerful chief remains the same.


Despite the staggering loss of his child, Hiawatha refused to be dissuaded from his work. He likened the tribes to the fingers of a warrior's hand. But as the tribes each agreed to his counsel, he refused to lead them as one nation. Instead, he urged the tribes to choose from amongst them their wisest women who served as peacemakers and clan mothers, tempering disputes and guiding the others with advice.

The wise women chose the chief of their tribe, acted as his advisors, and could remove him if his decisions brought harm to their tribe. Hiawatha believed that the women of the tribe would be better caretakers for the tribe as a whole, allowing the men to focus on hunting and defense as needed.

Among the decisions that Hiawatha's tribal elders chose was to unify their defense position by assigning each tribe a task to carry out. As a whole, the five nations were Iroquois, though they maintained their individual identities as Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca.

Hiawatha's Influence

Hiawatha legends abound, but tribal records and oral histories confirm that a great chief and wise man named Hiawatha lived in the 1500s. His unification of the Iroquois stabilized the region and provided his people with a powerful position from which to deal with the Western Europeans seeking to colonize the region. Benjamin Franklin, a great admirer of Hiawatha, was impressed by the genius of the Iroquois League, the shared defense, the method for choosing leaders, and the use of negotiation before war.

Iroquois leaders counseled the colonists to unite as the tribes had as early as 1744. In 1754, Franklin proposed a unification concept to the Albany Congress, but the idea was rejected. However, in 1774, the first Articles of Confederation were mapped out based on the Iroquois and Franklin's proposal. The Articles of Confederation would later become the first draft of the U.S. Constitution, a document that was based on the Iroquois Constitution and the work of Hiawatha.