Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia





[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Consult the article on Deganawida at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.]


Dekanawida ('two river-currents flowing together.' - Hewitt). An Iroquois prophet, statesman, and lawgiver, who lived probably during the second and third quarters of the 15th century, and who, conjointly with Hiawatha, planned and founded the historical confederation of the five Iroquois tribes. According to a circumstantial tradition, he was born in the vicinity of Kingston, Ontario, in what then was probably Huron territory, He was reputed to have been one of 7 brothers. Definite tradition gives him rank with the demigods, owing to the masterful orenda or magic power with which he worked tirelessly to overcome the obstacles and difficulties of his task, the astuteness he displayed in negotiation, and the wisdom he exhibited in framing the laws and in establishing the fundamental principles on which they were based and on which rested the entire structure of the Iroquois confederation. Omens foreshadowed his birth, and portents accompanying this event revealed the fact to his virgin mother that Dekanawida would be the source of evil to her people, referring to the destruction of the Huron confederation by that of the Iroquois. Hence at his birth his mother and grandmother with true womanly patriotism, sought to spare their country woes by attempting to drown the new-born infant by thrusting it through a hole made in the ice covering a neighbouring river. Three attempts were made, but in the morning after each attempt the young Dekanawida was found unharmed in the arms of the astonished mother. Thereupon the two women decided that it was decreed that he should live, and so resolved to rear him. Rapidly he grew to man's estate, and then, saying that he must take up his foreordained work, departed southward, first assuring his mother that in the event of his death by violence or sorcery, the otter skin flayed entire which, with the head downward, he had hung in a corner of the lodge, would vomit blood. Dekanawida was probably a Huron by blood, but perhaps an Iroquois by adoption. In the long and tedious negotiations preceding the final establishment of the historical confederation of the five Iroquois tribes, he endeavoured to persuade the Erie and the Neuter [neutral] tribes also to join the confederation; these tribes, so far as known, were always friendly with the Huron people, and their representatives probably knew of Dekanawida's Huron extraction. Many of the constitutional principles, laws, and regulations of the confederation are attributed to him. His chiefship did not belong to the hereditary class, but to the merit class, commonly styled the 'pine-tree chiefs.' Hence, he could forbid the appointment of a successor to his office, and could exclaim, "To others let there be successors, for like them they can advise you. I have established your commonwealth, and none has done what I have." But it is probable that prohibition was attributed to him in later times when the true nature of the merit chiefs had become obscured. Hence it is the peculiar honour of the merit chiefs of to-day not to be condoled officially after death, nor to have successors to their chieftaincies. For these reasons the title Dekanawida does not belong to the roll of 50 federal league chief.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 123-124.





© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College