Deganawida – “The Peacemaker”



Deganawida – “The Peacemaker”

The Iroquois have a fascinating legend about a savior named Deganawida. The myth seems to have originated during the final decades of Pre-Columbian America. The story goes like this:
During a time of pervasive fear and instability in the Iroquois world, a young virgin gave birth to a son. The virgin was told in a dream that “your child will be a messenger of the Creator and will bring peace and harmony to the people on earth.” The child was named Deganawida—“The Peacemaker.” When Deganawida had come of age he told his mother, “I shall now build my canoe from white stone, for the time has come for me to start my mission in this world. I know I must travel afar on lakes and rivers to seek out the council smoke of Nations beyond this lake. It is now time for me to go stop the shedding of blood among human beings.”

As Deganawida began his mission he first encountered a group of hunters who were fleeing from the bloodshed in the their own village. He instructed them: “Go back to your people and tell them that the Good News of Peace and Righteousness has come to your nation.” Continuing his journey, he met an evil woman who lured hunters inside with the promise of a meal and then poisoned them. Deganawida told her, “You must stop this wicked practice and accept the Good Message that I bring from my Father so that people shall love one another and live together in peace.” The woman accepted the Message, vowing never to harm anyone again. Because this woman was the first to accept the Law of Peace she was given the role of appointing the chiefs in the new order.

Deganawida’s next convert was a vicious cannibal named Ayonhwathah (Hiawatha). The cannibal repented when the Peacemaker gave him “a new mind.” Deganawida commissioned Ayonhwathah to carry the Message of Peace to other tribes. In obedience, Ayonhwathah succeeded in converting the Mohawks. Later Ayonhwathah’s three daughters were killed by a malevolent shaman who rejected the way of peace. Deganawida found the grief-stricken Ayonhwathah wandering aimlessly in a forest and for the first time spoke the words of the “Requickening Address”—the Ceremony of Condolence. This “liturgy” healed Ayonhwathah’s mind, and together he and Deganawida went on to convert four other nations. Finally the evil shaman who had killed Ayonhwathah’s daughters was converted, and at his village the “Great Tree of Peace” was planted under whose shade the nations would now sit.

The Peacemaker’s mission, as the many accounts of the legend make clear, was to reestablish the natural equilibrium on which the wellbeing of individuals, societies, and the whole of creation depends. Deganawida achieved this not by destroying the witches, sorcerers, and wrongdoers, but by healing them—by “making their minds straight.” Deganawida’s role was not that of a warrior, but a redemptive shaman—a healer. He himself was quite explicit about this: “Health means Peace, for that is what comes when minds are sane and bodies are cared for.”

How about that!

What a fascinating legend! Of course a Christian can’t read the legend of Deganawida the Peacemaker without thinking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That this legend arose about fifty years before the arrival of European Christians is quite mysterious, or we might say providential. The legend was a kind of Iroquois John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ. The Deganawida myth could have been and should have been the perfect place to begin in communicating the gospel in an Iroquois context. Something like this: Jesus Christ is the true Deganawida—the true Peacemaker (just as he is the true Seed of Abraham and the True Son of David). Jesus is the Prince of Peace who calls us out of our evil ways, forgives our sins, heals our minds, and brings peace to our world. This would be the gospel made intelligible to the Iroquois.

But alas…

This did not happen. And it didn’t happen, at least in part, because the European “Christians” didn’t believe their own gospel. They didn’t believe in Jesus as the Prince of Peace. They certainly didn’t believe in a Gospel of Peace that renounces killing enemies in favor of healing them. Worst of all, though they called themselves Christians, their minds had not been made new or their souls healed by Christ. They were still infected with the insanity of violence.

How sad. Imagine how different things could have been.

I’ll leave you with this question: Five hundred years later how are we doing—we who profess to follow the Prince of Peace, the True Deganawida?



(This material comes from The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America by James Wilson.)