The act of atonement among the Haudenosaunee (the Six Nations Iroquois) Confederacy of the North American northeast takes several forms.

Atonement or the making right, the reestablishing of balance, the restoration of sanity, alleviation of grief and the resumption of life is of primary concern to those individuals, families, communities and nations, which exist within the circle of the Haudenosaunee.

Elaborate rituals to insure peace and harmony are restored after the ebb of conflict compose a critical part of Haudenosaunee culture. These acts and ceremonies, songs and customs can be traced to the formation of the Confederacy in the 12th century when a prophet called Skennerahowi (“he who makes peace”) or “the Peacemaker” entered the homeland of the Iroquois to bring an end to war by creating an alliance system of nation-states based upon a common set of rules called “Kaiienerekowa” or “the great law of peace”.

Where chaos, violence and warlords reigned he established procedures for resolving disputes. Working in concert with his principal disciples Aiionwatha (Hiawatha of the Onondagas), and Jikonsawseh (Seneca) he persuaded the Iroquois to cease fighting among themselves and cede partial authority to a Grand Council of all the Iroquois nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca with the Tuscaroras joining after they fled North Carolina in 1715.  This “league of the Iroquois” became the most formidable native organization in North America with its influences felt far into the continental interior.

The Confederacy was, and is, a democratic entity in which each representative to its “grand council”  must be selected by their respective citizens in a series of public forums open to all regardless of age or gender.  These representatives are called “roiiane” in Mohawk, meaning “nice people”. Referred to as “chiefs” they are held to strict codes of behaviour and may be recalled for breach of duty. Each candidate is selected by a female leader called “Kontiianehson” or ‘clanmother”.  Her duties stem directly from Jikonsawseh, the first human being to embrace the teachings of Skennenrahowi and subsequently the first clanmother. No male leader may assume his position without first securing the nomination of the clanmother and the endorsement of his clan.  There are nine clans within Iroquois society divided into ecological realms: hawk, snipe and heron from the sky; bear wolf and deer from the earth; and turtle, eel and beaver from the water.  Not all Iroquois have nine clans since the Mohawks and Oneidas have only three: bear, wolf and turtle.

Clans are essential to Iroquois life. Disputes, property disbursement, ceremonies, marriages and political stature all are rooted in clan affiliation. Each citizen of the Confederacy must have membership within a clan, which follows a maternal line.  However, in instances of naturalization or adoption, a process called rotishennakehte (“they carry the name”) a person born of another nation mat be accorded all the rights and duties of all other Iroquois. They are given a clan name and free to take part in the activities of their respective community but may not hold elective office. In many instances the adoptions were made to replace someone who had died in warfare. The adoptee assumed the dead person’s identity, their social standing, and name, occupation and family obligations. Their former self was entirely obliterated.   After decades of inclusion beginning in the 17th century the Iroquois had become a complex mixture of dozens of native peoples such as Huron, Tutelo, Susquehanna, Mohican and many others. Added to this in later years were captured Europeans and a few Africans who escaped slavery to find refuge within the Confederacy.

When offenses do occur the clan leaders, roiiane and kontiianeshon, serve as arbitrators and judges.  Since the Iroquois justice system is based on reconciliation and atonement, versus the Western adversarial and punishment, all efforts are made to have the offending party acknowledge their wrong and make amends to the injured person, to make things whole and complete. Removing the offender from the community is not an option except for serious crimes such as rape and murder in which instances capital punishment may be imposed.  Under traditional law a sentence of death is also considered when children are sexually abused. A person found guilty of a lesser crime must make amends through the issuing of a formal apology done before a public assembly then assigned a series of tasks designed to reinforce good behaviour while satisfying the person who has been wronged.  All victims have a right to determine the degree of punishment but must not remove the offender from their normal duties and are required to restore them to good standing.  Compensation was also ordered either by the giving of wampum to the victims, restoration of stolen goods or tendering of physical labour until the victim could return to their former condition.

In all instances the Iroquois strive to return to a state of mental, emotional and spiritual clarity called “kanikenriio” (the good mind).  This can only occur when a person is free from guilt or the compulsions of hatred and revenge. At the time of Skennenrahowi the Iroquois were consumed by wars, which were particularly harsh given their common heritage.  After great effort he had convinced many Iroquois there was an alternative to conflict using the principles of the Great Law of Peace but he had yet to find a way to alleviate the personal anguish felt by those who had suffered the loss of family and friends.  It was Aiionwatha who came up with a solution in which atonement without revenge, forgiveness without sacrifice was possible.

Aiionwatha had become, along with Jikonsawseh, the most effective advocate for the establishment of the Confederacy but was confronted by the Onondaga warlord and sorcerer Atotaho said to have the power to command the winds.  He was thoroughly evil, his appearance marked by snakes entangled in his hair and seven crooks in his twisted body. Deformed and suspicious, he was given to the consumption of human flesh.  He responded to Skennenrahowi’s peacemaking and Aiionwatha’s advocacy by keeping the Onondagas in a state of terror by threatening murder on those who embraced the Great Law. His rage against his kinsman Aiionwatha was so great as to cause him to kill all seven of the preacher’s daughters.

Aiionwatha went insane with grief, stumbling about for many days until he reached a small lake south of the main Onondaga towns. There he sat but the intensity of his sadness was so great as to cause the water birds to flee from his presence, taking the lake’s waters with them. Aiionwatha had sufficient reason to notice this strange event and saw clusters of snail shells on the lake bottom. He gathered the snails into a string and held them in his hand uncertain if he would ever have his suffering relieved. At that time Skennenrahowi approached singing a chant, which restored Aiionwatha’s reasoning and brought him to Kanikenriio. Beads drilled from the quahog shell, its purple and white colours to be deemed sacred by the Iroquois, would in time, replace the shells. The colours represented the transition from the blood, which pools beneath the surface of the skin (purple) to the clarity of healing (white). Called anonkoha in Mohawk the beads would be woven in belts and strands, the alignment and patterns having specific meaning.  These wampum beads were vital to the culture of the Iroquois and would, in colonial America times, be used as currency, a practice quite distinct from its original intent.

Skennerahowi first spoke the words of healing and the Iroquois has sustained atonement 800 years ago but his chants and the procedures, which accompany them, since then.  The words were used when the Iroquois as a group approached Atotaho who used every tactic and power he had to defeat them only to be subdued by the power of Skennenrahowi’s songs. He was the last to accept the Great Law of Peace and in recognition of his conversion was given the role of chairperson of the new Confederacy.  Atotaho had to acknowledge his past before his mind and body was healed. He grasped the string of shells brought by Aiionwatha then accepted his fate. Rather than have the sorcerer executed Skennenrahowi converted his power from evil into a force which propelled the Confederacy into being.

Besides the string and belts of shells Skennenrahowi also used universal symbols to represent the events of the day. He said the eastern white pine tree, the tallest of all northeastern trees, would represent the Confederacy with its roots deep into the ground and its top touching the clouds, connecting earth and sky while visible to all human beings.  The four roots of the great tree of peace were white and gleamed in the sun, they extending to the four sacred directions and were meant to be followed to the tree itself. All nations and individuals were free to walk alongside the roots and secure physical, spiritual and moral shelter beneath the branches of the tree. On top of the tree he placed an eagle to watch for anyone approaching and to call to the people below to be alert against possible dangers. Before the Confederacy was formally established Skennenrahowi caused the tree to be uprooted from the ground and in the resulting large cavity he pointed out a fast flowing underground stream.  He had all the former warlords and warriors through their weapons into the hole were the waters carried them away.  He replanted the tree and said that the casting away of the weapons meant warfare was forever outlawed among the nations of the Confederacy and their allies.

Skennenrahowi instructed the Iroquois as to the rituals they were to preserve if they were live in a state of peace. He created fifty roiiane with an equal number of kontiianehson (clanmothers).  To every one these he added an assistant called raterontanonha (“he takes care of the tree” or sub-chief), a female faithkeeper called an iakoterihonton and a male faithkeeper roterihonton.  These two are to advise the roiiane and kontiianehson on spiritual matters while insuring the ceremonial activities are conducted at an appropriate time and manner.  The result was the governing council of the Mohawks, for example, consisted of 45 individuals (a roiiane, Kontiianehson, iakoterihonton and roterihonton) since there were nine roiiane with each of the three clans having three “titled” male leaders.  All roiiane had to have a title name that was decided upon at the time of the formation of the Confederacy.  The names are permanent and clan specific, they transferred to a roiiane at the time of his installation in a ceremony called a ‘condolence.”

Skennenrahowi created the procedures by which a condolence takes place.  Upon the death of a roiiane the mourning nation will send out strings of wampum to each of the other nations. The person carrying the strings is called a “runner” and will call them to gather to replace the former roiiane with another.  Once the Confederate representatives are gathered together the word of Skennenrahowi are spoken in a long chant, a eulogy of sorts. They begin, symbolically, at “the edge of the woods” just as Skennenrahowi began to emerge from the forest to the clearing before Atotaho. These songs cite the grief felt by all the people at the loss of a clan leader, and then cite the formation of the Confederacy.  They are called “Hai Hai” songs and may take hours to complete. They express not only sadness but also the joy at the knowledge that the Great Law of Peace endures.

For this event the Confederacy divides into two sections: the “younger brothers (or nephews)”, meaning the Oneidas, Cayugas and Tuscaroras, who speak and sing the words of condolence to the “old brothers” (or uncles); the Mohawks, Onondagas and Senecas. A restoration of the mind is called for along with an alleviation of sorrow. If the older brothers have suffered the death of a roiiane then the younger ones will conduct the grieving rituals, a situation which is reversed if the younger ones have experienced a death.

The speakers will use symbolic language such as using fawn skin to wipe the eyes clear of tears, a feather to open the ear channels and pure spring water to remove the blockage in the throat.  They will recite how the Confederacy came to be and call off the title names of each of the 50 roiiane.  Tobacco is placed into an open fire as part of the ritual, an offering meant to carry the words of the people to the universe.  Tobacco is also used during the installation of a ceremony but is smoked in white clay pipes by the roiiane. It is said that the tobacco plant was brought to earth from the skyworld and is the means by which human prayers are most effectively carried not only to the world but also to the spiritual beings that monitor human activity.

When tobacco is placed into fire and becomes smoke words become power, thoughts have physical substance. It is considered evil to misuse this power with severe repercussions for those who employ it for purposes other than prayer, thanksgiving or clarity of mind. Tobacco is so closely allied with humans it is called oionkwa:onwe that is the same root word as human beings. Its latin name is niotiana rustica and is very harsh and pungent, hence those who elect to smoke it may blend the leaf with gentler tobaccos or herbs.

The removal of sorrow and anger is a necessary function of all Iroquois social, ceremonial and political activities. No important session can begin without the recitation of the ohenten kariwahtekwen, which is “the words which come before all else”. This is an “address” since it speaks directly to the different elements of the planet beginning with the earth and proceeding to water, fishes, insect, plants, animals, birds, winds, thunder, moon, stars, spiritual beings, the creator. Gratitude is expressed to all of these entities that is then carried over to the actual communal function. It is also meant to remove any feelings of hostility since it places the human experience within a broader natural and spiritual cycle. Once the emotions of the moment are swept away and clarity of mind restored the matters at hand may be addressed using thinking unencumbered by spite.

The Iroquois have used these methods of peace thinking and peace acting for generations.  The historical record lists hundreds of events marked by the “cleansing of the mind” and the “raising of the tree” between the Iroquois and their European neighbours. Beginning with the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534 the Iroquois have used the power of imagery, ritual and music to effect peace.  Wampum diplomacy was initiated with the Dutch in the second decade of the seventeenth century followed by the usage of the “silver covenant chain” between England and the Confederacy in 1677.  In 1653 a formal treaty of peace and friendship in which a “maypole tree” was planted in colonial Quebec with the French. Although this compact would not hold a permanent treaty guaranteeing peace with the French was signed in 1701.  That agreement is still held to be in effect by the Confederacy.

As part of the formal negotiations with the European nations the Confederacy used acts of atonement prior to discussions on the terms of a pending treaty. Speakers would rise, express their sorrow, make and appeal for healing and then give belts of wampum as compensation for any losses. The European delegation reciprocated. The language and rituals of Native-European treaty making took root with the Iroquois. The employment of phrases such as “as long as the grass grows” began in the northeast, as was the smoking of tobacco in “peace pipes”.  The requirement that no Native lands could be transferred without the consent of national governments stemmed from the Iroquois complaints to Britain of avaricious land speculators trespassing on Native territory, entering into fraudulent sales agreements with individuals and then using force to remove the natives. This insistence on a formal set of rules led to the enactment of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 outlawing intrusions onto Indian lands west of the Allegheny Mountains and proved to be a primary cause of the American Revolution.

That war, perceived as a family fight by the Confederacy, drove a deep wedge among the Iroquois as factions within the league elected to fight for or against the rebellious Americans. As brutal as the conflict was on the frontier it was equally destructive for the Iroquois who had dozens of their towns destroyed, saw hundreds die from starvation and entire populations relocated to Upper Canada (now Ontario).  Yet the Haudenosaunee Confederacy endured and summoned sufficient representation to meet with the Americans in western New York State in the fall of 1794. The result, after the rituals of condolence, was the one and only treaty between the Iroquois as a collective and the United States.

In subsequent year the Iroquois lost most of our lands with the greater part of our population moving north of the Great Lakes or to distant Wisconsin. A group of Senecas and Cayugas settled in northeastern Oklahoma while a small band of Mohawks secured land in north central Alberta. Under this stress of displacement and reduced political influence the Iroquois degenerated into a period of chaos marked by widespread alcohol abuse.  This destructive behaviour was brought under control as a result of the religious teachings of Skaniateriio (Handsome Lake) a Seneca prophet. He had a series of visions beginning in 1799 in which he was shown how the Iroquois might survive in a distinctly different world.

Skaniateriio stressed the need for the public admission of transgressions.  He introduced the practice of holding a string of sacred wampum while making a confession during one of the 13 lunar ceremonies that mark the Iroquois year. He taught that without a purging of guilt there would be severe repercussions in the spirit world. Prior to this, the Iroquois perception of the afterlife was one of release and awareness: the spirit was liberated from the body to return along a star path to a place of living light, an actual planet in the Pleiades cluster. While on this journey the spirit would come to know the mysteries of the universe and would be thereby enlightened.  Punishment for acts of evil beyond the clan sanctions occurred at the time of death when the spirit was denied enlightenment.  Skaniateriio expanded upon this, describing in vivid detail a version of Pentecostal hell fire and damnation radical enough to counter the moral anarchy threatening to overwhelm ancestral customs.

Skaniateriio succeeded in part because he did not try and suppress the Skennenrahowi’s principles but to strengthen them by emphasizing the need to maintain the traditional rituals. The result was a body of ethics called “The Code of Handsome Lake”. It is recited entirely by memory each year among the Iroquois with each community sponsoring the recital on a rotating basis.

The fundamental elements of Iroquois society have endured into the 21st century.  Clan affiliation is stable even as the Iroquois language endures great stress.  The ceremonial cycle is followed on most territories.   The ancient practices of atonement are present but no longer central to resolving disputes. Canadian and American justice methods have supplanted the ancient customs.  An Iroquois citizen who breaches the law is more likely to be imprisoned than reconciled. Compensation is difficult to come by as crimes against property has become commonplace. The roiiane and kontiianehson no longer serve as arbitrators although they carry on with their ceremonial and political functions.

Atonement as witnessed by the community is a whisper of what it once was.


Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk.  He is the former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes, a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association and was a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. He is the author of Iroquois on Fire published by the University of Nebraska.

His address is: Doug George-Kanentiio, Box 450, Oneida, NY 13421. Tel. 315-363-1655. E-mail: