The Covenant Chain of peace: Metaphor and religious thought in seventeenth century Haudenosaunee Council oratory

Louise Johnston
Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University
July, 2005
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The phrase 'Covenant Chain' is unique in the English language and along with its antecedents---'linked arms', 'the rope', and the 'iron chain'---the Haudenosaunee established relationships with the Europeans. The 'Covenant Chain' has been the subject of extensive discussion since the mid-1980s when a group of scholars in Iroquois Studies published several volumes on the diplomacy of the Haudenosaunee during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most studies focus on the political aspects of the Covenant Chain and the role it played in creating and sustaining alliances. This study examines the meaning of the word 'covenant' and related ideas in the context of Haudenosaunee cosmology, history, culture and religious traditions. The numerous metaphors employed by the Haudenosaunee in council oratory and the many meanings associated with these different metaphors are discussed with a view to better understanding the Covenant Chain in relation to what Mohawk scholar Deborah Doxtator calls 'history as an additive process'. In order to facilitate this discussion, the religious dimensions of covenant in European thought during this period are examined. While the basis of post-Reformation covenant theology differs radically from Haudenosaunee ideas of covenant, points of convergence do exist particularly in the area of political theory making. Johannes Althusius' (1557-1638) concept of 'symbiosis' is one such example. Surprisingly, Europeans who were involved in or who had knowledge of the Covenant Chain provide no theological discourse on it. Philosophical and theological discussions of the chain come from the Haudenosaunee themselves. These relationships went well beyond contractual obligations and along with the idea of the 'middle line' which separates people and at the same time joins them together. Contrary to the widely accepted scholarly view that the chain---either the 'Covenant Chain' or the 'Iron Chain'---was associated only with alliances between the Haudenosaunee and the British, this study shows that the Haudenosaunee used the same expressions in their alliances with the French as well.