What Can the Iroquois Legend of the White Roots of Peace Teach Us Now?
Human beings are surrounded by their particular cultural context. Hi-awatha, an early Iroquois chief, was born into a society that practiced cannibalism and some other forms of ritual magic for the sake of gain-ing power over others.
Hiawatha’s encounter with the prophet was one of those excep-tional events in a lifetime, a defining moment. Hiawatha was struck by the countenance of the Peacemaker, and convinced by his message, which caused him to reassess his life, and he resolved to rebuild it up-on the new values of righteousness, health, and power imparted by the prophet. What was unusual in Hiawatha was the depth of his turna-round, and the earnestness with which he embraced and embodied the message. Change was inevitable; there was no going back. And what did it mean to go forward?
A naïve assumption takes for granted the power of utopian ideals to shape a new future with perfect justice and freedom for all. Histori-cally, this has never been accomplished. Modern attempts at utopia have simply led to bloodshed and horrors, from the French Revolution to Russian Communism or German Nazism. What the legend of the White Roots of Peace illustrates is quite different. Only a simplistic modern perspective could assume that as soon as Hiawatha embraced the message, suddenly it was just a matter of organizing the right committees and implementing the right decisions. The legend has more depth and wisdom than that. When something new comes on the horizon, the established order reacts and puts it to the test. Atotarho, the wizened magician, had more than one arrow to his bow, and he did not hesitate to use them. As soon as Hiawatha acted within the New Mind, Atotarho reacted. The deaths of all Hiawatha’s immediate fami-ly followed. The violent reaction failed to take into account the power of new ideas rooted in the spirit.
Hiawatha was not yet ready to further the message of social re-newal—like all civilizing heroes, he had to undergo tests. As a chief and a cannibal, he knew what it was to impart suffering to others. Now, he was on the receiving end. And an important inner journey of transformation and personal redemption began.
Hiawatha wandered aimlessly, to all outward appearance. In reali-ty, the act of resisting the inner urge for vengeance, although not visi-ble to the external world, appearing as something purely passive, is the most intense spiritual activity. The legend tells us that no one could approach Hiawatha and bring him consolation, because no one knew of such suffering. The prophet could have consoled him, but he was waiting for Hiawatha’s transformation to reach completion. And Hia-watha did accomplish a remarkable metamorphosis, but only when the time was ripe. In a beautiful image we are told of how his grief was lifted. What appears impossible (crossing the lake on foot) was made possible by the ducks lifting the water for him. What seems impossible (the overcoming of such a crushing grief as Hiawatha’s) was made possible by the depth to which the message had penetrated the chief’s soul, and by the suffering he was willing to bear for it. This is a mes-sage that a modern political activist often does not want to hear. This is what made Hiawatha’s deed one that lives on; centuries later it still carries a civilizing impulse.
After Hiawatha crossed the dry lake bed on foot, he picked up the wampum shells, placed them on three strings and created the Ritual of Condolence. Hiawatha truly and completely processed his grief; he saw the larger purpose of it. Only someone undergoing a transfor-mation of this magnitude could now understand the grief that his peo-ple had gone through for centuries because of decadent cultural prac-tices.
What follows is remarkable. The prophet was there to perform the Ritual of Condolence, because Hiawatha had removed all the inner obstacles and made it possible. Nothing could now possibly stop the strength of the two men. When they presented themselves to the tyrant, he could only play his last tricks; to be sure, they were formidable feats. No one is in the position of Atotarho unless he knows some-thing, possesses knowledge that could be used for the good, but that he has decided to use for his own advantage. Atotarho was a “wise man,” but the negative image of the Peacemaker. One man used his knowledge selflessly to liberate his fellow human beings; the other, gripped by fear, used power to further his own goals. The story shows that the Peacemaker knew of the perverted wisdom of Atotarho.
Now to the epilogue. Decadent social practices do not exist in a vacuum; there are the perpetrators and the enablers. Without the ena-blers, the Atotarhos of this world would have nowhere to go. When decadent social practices have persisted for a long time, there is a cul-ture that pervades and masks all values; common sense has been turned upside down. Well-meaning reformers can alter surface appear-ances for a short time, but nothing will really change until culture is affected. Hiawatha tapped into what can be called “cultural power.” Culture is the realm where identities (of individuals, groups, and na-tions) are forged. New identities must be created that are powerful enough to transform every facet of the economy, polity, and the cul-ture itself. The greatest cultural heroes are spiritual and moral leaders (we saw one in George Washington).
Hiawatha acquired new inner powers. He inwardly overcame the force that Atotarho used outwardly to divide and conquer. As long as the tribes were at each other’s throats, Atotarho had an easy task. As long as they preferred to nurse factional interests instead of the inter-ests of the whole, isolated actions from individual tribes could do noth-ing against the power of Atotarho, the power that paralyzed faith through the cry “Hwe-do-ne-e-e-e-e-eh” (When will this be?). Togeth-er with the Peacemaker, Hiawatha could offer new inner certainty to the tribes. The Peacemaker alone could never have reached this goal; after all, he was not even one of the Iroquois people. But an Iroquois fully embraced the New Mind and embodied it; a formidable task was brought to its completion.
The representatives of the Five Nations must have sensed that something was different in Hiawatha. Perhaps they saw how aligned the Peacemaker and Hiawatha were with each other. Their customary thinking would have led them to believe that a chief who did not retal-iate the violence inflicted upon him would be “less than a man.” What was Hiawatha hoping to prove by letting Atotarho’s crime go unre-venged? Now the Iroquois can begin to fathom a new cultural prece-dent, which they do not yet fully understand. The two men are truly more powerful than Atotarho, even without resorting to violence.
The tribes together summoned the courage to face the magician of the land. And the magician tried his last tricks, which no longer worked. The magician’s power lay in dividing. Now that the tribes had been united, he could not stand up to so much strength, and he no longer had a hold over people’s minds.
The Peacemaker, however, has some surprises in store for us. There was a better future in store even for Atotarho. He too would be part of the new social order; but first he needed healing. And that is the unprecedented message of the prophet. He intended to inaugurate not only a different political compact, but also a different way of looking at retribution and punishment. About Atotarho, the prophet said earlier “he is evil, but we need him.” What greater wisdom lies behind this statement? In some legends it is shown that Atotarho was a magician who had a choice and took the wrong path that led him downhill.