Authors: W. Michael Gear
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To Jake and Shannon, our faithful muses for Gitchi
There is a magical word in the Seneca language, usually stated at the beginning of the story, and by which a story may be told as a serial:
It has taken us around a half million words, and four books, to convey a semblance of the richness and complexity of the Peacemaker tale. In this uncertain age when publishing is changing dramatically, and no one is certain what shape the “book” will take in the future, it was not an easy decision for our publisher to approve such a long series. We would like to thank Tom Doherty and Linda Quinton for allowing us to tell this story with the proper respect.
We'd also like to thank our excellent editor, Susan Chang, for making sure we told it to the best of our abilities.
The term “bury the hatchet” dates to around four hundred years ago, just after European colonists arrived in northeastern North America and became acquainted with the traditions of the native peoples, but the practice of ending violence by burying weapons has a much older history.
Archaeologists debate the origins of the tradition, but one thing is probably certain: the elite members of Cahokian society practiced this rite. Cahokia, a World Heritage Site just outside of St. Louis, Illinois, is truly one of the world's magnificent archaeological sites. Cahokia was a part of the Mississippian moundbuilder tradition. We wrote about this culture in
People of the River
in 1992. In twenty years, we have learned so much more about their astounding empire, which flourished from around
700â1550. Peoples who belonged to this cultural tradition covered the eastern half of the United States with mound cities and were master architects, builders, astronomers, surgeons, as well as shell, stone, copper, and fabric artisans. Cahokian traders plied their wares across the North American continent. And they, like Iroquoian peoples five hundred years later, also “buried the hatchet.”
At a unique hilltop site in the American Bottoms region of Illinois, the Grossman Site, archaeologists discovered a large collection of buried weapons (Pauketat, 2009). The site contains more than one hundred houses, and was occupied by the Cahokian elite. Near one of the council houses, archaeologists excavated a cache of seventy buried ax heads. The largest, which had been deliberately placed on top of the cache, weighed around twenty pounds, and was twenty inches long. Interestingly, the axe heads had been laid into the pit in discrete sets, as though each clan, or family, had taken turns. Usually they were placed in the pit in pairs, but one set contained twelve axe heads.
From an archaeological perspective, this is clearly a symbolic act. In our modern culture it would be like finding a collection of buried swords with Excalibur on top. Lest you've forgotten, Excalibur was King Arthur's legendary sword.
We can only speculate about what Cahokians might have believed, but we know that Iroquoian peoples thought that burying weapons would submerge them in the river of Great Grandmother Earth's blood that ran beneath the surface of the earth. Her blood purified the weapons, cleansing them of the hatred and despair associated with warfare.
The earliest reference to Iroquoian peoples burying weapons is found in the rich oral history of the Peacemaker tale.
We say “oral” history, because it's generally believed that North American's native cultures had no written languages. Many archaeologists have suspected for a long time that such an assumption is false, but it's been very hard to prove that the symbols we find in the archaeological record represent a written language. Wampum (more correctly called “otekoa”) may be the exception. At least a “proto-language,” a precursor, it may have been much more.
The problem arises because of definitions of what constitutes “writing.” Wampum consists of a set of blackish-purple and white symbols, recorded most often with shell beads. However, the Iroquois believe that before shell wampum existed, wampum was created with black and white painted pieces of wood. The Mohawk say that the first wampum was made using different colors of eagle quills (Tehanetorens, 1999, p. 12). Wampum could be “read” by anyone who'd been trained.
The earliest European historical records corroborate that each bead, row, or character had a definite meaning, and further state that both sides of the belt were read. Lengthy documents, for example the minutes of meetings, and the details of treaties, the Constitution of the League of the Iroquois, and much more, were recorded on belts so completely that they could still be read centuries later. In the 1700s, Moravian missionary John Heckewelder reported that wampum readers had the ability “to point out the exact place on a belt which is to answer each particular sentence, the same as we can point out a passage in a book” (Heckewelder, p. 108), and added that a great deal depended on the “
of the belt,” saying that “it may be as well known by it how far the speaker has advanced in his speech, as with us on taking a glance at the pages of a book or pamphlet while reading.”
Knotting wampum, tying the shells in place, was considered to be a spiritual activity in which writers “talked” their messages into the shells, which sounds very much like they were recording words or phrases. And this was apparently an ancient tradition. Archaeologists have found wampum beads that date back more than two thousand years to the Adena Culture in Ohio (Slotkin and Schmitt, pp. 223â225). We wrote about Adena and Hopewell cultures in
People of the Lakes.
The term “wampum belt” is slightly misleading. In our culture a belt is something that encircles the waist. Depending upon how much information was being recorded, Iroquoian belts could be four or five feet long and just as wide. Prehistorically, they may have been even larger.
Because wampum belts faithfully recorded the details of treaties, they presented both the original thirteen colonies, and later the United States government, with a problem. Wampum belts were evidentiaryâthey had a legal status in courts. It is perhaps no surprise that Indian Agents, traders, state authorities, and anyone else who had access to purchasing wampum belts were hired by the government to acquire these belts so that they could be destroyed. The resulting loss of information can be likened to the destruction of the Mayan codices by Bishop Diego de Landa in
1562, or the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by Patriarch Theophilus around
391. The destruction of a people's history is always the first step of conquerors.