In early August 2019, a 500-year-old government convened to discuss its constitution. The gathering was not held in a glittering, white, neo-classical Capitol propped up by columns crowned with Corinthian ornaments. The proceedings did not take place on a hill, or in a city, or within the boundaries of a capital district. The ceremony did not begin with a thunderous, patriotic anthem. The constitution was not read from archival parchment or legislative text. In fact, the constitution was not read at all. The speakers did not stand before a podium in the chambers of Parliament or halls of Congress. They did not prepare soundbites. If you had searched Twitter, you would not have found a single hot take about it. No chanting agitators came to protest. Minutes were not taken. Few beyond the attendees even knew it happened. But what transpired was historic, foreshadowing the return of a good government: an Indigenous government.
On this morning, the Haudenosaunee gathered to recite Kayanerenkó:wa, or the Great Law of Peace, an oral constitution that recounts the end of an era of conflict and the founding of their confederacy by the Peacemaker, Deganawida, and his brother, Hiawatha. This was the seventh consecutive year they had gathered for such a recital. They invoked the law in a brown longhouse oriented east to west along Route 207 in Kahnawà:ke—a Mohawk community, home to more than 8,000 people, across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. On the left side of the longhouse entrance, roughly at the midpoint of the structure, sat three men. One, Robert Brown of the Oneida, spoke Onayota’á:ka, the Oneida language. Kanentokon Hemlock was his translator. A third speaker, Karhowane, helped open and close the longhouse with ovations of hospitality, notes about housekeeping, and appeals to ceremonial protocol.
On tables before the men and the listeners lay belts made from wampum, purple and white tubular beads. They conveyed Haudenosaunee stories, teachings, and treaties. Among the belts rested one that I recognized: the Hiawatha belt, a white pine tree at its centre connected, with rows of white, to two white squares on either side. The central tree represents the Tree of Peace and the council fire of the Onondaga nation at the heart of the confederacy. The four squares symbolize, from right to left and east to west, the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. (In 1722, the Haudenosaunee adopted a sixth nation, the Tuscarora, who were retreating from violent conflict in the south.) At the ends of the tables sat Haudenosaunee feather headdresses known as gustoweh.
Pinned on the wall next to the speakers was a flag emblazoned with the head of a warrior encircled by a yellow sun atop a red background—the standard of the Mohawk Warrior Society. After the 1990 Oka Crisis, a confrontation between the Mohawk and the city of Oka that eventually involved the Canadian military, this flag became a symbol of resistance for Indigenous peoples.
Though it was the first day of the ceremony, and many more Haudenosaunee had yet to arrive, the crowd overflowed the wooden benches inside the longhouse. Men and boys, many with long braids or neatly combed hair hanging down their backs, sat attentively, like worshippers at a service. Women and girls, their hair hanging loose or fixed with barrettes beaded with flowers and animals, outnumbered the men in the crowd. The majority there, a local told me, were from Kahnawà:ke, though many had come from across the confederacy. Their licence plates revealed the places from which they had travelled: Quebec, Ontario, New York, Wisconsin. In keeping with longhouse policy for certain ceremonies, all in attendance were Indigenous. Several burly Mohawk men wearing black shirts with “Security” lettered in yellow on the back watched over the Haudenosaunee, the longhouse, and the parking lot.
In Kahnawà:ke, I hoped to gain insight into what it might take for my own people, the Secwepemc and St’át’imc, to reclaim our nationhood. Against my habit as a journalist, I decided to take no notes and make no recordings. Instead I listened and observed, journaling only at night to respect the Mohawk on whose lands and under whose authority I stayed. Over decades, outside anthropologists have come into the community to extract ceremonies and stories, taking the intellectual property of a people who have lost almost all their physical rights to land—stirring distrust atop pain. Thomas Deer, a volunteer technician in the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawà:ke Longhouse, told me a story about a researcher who attended a community funeral, disrupting the service to interview mourners. Against this history and in accordance with the hosts’ wishes, I kept my notebook and recorder tucked in my bag.
By breaking my journalistic routine, I was also engaging in what Kahnawà:ke scholar Audra Simpson, my former professor at Columbia University, has called an “ethnographic refusal.” The governments of outsiders have long used knowledge of Indigenous peoples to fortify their dominance. To control a population, you must know it, often intimately—its government, economy, culture, demographics, political divisions, and so on. If a person wants to practise refusal, fly the Mohawk Warrior flag, and strengthen the Haudenosaunee against intruders, they must break some habits, including the need to google whenever curiosity strikes.
For hundreds of years, the Mohawk have defied the governments superimposed over their own. Since the 1600s, they resisted successive French, Dutch, British, American, and Canadian invasions, often successfully. And when the wars ended, they kept fighting. In the early 1900s, a Mohawk ironworker crossed the US–Canada border with his family to live and work in Philadelphia. When the Americans prosecuted him as an “illegal alien,” he insisted that free passage was his birthright as a Haudenosaunee party to the Jay Treaty of 1794. He won the case. Under the authority of that same treaty, my father emigrated to New York, where he met my mother. Without the Haudenosaunee, I probably would not exist. Today, the confederacy issues its own passports. And, most importantly, it insists that it has never ceded sovereignty to Canada, the United States, or any other nation or empire. It remains a distinct and prior government—and an alternative.
Amid intersecting ecological, economic, political, and cultural catastrophes, Indigenous alternatives look increasingly appealing. Against the ecological crisis, the Indigenous suggest we understand land, water, and all living things not as resources, but as relatives. As the gap between rich and poor widens, Indigenous economies foster subsistence, generosity, and redistribution against greed and exploitation. While the hollow promise of party politics turns away millions, far older participatory and consensus-driven systems developed by Indigenous nations feel more personal and fair. And as society splits along racial, religious, gender, class, and cultural lines, many Indigenous communities look comparatively tolerant and inviting. This is especially true for a diverse emergent majority who understand that so-called democracy was not built for them in the first place.
Where invaders once burned the longhouse to make way for the marble edifice of white hegemony, it is now possible to imagine the opposite: the return of the Indigenous. Three years ago, more than one million people used Facebook to check in to Standing Rock in solidarity with the campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline—lending digital support to the rekindled council fires of the Oceti Sakowin. Thousands of British Columbians have turned to First Nations like the Tsleil-Waututh to stop the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which became a flashpoint issue for Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party ahead of the October election. Through a sustained campaign, Native Hawaiians have recast Mauna Kea as not just a mountain but an ancestor—rebuffing plans to build a massive telescope on this sacred site.
As I sat with the People of the Longhouse, I realized that, for their government to flourish—and for Indigenous governments across the continent to return to their former strength—I would need to do more than practise ethnographic refusal. I would also need to trust. Canada and the United States are constituted from the death of the Indigenous. To rebuild on a continent where the vast majority come from elsewhere, First Peoples will need the faith of our own and others. Gaining trust from those who can’t imagine the longhouse standing alongside Parliament or Congress, or even from those who understand that their own wealth is derived from generations of plunder, is no small task. Yet the Great Law of Peace holds many lessons about how that trust might be secured: through persuasion, diplomacy, compassion, the occasional bit of cunning, and, maybe, a little magic.
When the invocation to welcome and give thanks was finished, Brown stepped up to the microphone and, in the staccato of Onayota’á:k—a language of melodic, short, percussive syllables punctuated by sharp consonants and glottal stops—he began to recite.
Long ago, in an era of war and bloodshed, a boy was born to a young virgin in Kanienkeh, a Huron-Wendat village near the Bay of Quinte, on the shores of Lake Ontario. Or, at least, that’s how the story begins in Kayanerenkó:wa, a legal analysis of the Great Law of Peace written by Six Nations lawyer Kayanesenh Paul Williams and published last year by the University of Manitoba Press. Others, it’s important to note, recall the story a bit differently. Some say, for example, that the boy was Mohawk, born in the Tyendinaga territory, and that later narrators changed the telling to protect his actual birthplace.
Since 2013, the Haudenosaunee have gathered every year to honour these differences and revive the law. In Kahnawà:ke, the People of the Longhouse took nine days this August to recite a version of this elegant constitution in vivid detail—a Haudenosaunee speaker narrating in five- to ten-minute chunks, followed by an English translator. Every morning, attendees gathered for breakfast. We broke for lunch at midday. In the evening, we came back together for supper. Each meal included healthy helpings of corn, squash, beans, berries, pork, bison, tea, juice, coffee, and conversation. We brought and washed our own plates, bowls, mugs, and utensils, to minimize waste. Then we returned to our seats to listen.
As the Haudenosaunee spoke, I followed along with Williams’s book. Later on, I read Traditional Teachings, a book published by the North American Indian Travelling College, which also tells the Peacemaker’s story. In Indian country, the People of the Longhouse are revered for their traditional government and steadfast sovereigntist movement, which has fortified their confederacy against hundreds of years of intrusion—and even inspired the US Constitution. I assumed lessons would arrive through an elder’s explication of a clever system or through my own epiphany—like a sort of decolonial algebra problem. But, as I read and listened, I came to understand that, for those who know the language and the law, the beauty—and even the fun—of Kayanerenkó:wa is in the telling.
As I read and as Brown explained, the Creator foretold the boy’s birth and name—Deganawida, the Peacemaker—to his mother, Kahetehsuk (She Walks Ahead), in a dream. But the boy’s arrival made Kahetehsuk’s mother, Kaheto’ktha’ (End of the Field), suspicious. The mother and grandmother had chosen to live apart from their people—a safe distance from the scalping and killing. But in this war-torn world, the young mother’s pregnancy, absent an obvious father, made Kaheto’ktha’ wonder. Had a warrior taken advantage of her daughter in the woods? Had the family been cursed?
When the boy was born, the grandmother took him out on a frozen lake, chopped a hole in the ice, and chucked him in. But when she returned home, she found him nursing in his mother’s arms. What power could do that? The next day, she carried the child into the woods, built a roaring fire, and cast him in. But again, when she returned, the babe was at his mother’s bosom. This must be the work of a sorcerer, she thought. And so, on the third day, convinced the child was cursed and determined to protect her daughter, she conspired to take a hatchet to the infant. But that night, a spirit came to her and explained the boy’s significance. Ashamed, Kaheto’ktha’ helped her daughter raise Deganawida.
When the boy became a man, he began to build a canoe from white stone to travel the lakes and rivers of this land, spreading his philosophy of peace, power, and righteousness. When this canoe was complete, he bid his family farewell and paddled in the direction of the sunrise. At the Bay of Quinte, Williams writes, near the place on the shore where the Peacemaker is said to have launched his craft, there is a strip of white rock like the tail of a canoe, which creates eddies in the water.
Across Lake Ontario, the Peacemaker sighted the land of the nations that would become the Haudenosaunee but saw no sign of their villages. These were wicked days of mindless and endless war. The People of the Longhouse had retreated into fortifications built into wooded hills. As he approached, his white-stone canoe glistened in the sun, reflecting off the water. The spectacle caught the eyes of a group of hunters ashore, who were fleeing an attack. Out of curiosity, they approached the magnificent vessel as it neared land. “Go back to your people,” the Peacemaker told the men. “Tell them that good news of peace, power, and righteousness has come to your nation.”
Continuing his journey east, toward the sunrise, the Peacemaker came upon the house of Tsikonsaseh, a witch who lured travellers into her home with the promise of a meal. Over food, she would poison them. But the Peacemaker knew this woman’s scheme. Invited inside, he confronted her with the message he had shared with the fearful hunters. “Your words are true,” she said, telling him she would accept his message and enforce it. “I vow never to return to my evil practices of bringing harm to humans who come to my lodge.” As the first to accept the Peacemaker’s law, the woman and the clan mothers were given the power to select chiefs. The Peacemaker continued on his journey.
As Brown spoke, I saw one Mohawk woman, undoubtedly familiar with the story, turn to her friend. “Has he made it to our nation yet?” she asked. “Not yet,” the friend whispered back.
Brown continued. In the land of the Mohawk, the Peacemaker came upon the house of Tekarihoken, who boiled human prey in a large kettle. The Peacemaker climbed onto the roof of the cannibal’s home and waited. When Tekarihoken arrived, a corpse slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, Deganawida peered through the smoke hole of the lodge. Inside, as Tekarihoken bent over his kettle to prepare his meal, he saw the reflection of the Peacemaker. Believing the face was his own, Tekarihoken had a moment of clarity. How could a man so obviously good continue to inflict such wrong? The cannibal carried the gruesome contents of his kettle out of the lodge, dug a hole, and buried it. When he returned, the Peacemaker approached. “I am the Peacemaker,” he said. “I am the one who has caused this change to take place in your mind. I will bring to you what the Creator wishes you to eat.” The Peacemaker left and, in short order, returned with a freshly killed deer. That night, the two ate venison. Tekarihoken accepted the Peacemaker’s law, becoming the first chief of the Mohawk.
Continuing on, the Peacemaker built a fire outside a Mohawk village to signal that he came in peace. The Mohawk, weary from years of conflict, approached with caution. They were surprised to find that the man greeting them had no weapons. They received his word. But how could they know it was true? If this was a great man—a messenger of Creator, no less—surely he could do great things. They instructed the Peacemaker to climb to the top of a tree overlooking a waterfall. With him on top, they said they would cut it down and that, if he lived, they would accept his law. When they sent Deganawida cascading into the rapids below, he did not emerge from the water. Disappointed, the Mohawk returned to work.
But the next day, at sunrise, children saw a thin trail of smoke rising across the cornfields. Racing toward it, they came upon the Peacemaker sitting beside his fire. The Mohawk brought the man into council. “Let us take hold of the good news of Peace and Power,” the Peacemaker is remembered to have said. The Mohawk became the first nation to accept Kayanerenkó:wa.
The story of the Great Law continues to the south, among the Onondaga, where, at the same time, another man, Hiawatha, was delivering a similar message of unity. But, unlike Deganawida’s, his wisdom fell on deaf ears, for his people lived in fear. The Onondaga suffered under the cruelty of a cunning sorcerer named Thadodaho—a man so evil that he had seven crooks in his body and snakes for hair. Like Tekarihoken, Thadodaho had an appetite for human flesh. He terrorized the Onondaga, who followed his every word, afraid that he might use his powers against them if they disobeyed. Today, we would call Thadodaho a tyrant or, perhaps, a fascist.
Hiawatha resolved to change Thadodaho’s mind. With his Onondaga brethren, Hiawatha twice tried and twice failed to reach Thadodaho, who used his powers to trick and kill Hiawatha’s party. Demoralized, the Onondaga returned home. Soon more misfortune befell Hiawatha. One by one, his seven daughters fell ill and died. Stricken with grief, Hiawatha wandered, looking for someone or something to console him. On the fifth day of his lament, Hiawatha came upon a pond where a flock of ducks rested together in the water.
“If I am to be a leader among men, I would like to discover my powers,” Hiawatha said. “All you ducks floating in the water, lift up the water and allow me to cross!” Amazingly, the ducks took off, lifting the water as they flew. Hiawatha walked across the dry bottom of the pond. The empty purple-and-white shells of freshwater clams underfoot caught his eye. These he collected and fashioned into beads: wampum.
On the seventh day of his lament, in the land of the Oneida, Hiawatha found an empty hut in which to rest. Eventually a runner arrived with instructions for Hiawatha to come to the land of the Mohawk and meet the messenger of peace from the north, Deganawida. The Oneida sent five men to escort Hiawatha on his journey east. On the fifth night, they arrived outside the village where the Peacemaker resided. The Mohawk greeted their visitors from afar and escorted Hiawatha to the Peacemaker’s lodge. From their first meeting, many say the Peacemaker addressed Hiawatha as “my younger brother.” Recognizing the pain of the Onondaga man’s loss, Deganawida asked his brother for the shells he had collected. He performed the first ceremony of condolence. When the Peacemaker had wiped the Onondaga man’s tears and set his mind at ease, he called a council to unite a league of nations.
First, the Peacemaker and his council sent a message to the Oneida to consider confederation. A year later, the Oneida sent word that they would join. Then the Peacemaker sent runners to the Onondaga and the Cayuga. They, too, took a year to mull the decision before both deciding to commit. Then the Peacemaker sent word to the Seneca, a fierce people who were greatly divided on the matter, arriving in a deadlock each time they gathered in council. Recognizing the ferociousness of their warriors, the Peacemaker bestowed upon the Seneca the responsibility of protection. A threat was transformed into a strength. A number of years after the Peacemaker wiped Hiawatha’s tears, the four nations of the confederacy became five.
But there was one last order of business to which the young league needed to attend before they could have peace: Thadodaho. Before they set out on their last campaign to pacify the tyrant, the Peacemaker taught the Haudenosaunee the hymn of peace. As they came to Thadodaho’s lodge, they sang this song. The Peacemaker first directed two men to approach the sorcerer’s home singing the hymn, but each lost the tune and turned back. The Peacemaker then took the lead, walking right up to the door of Thadodaho’s house, where the tyrant was waiting. When the Peacemaker finished, he laid his hands on the man to let him feel the power he possessed. Thadodaho’s seven crooked parts straightened and the snakes in his hair retreated. In an act of diplomacy and political savvy, Deganawida made Thadodaho the highest-ranking chief of the Haudenosaunee. With the powerful man appeased and restored to reason—like Hiawatha, Tekarihoken, and Tsikonsaseh before him—the Great Peace could begin.
With the five original nations of the Haudenosaunee—the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—of one mind, the Peacemaker called a constitutional convention over which he and Hiawatha would preside. With the nations assembled, the Peacemaker addressed the People of the Longhouse. “Roots have spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace: one to the north, one to the east, one to the south, and one to the west,” he told them. “The name of these roots is the Great White Roots, and their nature is Peace and Strength.”
The clan mothers would steward the fertile lands and select the leaders, the Peacemaker instructed. The chiefs, whom the women elected, would wear the antlers of the deer on their headdresses, because it was the deer that fed the people and gave them strength, like it had with Tekarihoken. Each chief had his own role. They were told to consider the impact of all their decisions for seven future generations. And these decisions were to be made by consensus. The titles of chiefs would be held by clans in perpetuity—and could be taken away by the clan mother. Orators illustrated each of these laws with the help of the many belts and sacred items laid before the People of the Longhouse in Kahnawà:ke.
In line with the Peacemaker’s values, the chiefs were to be selected from reasonable men who preferred words to war clubs. Citizens and nations were free to leave the league—and would, throughout its history—but were always welcome back. And, no matter where the Haudenosaunee went, as they travelled the continent over the centuries, they were always part of this confederation. The final teaching spoken at Kahnawà:ke was that of respect: for people, home, and property—a check on the power of the leaders and the longhouse. This, and more, would be the law of the land. Hiawatha and all in attendance agreed. Through the act of recitation, their descendants gave their consent.
At night, in the white tent outside the longhouse, we danced. Teenage boys and girls took the lead, coiling around the floor counter-clockwise: shuffling, twirling, and jumping to the rhythm of songs that referenced themes from Haudenosaunee creation. Some of the harmonies were call and response. Others were led by a group of young men at the centre of the floor, playing a small drum, shaking rattles, or beating sticks against the bench. Little kids in diapers, with messy hair and dirt caked onto their arms and legs, watched big kids singing at the tops of their lungs and bouncing to the rhythm. Moms, aunties, and grandmas kept their eyes on the little kids. Young men kept their eyes on young women, and vice versa. Boys played catch with their lacrosse sticks until it was too dark to see the ball. Then they came in and danced too—outnumbered by the girls. We all swatted away at squadrons of mosquitoes.
On the sixth and final night of social dancing, I got pulled onto the floor and did my best to stomp and slide like the Haudenosaunee, following the young feet ahead of mine.
The same week Six Nations gathered in Kahnawà:ke, the United Nations released a report foretelling a hotter future, when the risk of conflicts over lands and resources will increase. Apocalypse, which Indigenous peoples know intimately, now appears potentially universal. Surviving impending end times has become the most pressing concern of our era. As a consequence, Indigenous peoples—long marginalized and forgotten—are emerging as some of the most interesting characters of a global drama. These days, the Mohawk Warrior Society flag is a common sight at protests, marches, and encampments across the continent. With the climate brewing a civilizational reckoning, the resilience and resurgence of First Peoples is a reassuring parable. Our comeback shows that it is possible to survive, and even thrive, in the wake of Armageddon.
Unlike the US Constitution, the British North America Act, or any other artifact of colonial modernity, the Great Law, and the belts resting in the Kahnawà:ke Longhouse that memorialize it, has already survived an earth-shattering reckoning—one that continues today. Not long after the arrival of Europeans, the Haudenosaunee were struck by smallpox. It began with a burning fever that became a rash that swelled with pus. The pox burst under the agonized itching of the afflicted, scabbing over and leaving hideous scars on those it did not kill. Limbs made for affection—hands, mouths, arms—became conduits of invisible contagion. As the epidemics spread, matrilineal lines died out—infants, elders, and pregnant women. The People of the Longhouse dispersed into smaller villages, often abandoning multifamily longhouses for log cabins and bark homes. They were “melting away rapidly,” remarked the Dutchman Jasper Danckaerts in 1680. “I have heard tell . . . that there is now not one-tenth part of the Indians there once were.”
Conflict with neighbours, Indigenous and foreign, soon followed as the Haudenosaunee wrestled for control over the beaver and over the guns and military power the critter’s fur purchased. The American Revolution helped to divide the longhouse, with the Oneida and Tuscarora fighting alongside the rebels, while the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca allied with the Crown. Eventually, the Haudenosaunee fled north, taking their council fire with them. After the war, the confederacy’s leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784 and then the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794, relinquishing land to the United States. Speculators swindled away much of the rest of the confederacy’s territory. The War of 1812 once again divided the Haudenosaunee. But as in the days of Deganawida and Hiawatha, the Great Law and the rite of condolence enabled enemies on the battlefield to become brothers at peace in the longhouse.
In 1831, the Mohawk Institute, the first residential school in Canada, opened in Brantford, Ontario. Children from the Six Nations of the Grand River were taken there. In the decades that followed, similar schools plucked Haudenosaunee kids out of communities in both Canada and the United States. Policies designed to further assimilate Haudenosaunee people and then terminate Haudenosaunee sovereignty soon followed. The Canadian Indian Act of 1876 and its subsequent revisions stipulated that Native women who married white men and Native men who could read, vote, or pay taxes were, legally speaking, no longer Indians. In the 1950s, the Canadian government dug the St. Lawrence Seaway straight through the Kahnawà:ke community. The Mohawk still remember how they could once cast fishing lines out of their backyards and into the river. Battered by disease, war, theft, abuse, and racism—genocide across generations—the Haudenosaunee and their Great Law, however, endure. With each recitation, the roots of their tree spread and deepen.
In an era of tumultuous change and conflict, we may need more visionaries like Deganawida and Hiawatha. We will probably have to organize communities and arrange unlikely alliances, as the Peacemaker did, through words brimming with ideals and decisions executed with tact. But to survive the next apocalypse, as the Haudenosaunee survived the last, we will need a common narrative—perhaps even a constitution and government—like the Great Law. This, more than anything else, can steel people against the abyss.
To close the longhouse, two Kahnawà:ke women spoke on behalf of their nation, presenting baskets full of gifts to the cooks and speakers, which were exchanged over hugs between attendees lined up out the door to show their appreciation—as the people must have done when they first established this confederacy so many generations ago. Then Karhowane stood a final time and offered closing words, turning to address all the people and nations assembled in the longhouse. After one last hearty lunch, the Haudenosaunee hugged friends and relatives from across their confederacy. Bellies full and minds mulling the teachings of the Peacemaker, they got in their cars and began the long drive home.