3c. Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace

Indigenous peoples across the globe – past and present – provide examples of how peace was enacted and maintained between nations and tribes. Many of these occurred long before encounters with colonizers created new conflicts that might have been lessened if those prior Indigenous principles had been respected and applied by settler institutions.

There are many examples, but we will look at one that is relevant to the Indigenous peoples of this region. This is the Great Law of Peace (Kaianere'ko:wa). The University of Waterloo is situated on the Haldimand Tract, land given to the Six Nations – collectively called the Haudenosaunee – by the British in 1784 as compensation for land they lost after the American Revolution. The Six Nations Confederacy is comprised of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples. The French referred to the Haudenosaunee as Iroquois, a name that may be more familiar to you.

One of Historica Canada’s Heritage Minutes, called The Peacemaker, provides a very brief introduction to the material that follows. 


The Great Law of Peace was a complex agreement amongst the first Five Nations of the Iroquois confederacy (the Tuscarora joined later) that was articulated on a wampum – a beaded belt used to tell a story or outline an agreement amongst Indigenous peoples. The Great Law of Peace is dated at 1451 CE, although some suggest it emerged in the early 12th century.

a stand of great white pine trees
Great White Pine Trees

The Great Law of Peace comes from the story of Ayenwahtha (Hiawatha), a Mohawk warrior who wanted to take revenge on Atatarho, a violent chief responsible for the death of his family in war. Instead, Hiawatha was met by the Great Peacemaker – a spiritual leader named Deganawida. The two then travelled across what is today New York state, Ontario, and Quebec, to visit all the Iroquoian tribes in an effort to bring about peace and reconciliation amongst them. The Clan Mothers in each tribe were influential in persuading their people to accept Hiawatha’s message. When the Five Nations were finally persuaded to stop warring and be at peace, they followed the Peacemaker to a tall white pine tree. The tree was uprooted and warriors from all nations threw their weapons into the hole. The tree was then replanted and became known as the Tree of Peace

The Six Nations maintained unity based on the Great Law of Peace. Their collective name Haudenosaunee means ‘People of the Long House,’ signalling their intent to live as family under one roof.

The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy was based on the Great Law of Peace wampum.

flag of the Iroquois Confederacy
The central symbol is a tree representing the Onondaga Nation — where the Peacemaker planted the Tree of Peace and under which the leaders of the Five Nations buried their weapons. Four white squares, from left to right, represent the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk peoples. Lines extending from the nations stand for a path that other nations might follow, if they agree to live in peace and to join the Confederacy.1

Robbie Robertson is a songwriter and author who wrote a children’s book called Hiawatha and the Great Law of Peace. He talks about it in this media interview: Robbie Robertson on Hiawatha and the Peacemaker.

There are many other wampum agreements and other traditional practices that point to Indigenous ideas and action that counter war and conflict and promote peace and reconciliation. These include the Two Row Wampum and the Dish With One Spoon Wampum. You may want to explore one of these in your essay assignment.

Text References

  1. Douglas Brown and William Wicken, "Interpreting the Treaties," Canada's History, April 30, 2018, https://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/politics-law/interpreting-the-treaties.

Image References

Himasaram, "Flag of the Iroquois Confederacy," Wikimedia Commons, August 16, 2005, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_the_Iroquois_Confederacy.svg.

US FWS, "Pinus strobus trees," Wikimedia Commons, accessed December 3, 2019, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pinus_strobus_trees.jpg.