The Iroquois Confederacy, or the Five Nations as the British called them, were five united tribes that as a confederacy were stronger than the sum of their parts. The Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga and Seneca were united through the efforts of Hiawatha. Hiawatha, an Onondaga adopted by the Mohawk, was born around 1525 and became a great orator. He was Chief of the Onondaga and a follower of Deganawida, a tribal elder who recognized that the Iroquois were weakening themselves by constantly fighting amongst themselves. Deganawida apparently wasn’t much of a speaker, while Hiawatha was considered a dynamic speaker. They developed “the Great Law of Peace” and sold the other tribal nations on it, creating the Iroquois Confederacy.
Ben Franklin and other powerful men in the British colonies saw the power of this confederacy and sought to model it. Benjamin Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union was the first attempt to bring the colonies together. It served as the foundation for the United States Constitution, whose preamble reads:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
At its core, the concepts of a common defense and promotion of the general welfare were modeled after the powerful example in Upstate New York in the Iroquois Confederacy. So in some ways Hiawatha influenced the very core of who we are as a nation. And yet most people don’t think of Hiawatha of the Iroquois when they think of Hiawatha. They think of the Hiawatha from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, which was a fictional character from a different tribe (The Dakota). Longfellow knew of the legend of Hiawatha and decided that this name would be better than the original name he was working with. And ironically, the fictional character Hiawatha is more famous than the actual Hiawatha is today.