Published on June 13, 2012 by Amy
Of all the various groups of Native Americans in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, none are more famous than the six nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy. Formed around 1570, the confederacy, or Iroquois League was originally comprised of five tribes. Starting from east to west, they were the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and the Senecas. In the early 1700s, the sixth tribe, the Tuscaroras migrated from North Carolina to the border regions between New York and Pennsylvania and united with the original five tribes into one cohesive alliance.
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Known amongst themselves as the “Hodinoshone”, or “People of the Long House”, the Iroquois League dominated all its neighbors, drawing strength from its unity. From earliest times, the unity of the Iroquois was symbolized by a wampum belt fashioned in a pattern that has become known as “Hiawatha’s Belt”. Wampum, it should be mentioned, was a trading currency based upon small shells tied together into strings or entire picture tableaus.
“Hiawatha’s Belt” was composed of five figures. In the center was what some have described as a heart, to others it was a great or sacred tree under which the Iroquois met in council. On either side of the central device were two differently sized squares. The squares were connected to each other, and to the central device by a narrow band.
The symbolism is quite clear. The five devices represent the five original tribes. From left to right they represent the Seneca, the keepers of the Western Door; the Cayugas, the “people of the marsh” and “keepers of the Great Pipe”; The Onondaga, who were the “name bearers” who kept the wampum belt that contained the history of the Iroquois; the Oneida, the “stone people” symbolized by the Great Tree; and lastly the Mohawk, the “keepers of the eastern door”.
In the last thirty years or so, the unity of the Iroquois nations has grown increasingly stronger. Several confrontations between Iroquois and the governments of Quebec and New York have increased Iroquois self awareness.
This has led to the reemergence of “Hiawatha’s Belt” as a symbol of the Iroquois. In modern times, what was once a wampum belt, now is reborn a a flag. Seen both in Canada and the United States, the blue flag bearing the symbol of the unity of the five nations has become a rallying symbol for Iroquois of all tribes.
Of all Native American flags, none has a longer history of representing its people than does “Hiawatha’s Belt” – over 400 years!