The voice of forgiveness and friendship carries great healing power. It transforms enemies into friends. This is a true story that takes place in New York State before the time of Columbus. It is the story about how the friendship of two great men inspired five warring tribes in New York to forgive and stop killing each other. These two friends illuminated the tribes with the teaching called the Great Peace, forging a new system of government based on strength in unity and respect for life, leading to peace and friendship.
The Great Spirit saw the darkness in these tribes. He sent the prophet Deganawidah, called the Peacemaker, to bring healing to these enemies. He was from the Huron tribe living on the north side of Lake Ontario. When Deganawidah was 18 years old he made a white stone canoe to bring the Great Peace to the warring tribes. As he pushed his canoe into the lake his grandmother shouted at him: “You will drown in that stone canoe.” He replied: “The Creator told me I will die only when I am ready to die.”
Soon after arriving on the south shore, Deganawidah met a fierce warrior, Hiawatha, who had exiled himself from his Onondaga tribe. Hiawatha had been one of the chiefs who opposed the war chief, Atatarho. The war chief was a black magician who used sorcery and assassins to murder anyone who opposed him in council. Atatarho punished Hiawatha by using sorcery to murder Hiawatha’s wife and three daughters. Hiawatha was bitter because the tribe was so fearful of Atatarho that they would not support Hiawatha. So he exiled himself to grieve for his family and to plot revenge against Atatarho.
Deganawidah recognized the Spark of goodness in Hiawatha. He convinced Hiawatha of the beauty and necessity for the Great Peace among the warring tribes. Hiawatha sensed the greatness of the spiritual energy of Deganawidah. Their minds fused with the same vision, and they became spiritual brothers, the greatest of friends. Hiawatha was a great orator and became Deganawidah’s spokesman. Hiawatha spoke powerfully in the tribal councils, and all the councils agreed to form an alliance and create a unified Iroquois Confederation of Nations. They all wanted to stop the killing and make peace and be friends. There was only one problem, however, and that was Atatarho, the Onondaga war chief. All the five tribes feared him greatly.
Now imagine that we are the warriors with the Peacemaker and Hiawatha. We know that we have a good chance to succeed in overcoming the resistance of Atatarho, because we are warriors from all the five tribes, rowing together in complete unity with Deganawidah and Hiawatha. We row to Atatarho’s home. The black magician is very psychic and senses our approach. He uses sorcery to create a terrible storm. The winds howl and the waves toss the canoes about. We row mightily to prevent overturning, and when the lightning flashes we see some of our friends overturn in their canoes, swept away by the stormy waters. We are desperate. We must get off the stormy lake to survive.
Atatarho shouts over the waves. “There can be no peace. Go away. Leave me alone.”
We beach our canoes and follow Hiawatha and Deganawidah towards Atatarho. Our hearts pound in our chests, for we fear his rage. Will he use sorcery to murder us?
There he is, with his twisted back from birth. Oh, how grotesque! He tied snakes in his hair to make us fear him. As fearful as he appears to us, he fears us even more.
Before him stand Deganawidah and Hiawatha. Atatarho thinks to himself. This Deganawidah, the Peacemaker, has psychic powers as great as or even greater than I have. And there is the mighty warrior, Hiawatha, who is full of revenge for the murder of his family. Look! There are warriors from all the tribes supporting Hiawatha. Surely they will kill me. Hiawatha slowly approaches Atatarho. A tear runs down Atatarho’s cheek as he anticipates death.
Listen! Someone is singing. Who? Hiawatha is singing about the power of the Great Peace, of unity among the warring tribes that will make them strong, a song to celebrate the end of fear and war. But Atatarho is suspicious. Is this Hiawatha’s song of victory before he kills me, the man who murdered his family?
Hiawatha approaches his old enemy with a narrow object in his hand. Is it a knife ready to plunge into Atatarho? Hiawatha extends the object over the head of the evil war chief and begins to comb the snakes out of his hair. The feared knife is only a hair comb.
As he combs away the snakes, the poisonous snakes in the mind of Atatarho also are combed away, slithering away into nothingness. Hiawatha even massages his deformed back and the back straightens some so that Atatarho no longer looks as a cripple. Atatarho cries softly and tears run down both cheeks. They come not to kill me. They come to heal me.
He speaks. “Forgive me my brothers. I have hated you all since childhood because you kept calling me a cripple, and would not let me be your friend. My hatred twisted my mind, and I became a monster and I killed your friends and relatives. How can you ever forgive me?”
One of us replies: “And forgive us for taunting you for your crooked back, for not accepting you as a friend. You frightened us because we thought if we played with you, our backs could become twisted as yours. We were just boys then, and did not understand the harm we caused you.”
Atatarho cries even more. “Aagh! I forgive you. My hatred was so evil. Please forgive me.” He absorbs the forgiveness and friendship of the warriors and the compassion of the Peacemaker and Hiawatha.
Deganawidah instructs the oldest warrior who then speaks. “Atatarho, if you accept the Great Peace, we know that you can be a powerful force for good. We offer you the honor of being the keeper of the sacred flame of unity and friendship that will burn in the council of your Onondaga tribe. This sacred flame will be the sacred fire for all the tribes.
The Peacemaker uses great wisdom to appeal to the sleeping higher nature and noble pride of Atatarho to win his allegiance to the Great Peace. The transformation of Atatarho is very dramatic. He rises and standing straight says: “I accept your forgiveness and I accept the Great Peace. It is a good thing. It has the power to heal.” Forgiveness transforms an old enemy into a new friend.
So peace comes to the warring tribes.
About three hundred years later the commissioner of Indian Affairs in the thirteen American colonies meets with the council spokesman of the Iroquois. That commissioner is a printer who prints all the treaties made by the colonists with the Indians. You may recall his name, Benjamin Franklin.
The Iroquois chief Conasatego speaks to Franklin something like this: “Franklin, your colonies would have a stronger voice with the British if you spoke with one voice, if the colonies were united as we are. Make a constitution similar to ours based on unity, respecting the rights and viewpoints of all the colonies. That is how the Iroquois became strong. At one time we were killing each other, and now we are all related to each other and are friends.”
Benjamin Franklin presented this view to the colonial legislature, but was rejected. He persisted, and 20 years later some Iroquois ideas were incorporated into the Articles of Confederation, forming the foundation of a representative democracy known as the United States of America.
Today the perpetual sacred flame of unity and friendship still burns in the council chamber of the Onondaga tribe outside of Syracuse, New York. There continues to be a keeper of the flame, called Atatarho in honor of the original keeper of the flame.
So today, our prayer is that the essence of this flame, the power of the Great Peace, may spread throughout the world, and build a bridge of friendship to all peoples. The Lakota Indians in the American West have a saying: Mitakuye oyasin, meaning we are all related.
May we all let go of the hurts from the past and never allow the past to imprison the beauty and power of our spiritual destiny. May we all become bridges of loving understanding to all we meet.