Hiawatha was a Native American leader of the 1500s who became a legend for his role in bringing the people of the five Iroquois nations together. According to the stories, he helped persuade the tribes to live in peace and join forces against their enemies.
Hiawatha (whose name means "he makes rivers") was a member of the Mohawk tribe of present-day New York. After becoming a chief, he met the prophet Dekanawida, who had a plan to unite the people of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations. Hiawatha embraced Dekanawida's plan and set out to explain it to the individual tribes. However, he soon encountered opposition from the powerful Onondaga chief Atotarho, who refused to cooperate with Hiawatha. Iroquois tales say that Atotarho sent an enormous white bird to seize Hiawatha's daughter and kill her.
prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights
Despite this staggering loss, Hiawatha continued to work with the five nations, advising them to resolve their differences and live at peace with one another. The myths describe the magical white canoe he traveled in. For a time, the tribes lived in harmony. Then suddenly, the peace was shattered by the invasion of other Native Americans intent on war. Hiawatha called the leaders of the five nations together and declared that no tribe could withstand these attacks alone. He assigned each tribe a task to carry out to protect and defend their new nation, which he named the Iroquois. Then he sailed into the air in his sacred canoe.
Another character named Hiawatha appears in The Song of Hiawatha, a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1855. Longfellow's work has no connection with the Iroquois leader. It is based on an Algonquian hero who brought many of the gifts of civilization to his people. The poem's haunting rhythms and vivid images of woodland life have made a lasting impression on generations of readers.