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The Ring - CCxA

Grounding: Jigonsaseh and the message of peace

Haudenosaunee perspective


This is the third in a series of articles, by Millie Knapp, that share understandings of Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee teachings about the land.

1851 Jigonsaseh. IMAGE/ League of the Haudenosaunee, 1851

When it comes to looking at Turtle Island (North America) from a Haudenosaunee perspective, two Seneca people, G. Peter Jemison and Barbara A. Mann, come to mind for their connection to the land and its history. Both tell about an Attiwendaronk (Neutral Wyandot) woman named Jigonsaseh who lived 1,000 years ago.

“Jigonsaseh was the first head clan mother of the Iroquois League,” says Barbara A. Mann, a University of Toledo professor of humanities. Mann wrote about Jigonsaseh in her book Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas; in her article “A Sign in the Sky,” co-authored with Jerry L. Fields, published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal; and in her co-edited Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy).

Mann maintains that Jigonsaseh was “a co-equal founder of the League in the year 1142.”

She further notes: “A big part of the founding of the League was the Black Sun that covered the entire Northeast— and that happened in 1142.”

Before the Iroquois League and the Constitution were created, it was “an era of uneasy relations among the Haudenosaunee, as hunters and maize farmers coexisted in anxious, mutual distrust,” write Mann and Fields in “A Sign in the Sky.” In the article, they quote Jake Thomas, a respected Cayuga keeper or oral historian, about how long the negotiations to create the League took. Thomas was able to recite the Great Law in five languages. “The elders guess that it took a period of 100 to 120 years to bring the Five Nations together,” says Thomas.

“Keepers themselves made no deliberate efforts to set down The Great Law, or the Constitution of the Five (later Six) Nations, until the late nineteenth century,” write Mann and Fields. In 1916, Seneca author Arthur C. Parker created The Constitution of the Five Great Nations Or The Iroquois Book of the Great Law. In it, he writes, “The lineal descent of the people of the Five Nations shall run in the female line. Women shall be considered the progenitors of the Nation. They shall own the land and the soil. Men and women shall follow the status of the mother.”

Jigonsaseh is “the one who wrote the women’s sections into the Constitution,” says Mann.

“Women own the land. Jigonsaseh made sure that that was in the Constitution so that’s why women have economic power,” says Mann.

When questioned about the cultural conception of ownership, Mann states, “No, it wasn’t ownership—that’s the English word. The best way to put it is that they are ‘the keepers of the land,’” says Mann.

In “A Sign in the Sky,” Mann and Fields write, “‘Keeping’ is always a sacred trust. Economically, men alone kept the forest, warfare, and the hunt, while women alone kept the land, peace, and distribution decisions. Food, animal or vegetable, was always the sole purview of women, as was agriculture.”

Jigonsaseh made it her career to spread the message of peace with the Peacemaker and Hiawatha. She was the first to embrace the message from the Peacemaker who came to her during a civil war among the Five Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca.

Jigonsaseh lived in a house built along the trails of the Five Nations warriors whom she fed. “She lived within what we now think of as Tuscarora territory,” says G. Peter Jemison, site historic manager for Ganondagan State Historic Site, about the land near Lewiston, N.Y. “She lived on a trail used by warriors as they went back and forth to fight. What we now call Route 104 was the trail most commonly used by Five Nations warriors,” he says about the road in upstate New York.

After she took up the message of peace, Jigonsaseh strategized with the Peacemaker and Hiawatha about how to bring the message of peace to the Five Nations in order to form the Confederacy.

“Together, the Peacemaker, the Jigonsaseh, and Ayonwantha [Hiawatha] proved invincible, persuading the warring nations, one by one, to throw down their arms,” writes Mann. “When the Peacemaker’s predicted ‘sign in the sky,’ A Black Sun (or total eclipse), materialized, the final hold-out nation of Senecas was convinced that the spiritual path of peace was correct. Then, Adodaroh [Tadadaho] stood alone.”

The Peacemaker enlisted the help of Hiawatha, Tadadaho’s former colleague, to strategize about how to bring Tadadaho, the Onondaga shaman, to the way of peace. As part of the mission, Jigonsaseh, the Peacemaker, Hiawatha, and the newly made chiefs of the Five Nations travelled to Tadadaho’s home to subdue him.

“When they got to talk with him [Tadadaho], the Peacemaker stood in the centre and on either side of him was Jigonsaseh and Hiawatha. Behind the Peacemaker stood 12 leaders that had been chosen by the people to come to that meeting. They surrounded him and began to relay the message of peace,” says Jemison about the delegation. “The Peacemaker began to convince Tadadaho that the way in which he was living was wrong. It was time to embrace the message of peace and bring about the unification of the Five Nations into a confederacy.”

Jigonsaseh placed the deer antlers of authority on the head of Tadadaho.

“In doing so, this is the beginning of the function of the clan mothers, in terms of raising up a chief—in selecting someone from among those candidates available—and giving them the title of authority to be a chief. This is what is accomplished by the first act of raising the antlers of authority and straightening the mind of Tadadaho,” says Jemison.

Jigonsaseh helped negotiate the end of war and create the Constitution or the Great Law of Peace that united the Five Nations. Later, the Tuscarora would join, making the Confederacy known as the Six Nations.

As a stateswoman, Jigonsaseh strategized how to implement social, economic, and political power for women or gantowisas, keepers of the land known as Mother Earth.

In the time that Jigonsaseh embraced the message of peace, “she gained for our women the rights, the responsibilities, and the privileges that they have until today. We are a matrilineal society. We trace our nation and our clan through our mother. We are the nation and clan of our mother,” says Jemison.

The first Jigonsaseh became a title position to be passed down through the generations.

Mann writes about the first Jigonsaseh and about the gantowisas or female official’s power in Iroquoian Women: “The gantowisas enjoyed sweeping political powers, which ranged from the administrative and legislative to the judicial. The gantowisas ran the local clan councils. They held all the lineage wampum, nomination belts, and titles. They ran the funerals. They retained exclusive rights over naming, i.e., the creation of new citizens and the installation of public officials. They nominated all male sachems as well as all Clan Mothers to office and retained the power to impeach wrongdoers. They appointed warriors, declared war, negotiated peace, and mediated disputes.”

To sum up how the role of women is related to the land known as Mother Earth, Mann says, “She’s female, we’re female. The land is a woman made by a woman for other women. A lot of people have the tradition of a Sky Woman making land. She came down and the water animals decided to save her life. Grandmother Turtle held her on her back while the other animals dove until they got some dirt to spread on her back and she [Sky Woman], just by walking, expanded the size of the earth.”

Mann believes that it is important to note in the context of the Haudenosaunee Sky Woman creation story that women made dirt.

“They didn’t just opportunistically find a fertile patch of ground—they made dirt. There was more to it than just a compost heap. They would deliberately mix things together to get the soil very rich and more fertilized. It would be very deep.”

Mann notes how in the southeastern part of the U.S. where it’s now red clay, the women worked for centuries “to create a layer of fertile ground that was about a foot or so deep when the settlers came in and stole it from the people. Within a generation, they ground it down back to red clay. Why? Because they weren’t taking care of it very much. The women made the dirt.”

There are many traditions across Turtle Island about women tending the earth. “If she was a really important woman and especially good with crops, you called her the Dirt Maker,” says Mann.