new Mennonite Life logo    December 2001     vol. 56 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents

The Original Peacemakers: Native America

James C. Juhnke

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The original Americans, like all human communities, were people of both peace and war. U.S. history textbooks, however, lift up the warriors, not the peacemakers. The notable Indians in the master narrative of American history are the military heroes - men such as Pontiac, Tecumseh, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull. Sherman Alexie, popular Native-American novelist and poet, put a cogent question in the mouth of one of his characters: "When are the Indians ever going to have heroes who don't hurt people? Why do all of our heroes have to carry guns?" (1) If the textbooks mention Native-American peacemaking traditions at all, they do it in a generalized introduction that lacks notable events and named people. The textbooks' central story itself is a grand drama of white conquest and development. White Americans advance over the continent, overcoming heroic Indian fighters along the way. Indian military resistance may be heroic, but that seems mainly to honor the valor of the white invaders. (2) White Americans build historical monuments for the Indian warriors, not for the peacemakers.

There is a missing peace to the Native-American story. The challenge is to recover it, to make it real, and to integrate it eventfully with the broader narrative of American history. Each of the five hundred Native-American tribes or nations had its own distinctive peace tradition. The relentless white invasion challenged and subverted that traditional peace heritage. External assault on any community tends to elicit counter-violence. Even so, there are many hidden and inspiring stories of Indians meeting violent threats with peaceable restraint. For an honest and true understanding of Indian-white encounter in North America, we must learn about the Indian peacemakers and peace traditions. And we must confront the question of which Indians contributed most to the survival of Native American culture and identity in the face of their holocaust. Was it the Indian warriors who ensured ongoing life for their people? Or was it their peacemakers and peace prophets?

Origins and Holocaust

The original Americans migrated from Asia to North America in a number of waves between 40,000 and 12,000 B.C. Over thousands of years these East Asian peoples spread throughout north, central and south America. They separated into myriads of self-ruling bands and found ways to eat, to survive the elements, to create distribution networks, and to develop socially and politically in every ecological niche of the hemisphere. Before the Europeans arrived, Native Americans developed agriculture, built cities, and oversaw the rise and fall of elaborate civilizations. By 1500 there were more than seven million people north of the Rio Grande, and more than 72 million in the entire hemisphere. The American hemisphere's population was as great as, likely larger than, Europe's. (3)

The encounter with white Europeans after 1492 was devastating for the Native American people, partly because of the military violence of the invaders, but mostly because of the epidemic diseases they brought. Compared to Europe, America had been relatively disease free. But the thousands of years of isolation had an awful consequence. The Native Americans had no natural immunities to Europe's great biological killers - smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, and scarlet fever. The fatal microbes spread rapidly - quickly outrunning the actual European explorers and settlers. The results were almost beyond imagining, especially in Central America, which was more densely populated. In 1494, when Christopher Columbus and the men on his second voyage arrived at the island of Hispaniola (present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the Native population was about eight million. By 1496 it was between four and five million; by 1508 less than a hundred thousand; by 1518 less than twenty thousand; and by 1535, "for all practical purposes, the native population was extinct." (4) In Mexico, seventy-five percent of the population died of smallpox within a four year period. (5) Throughout the hemisphere - South, Central and North America - the pathetic story was repeated. These diseases did not simply come and disappear. They came and spread and killed repeatedly, according to one expert, "at intervals of four years and two and a half months, on the average, from 1520 to 1900." All across the Americas, Europeans moved into lands where native peoples had been devastated and demoralized by epidemic diseases. (6)

Europeans in the seventeenth century thought the raging epidemics were the work of God. Thomas Hariot, a British scientist who observed the unprecedented deaths in the wake of white contact, concluded it was divine punishment for "wicked practices." (7) Governor William Bradford's Plymouth Colony was built on land only recently occupied by Patuxet Indians who were wiped out by smallpox. Bradford wrote in his diary after one epidemic, "For it pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness and such a mortality that of a thousand, above nine and a half hundred of them died, and many of them did rot above ground for want of burial." (8) The Puritans saw God's providence in all things, including their own deaths from disease or in warfare with the Indians.

In the more secular twentieth century, observers are more inclined to focus on the question of how the Native-American holocaust of disease was linked to human decision and action. (9) There were indeed some cases in which the Whites attempted to foster epidemics - by, for example, distributing infected blankets to Native-Americans. (10) It is also true that American government officials in later years failed to take steps to prevent smallpox epidemics among demoralized tribes on their reservations, long after modern vaccination procedures were available. (11) Even so, it should be acknowledged that the epidemic diseases which killed so many Native-Americans were, for the most part, beyond human understanding and control.

Added to the biological holocaust is the story which is better known and easier to comprehend in moral terms - the willful European destruction of native-American tribes through organized warfare, unorganized killings, and ecological devastation on the relentlessly expanding frontier. The Whites saw the Reds as "savages" who stood in the way of "civilization." One historian, with an eye on the Balkans, called it a giant "ethnic cleansing." (12) It is probably better to use the word "genocide," - the deliberate extermination of peoples - and compare it to other world-historical genocides such as the Nazi crusade against the Jews in Europe and the Khmer Rouge assault on Kampuchean peoples in Cambodia. (13)

For many reasons we must face this double holocaust, describing its enormity, and call it by the proper names. One of the most important of these reasons is to appreciate the context in which Native-Americans developed strategies for cultural survival. Under unbelievable stresses, they had limited choices. But they survived.

Original Landscapes of Peace

The tribes living along the North Atlantic coast, who first welcomed the invading Europeans, had been there for centuries. They were agriculturists, who supplemented corn production with hunting and fishing. They had fully rounded cultures of religious ritual, family relationships, and social and political development. They did not have an alphabet or written language, did not know the uses of the wheel or sail, did not tend herds of domesticated animals, and were unaware of the uses of gunpowder and many other such mixed blessings of modern civilization. But they were able to keep peace and to make war in their own ways without the benefit of swords and muskets.


An Iroquois "League of Peace," put in place before Europeans set eyes on North America, was one remarkable Native-American experiment to replace violence with nonviolence. The League originated in the Great Lakes region of what is now northern New York between the Hudson and Niagara Rivers. According to Iroquois legend, the League was born not out of a great imperial war or a battle-scarred independence revolution, but out of the genius and vision of a leader-prophet named Deganawidah (The Master of Things), a Huron by birth and Mohawk by adoption.

Deganawidah's time of effective leadership is not known with certainty - perhaps the early 1400s. Tribal tradition invested Deganawidah with magical powers as well as political wisdom. He reportedly came from the north in a miraculously floating stone canoe. It was a time of social decay and violence. The five Iroquois peoples (from east to west: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas) were making war upon each other - tribe against tribe and person against person. Rampant violence, including the rise of cannibalism, had forced the people to abandon their agricultural villages and cornfields on the hills and to eke out a more precarious and primitive existence in the lowland forests.

Among these disrupted peoples, Deganawidah came preaching a gospel of peace. The people, he said, should stop killing each other, should accept the rule of law, and should come together in new rituals of unity. There should be a new confederation of self-ruling but cooperating tribes, with broad popular participation in decision making. Deganawidah's core message had three parts, each with two branches:

Righteousness means justice practiced between men and between nations; it means also a desire to see justice prevail.

Health means soundness of mind and body; it also means peace, for that is what comes when minds are sane and bodies cared for.

Power means authority, the authority of law and custom, backed by such force as is necessary to make justice prevail; it means also religion, for justice enforced is the will of the Holder of the Heavens and has his sanction. (14)

To promote his program, Deganawidah visited the elders of the five nations. The League legend tells how he recruited and converted three key persons who had been caught up in the old way of violence. The prophet invested them with positions of authority in the new order. One female chief, Jigonhsasee, who had been giving food and hospitality to warriors, became the "Mother of Nations." Women in the new order were authorized to "possess the titles of chiefship" and to name the new chiefs. Hiawatha, an agonized soul who had descended into cannibalism, became Deganawidah's effective spokesman and messenger. (The prophet himself had a speech impediment.) And the great wizard and evil power, Atotarho, whose hair had been filled with writhing snakes, was made whole and named the "Head Chief of the Five Nations." An early task for the chiefs' council of the new League was disarmament. At Deganawidah's suggestion, they uprooted a great pine tree and threw all of their arms into the hole. Then they replanted the tree, "thus hiding the weapons of war forever from the sight of future generations." (15) The pine tree was a great symbol of unity.

Although the stories of the founding of the Iroquois League were enriched with legend and myth, there is no doubt that Deganawidah was a historical person. He built on past tradition, while inventing new political institutions. He understood that the people needed powerful myths and rituals to overcome their impulses to violence and anarchy, and to generate wider loyalty to the Iroquois League in the face of separate local and tribal interests. The role of myth and ritual in founding national charters is commonplace in the history of civilization. What is distinctive about the Deganawidah Epic, compared to the chartering myths of other nations, is that this one found its unity in remembering the establishment of internal peace, rather than in celebrating triumphal military victory over threatening external enemies (the Greeks over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon; the Roman Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, the British over the Spanish Armada, the Americans over the British at Yorktown) The Great League of Peace and Power did in fact unify the self-ruling villages of the Five Nations in the century before the Europeans arrived.

A founding myth of peace, of course, does not guarantee the practice of peace in everyday social life and in political relationships. Within the Iroquois League the threats to harmony and order continued - witchcraft, cannibalism, blood feuds and ritual torture. Outsiders, both neighboring Native-American tribes and invading Europeans, were more impressed with the effectiveness of Iroquois militant power than with their peace and benevolence. The gap between ideals and achievement, however, is a part of all human communities. Unfortunately, Europeans and white Americans preferred to imagine the Iroquois as a great military empire. They have shown far greater interest in the gory details of violent Iroquois practices of warfare and torture, than in the natives' genuine but limited successes in, to use the words of historian Matthew Dennis, "cultivating a landscape of peace." (16)

At the core of Iroquois culture was a "Condolence ceremony," a complex set of rituals of mourning at the death of loved ones - especially momentous at the death of a chief. The people overcame their grief, and their fears that death had assaulted the health and peace of the community. The focus was on the community and the renewal of kinship ties, rather than on the life and achievements of the deceased individual. The grieving people "used the occasion to recite their history, rehearse social and political principles, and renew their commitment to order and reason." (17) The Condolence ceremony was so foundational for Iroquois life that it became the ritual model for diplomatic relations with outside groups. To have good relationships with the French or the English, for example, the Iroquois would ritually acknowledge their commonness by transforming them into some kind of relatives or kinsmen.

From the Iroquois perspective, prospects for a wider peace embracing many different peoples depended upon successful adoption of outsiders - individuals and groups - into the Iroquois League. Outsiders understandably were not all eager to be adopted. The problem was especially acute for outside victims of Iroquois "mourning wars," forcibly captured and adopted to make up for population losses which resulted from diseases or other causes. Native American adoption practices were quite incomprehensible to Europeans. Indeed, the European concept of peace was so radically different from the Iroquois practices, that mutual understanding was virtually impossible. How could Whites understand that adoption rituals, often involving physical pain or torture, might be a functional (or flawed) expression of a Native American effort to establish peace? How could the Iroquois imagine that the wholesale European slaughter of their people in military engagements was an advance for civilization?

The Great League of Peace and Power preserved unity and harmony among the Five Nations before European contacts. Then the Whites brought epidemic diseases, economic dependence, imperial conflicts, and annexation of the land. For more than a century the Iroquois overcame these threats. They were a decentralized confederacy, not a unified empire as romantic Europeans liked to imagine. But they had the advantage of an inland location, along major trade routes and distant from imperial centers of power. Iroquois agricultural production supplied food when game was overhunted. They kept up their population by absorbing prisoners of war and of raiding parties. By the 1730s they had become a colonized people, but their strong cultural institutions helped secure their distinct cultural identity into the future. (18) White colonial leaders, notably Benjamin Franklin, were impressed with the political principles of the Iroquois confederacy. The League of Peace and Power became one source of ideas for the United States Constitution, despite the cultural chauvinism and anti-Indian racism of the founders. An Iroquois symbol, the bundle of arrows, appears on the Great Seal of the United States. (19) A less militant symbol for the Great Seal, equally true to the Iroquois charter, would have been the great pine tree under which all those broken arrows and rejected instruments of warfare were buried.

Massasoit, Metacom, and the "Praying Indians"

Indian cultural survival depended upon both resistance and accommodation. What happened between whites and Indians was not a climactic battle on the frontier line resulting in total triumph on one side and tragic extinction on the other. The unequal cultures intermingled and interpenetrated. In early New England the Wampanoag chief Massasoit, his son Metacom, and the early "praying Indians" made three quite different choices in levels of resistance and accommodation. Chief Massasoit, a so-called "war chief" in fact was more notable for making peace than for making war. In 1621 he visited the new and struggling Plymouth Colony and concluded a treaty of friendship with them - initiating a peace that lasted more than half a century. To be sure, Massasoit's policy did not express a simple benevolent pacifism. He needed the alliance with the Puritans to gain strength for rivalry against other Indian tribes, especially the Narragansetts. In 1637 Massasoit did not interfere when the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut made war against the Pequot Indians, burning their villages, slaughtering women and children, and killing the survivors or selling them into slavery. Even so, Massasoit deserves major credit for the generation of peace between 1621 and 1676.

The possibility of that peace depended upon a middle ground of mutual understanding between Puritans and Indians. Massasoit was able to see some compatibility between English colonies and the Indian tribes. (20) The English colonies, like Indian tribes, were loosely knit alliances that changed over time. The colonists, like the Indians, expected protection and privileges from their king, in exchange for allegiance. Massasoit saw that he could negotiate a tribal accommodation to Puritan ways without necessarily giving up self-rule and self-respect. In his lifetime Massasoit succeeded in maintaining peace on this basis. His son, Metacom (derisively labeled "King Philip" by the English), lacked the father's character and prestige, and faced an ever-increasing tide of White settlement. He was drawn into a disastrous war, "The Second Puritan Conquest" or "King Philip's War." (21)

The Indians in fourteen so-called "praying towns" of New England made a very different accommodation. They were mostly from smaller and more marginal Indian groups, and were at first more vulnerable than members of the larger well-established tribes such as the Narragansett or Wampanoag. They had not made a fully free choice to become Christian, nor did they have full self-rule in their villages. Yet they found margins to create a way of life that mixed their traditional ways with the dominant Puritan culture. They invested Christian religion with traditional Indian meaning by enthusiastically embracing certain external repetitive ritual forms (singing, prayer, instruction) while remaining quite indifferent to Puritan theology. (22) They apparently continued their traditional practice of burying physical objects with the bodies of deceased members - a custom very different from that of the Puritans. (23) They also learned to read and write English, a skill that gave them status and posed a threat to non-literate Indian leaders such as Metacom. Armed with literacy, the "praying Indians" were able to get better representation in colonial courts and to gain greater protection for their lands.

In 1675 a devastating war broke out between the Indians and settlers--known as "King Philip's War." The background to the war included the rising status and power of the formerly marginalized "praying Indians," and the decreasing success of the illiterate Chief Metacom's political strategy of tribal self-rule within the English colonies. The Indians in the "praying towns" suffered grievously during that war - especially those who opted to join the uprising on Metacom's side. After the war only four such towns remained, and the Indians in them formed a dependent class of servants and tenant farmers. Their strategy of selective mastery of the White man's skills, combined with selective maintenance of traditional markers of Native identity, enabled them to survive, and to pass on Native-American identity to the next generation. Chief Metacom was killed, drawn and quartered. The Puritans sold his wife and children into slavery.

Lenni Lenape (Delaware)

Another Native-American tribe whose peaceable inclinations have been recognized even more widely than those of the Iroquois, is the Lenni Lenape (Delaware), whose name means "the original people." In 1682 or 1683 some Lenape chiefs at their village of Shackemaxon (part of the present day Kensington section of Philadelphia) met with William Penn and agreed to a Great Treaty of Friendship. That legendary treaty, cited by Voltaire as the only agreement between Europeans and Indians never sworn to and never broken, was later celebrated in famous paintings by Benjamin West and Edward Hicks.

The Lenape were known as mediators and peacemakers already before William Penn arrived. In 1676 a Lenape chief named Rinowehan, with the encouragement and authority of Governor Edmund Andros of New York colony, helped to mediate a threatening conflict between the Iroquois and the Susquehannocks. (24) The Lenape reputation for mediation or peacemaking was associated with a name, "Gantowises" - meaning "women" - which they accepted for themselves. Some scholars, accepting the interpretation of early Moravian missionaries, believe that this name was a badge of honor, originating in its use for Iroquois women of royal lineage who had a highly honored role as peacemakers. Other historians say that the Iroquois pinned the label of "women" on the Lenape after defeating them in battle. (25) The term "Gantowises" lost status when translated into the English as "women," because the English had no equivalent role of honor for women. The Lenape, of course, were neither the first or last of peaceminded people to be scorned as effeminate.

The Lenape did not have central authority or a confederation such as the one that strengthened the Iroquois. Some historians have associated this decentralization with weakness and peaceableness. Paul A. W. Wallace, for example, wrote with a tinge of condescension that "[the Delawares] were not a warlike people. They could hardly be, with so little organization and discipline. They had no central 'fire' or national council. The local community was supreme, as though the need of concerted military action was not thought of." (26)

The Lenape have the honor of producing the first and only written record of tribal history in North America. (27) Lenape storytellers kept the tribal oral memory alive in the form of epic songs which included the creation of the world, a great flood, extensive migrations, and a succession of leaders. At some point the Lenape story tellers (or one exceptionally creative genius among them) devised a system to assist memory with written symbols or pictographs scratched onto bark or pieces of wood. In its most complete form, the Lenape epic song (Wallam Olum or Red Record) consisted of 183 verses. Some observers have speculated that this writing form may have been a continuous tradition from Asia, because a few of the pictographs correspond to ancient Chinese writing. The Lenape pictograph for "peace" (or friendly, peaceful, pleasant), a small isosceles triangle (^), is much like an archaic Chinese pictograph meaning "union" or "harmony." More cautious and objective scholars doubt the antiquity and historical accuracy of the Red Record. (28) It was most likely influenced to some extent by the encounter with whites. There is little doubt, however, that the Red Record reflects traditional Delaware memories and values. One anthropologist has suggested that it took its shape in a time of upheaval in the early 1800s and represented a yearning for "a Golden Age which never was." (29)

The Lenape Red Record began with creation of the world and ended with the coming of the Europeans: "Friendly people, in great ships; who are they?" Images of war and peace are found throughout. The pictograph for "war" or "destruction," a cross (x), appeared nearly twice as often as the one for peace . Nevertheless, the Red Record is a reminder of the human yearning for peace and an evocation of the roots of peace in past, present and future. One of the uses of peace refers to a period of peaceful living immediately following the creation. Another refers to "an island, the pleasant abode of the dead." Others refer to times of social harmony associated with notable chiefs: "After him, Peaceful One was chief while they went to Snake Land," or "When all were friends, Wolf Man was chief." Other chiefs, less capable or fortunate, were remembered for pain and death: "When White Fledgling was chief, blood flowed again in the north and in the south." In some cases the story-teller justified the tribe's resort to retribution against enemies: "In right-minded indignation, all said, 'Let us despoil! Let us destroy!'" As a whole, however, compared to older traditions of European history which are centered on imperial conquest, the Wallam Olum records a remarkably benign tribal epic.

The pathways of peace in the Delaware Valley both before and after the Whites arrived are worth reflection. Compared to New England and Virginia, where Indian-European relationships were scarred by vicious and devastating warfare, the Delaware Valley was relatively peaceable. From the arrival of the whites until 1755, colonists and Indians engaged in no major warfare. The Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, surely deserves substantial credit for this achievement. Penn was a benevolent pacifist, exceptionally respectful of Native American rights and culture by the standards of his time. He learned the Indian languages. He dealt with the Indians honestly and respectfully in clearing title to the land.

Even so, Penn's friendly policies depended on a friendly Native response. In the judgement of historian David Hackett Fischer, "Penn's Indian policy would have been a disastrous failure in Massachusetts or Virginia," where the Natives were more bellicose. (30) Fischer's speculation may not be fully warranted. Trust begets trust. The Powhatans in Virginia responded violently to early British belligerence. In any case, the relatively peaceful development of the Delaware Valley deserves to be honored. The seeds of that landscape of relative peace were planted not only in the pacifist Quaker movement in England, but also in the Native American communities of the Delaware Valley where people of hospitality and peace lived and thrived before the Whites ever arrived.

Prophets and Revitalization

Essential indeed to cultural survival was hope. Native Americans knew how to envision a future of hope in the face of disaster. "Our cultural ways cannot be destroyed," said the tribal elders to their children. "Even when our ways seem to be destroyed or forgotten, in every seventh generation the Great Spirit will reveal them to the people again." (31) Thus it happened repeatedly in the Native-American experience. When their situation seemed most hopeless and desperate, when the stress was greatest, prophets would receive new visions for the salvation of the people. The prophets announced that recent disasters came from the people's abandonment of traditional ways and their acceptance of the destructive ways of the Whites, especially the drinking of alcohol. The prophets proposed disciplines and rituals of dancing, praying and making special offerings to revitalize the community. The prophets had varying success in winning converts, and not all tribes produced prophets in equal numbers. Between 1740 and 1890 the Delaware Indians  participated in fourteen of these new religious movements. (32)

The Indian prophets had many fantastic dreams, both militant and peaceful. The prophets most interesting to White Americans, the ones most likely to receive attention in American history textbooks, were those whose movements resulted in events of dramatic violence. Thus the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskatawa, and his brother, Tecumseh, are famous for a militant movement of inter-tribal unity and regeneration that they led from 1805 to the War of 1812. But the Whites knew how to deal with a military challenge. At the Battle of Tippecanoe, General William Henry Harrison's troops routed the Indian forces and he became a national hero - eventually president of the United States. Tecumseh sought British military assistance and died in October 1813 as a brigadier general in the British army at the Battle of the Thames, attempting to beat back the U. S. invasion of Canada. As Tecumseh's biographer explained, the Americans "took pride in his passing, for in conquering the red champion they could assure themselves that they were worthy of his kingdom." (33)

Meanwhile the Seneca "peace prophet," Handsome Lake, offered a radically different vision from that of Tenskatawa, the "war prophet." Beginning in 1799, after wasted years of drunkenness, Handsome Lake had a series of prophetic visions that dealt first with apocalyptic themes of sin and divine punishment. Later visions offered a social gospel of regeneration through temperance and technological change. Handsome Lake met Jesus in his visions, and saw himself as a message-bearer of the truth for Native Americans, in some sense an equivalent to Jesus. His social vision called for strengthened Indian identity and control of life on reservations, combined with white technologies and social-economic roles. Handsome Lake endorsed and strengthened a momentous Iroquois transition: the men shifted from hunting to farming; the women shifted from farming to homemaking. (34)

The male hunting life was traditionally associated with warfare. Handsome Lake, to the relief of White political authorities, refused to join the militant Tenskatawa-Tecumseh movement. During the American-British war, he also resisted United States' efforts to recruit "volunteer" soldiers from the Iroquois tribes. His effort had only limited success. From 1812 to 1814 more than six hundred Iroquois officers and enlisted men signed up for military service. Even though they rejected his anti-war counsel, many of these soldiers honored and respected Handsome Lake as a prophet and religious leader. The prophet died in 1815. Through the next three decades his followers rehearsed his teachings and practiced the rituals he had prescribed. In the 1940s they established the Handsome Lake Church, an institution committed to Native American traditionalism over against the evangelical Christian movement which had won many Iroquois converts. The Handsome Lake Church became an American religious denomination. Handsome Lake's rejection of warfare in the early nineteenth century remains an important testimony to depth of the American peacemaking heritage.

Cherokee "Civilization"

Strategies for cultural survival were as varied as the different cultures of the tribes themselves. In the early years of the new republic, the Cherokees of the American southeast made a remarkable effort to preserve political self-rule by selectively adapting to western "civilized" ways. (35) They contended vigorously about which parts of the White culture to adopt. Some Cherokees became Christians and found ways to complement their tribal-national rebirth with the Christian gospel of hope and personal rebirth. A different kind of renewal came in 1821-1822 when Sequoyah, a brilliant man who could not speak or read English, created a Cherokee alphabet so they could read, write, and even publish newspapers in their own language. Both of these new sources of revitalization could divide the people - the first into Christian versus pagan parties, and the second into English speakers and Cherokee speakers. (36) All change came hard. And, as it turned out, no degree of acculturation could guarantee significant self-rule for the Cherokee nation. Under President Andrew Jackson the United States government removed the Cherokees from their homeland to a reservation in "Indian Territory" beyond the Mississippi River. Cherokee suffering and death on their "Trail of Tears" in 1838 is one of the most discreditable events of American history.

The Cherokees achieved much within the limited choices they faced. They would not have achieved more had they engaged in suicidal warfare as an alternative to removal westward. Their neighbors, the Creeks, fought the invading whites ferociously, but gained no advantage for all their dying and killing. Wilbur Jacobs, writing about earlier Cherokee history in his book, Dispossessing the American Indian, said, "The Cherokees and their allies were likewise eager to stop the bloody conflict in which they found themselves engulfed. . . . The Indians, above all, wanted a fair deal in trade and honest clarity in treaty terms and negotiations." Jacobs even suggested that peaceloving Indians may be responsible for peacemaking impulses in the dominant culture: "Is it possible that the American penchant for peace has an anchor chain deep in the historical past that ties us to the Indian?" (37)

Plains Indians, Cheyenne

The encounters of plains Indians with invading whites before and after the Civil War generated some of the most pervasive and pernicious stereotypes of Native-Americans. Thanks to generations of dime novels and thousands of Hollywood movies, whites reflexively imagine a history of cowboy and Indian shootouts or of befeathered Indians swooping down from the hills to attack white wagon trails moving westward. Again, the image has some truth, but is substantially false. "The preoccupation with Indian depredations," says John D. Unruh, Jr., author of the most authoritative history of the overland trails, "has resulted in radical distortion of the historical record." (38) To be sure, the Indians did kill many whites who flooded into and through their lands. But even more impressive were the events of mutual aid. The overlanders depended on Indians for route information, trail guidance, assistance at river and stream crossings, horses and supplies, and the transportation of letters to friends and families back in the East. From 1840 to 1860 inclusive, Unruh counted, 362 overland emigrants and 462 Indians were killed. Francis Jennings, historian of Indian America, wrote in view of these numbers, "An emigrant was safer from attack on the trek than he would be on the streets of any large modern city." (39)

One plains tribe saddled with a reputation for special ferocity was the Cheyenne, allegedly "the most warlike tribe of the warlike Plains Indians." George Bird Grinnell, author of The Fighting Cheyennes, called them "a proud, headstrong, and obstinate people." (40) Grinnell's stereotype helped sell books; it also obscured one of the most distinctive of Native American peace traditions. The Cheyenne Peace Chiefs, a council of forty-four leaders, were entrusted with the core moral teachings of the tribe. Their legendary founder, Sweet Medicine, appointed the first chiefs and told them: "You chiefs are peacemakers. Though your son might be killed in front of your tepee, you should take a peace pipe and smoke. Then you would be called an honest chief." (41) The same high moral standard of nonviolence is continued in the instructions given to new peace chiefs to this day: "If you see your mother, wife, or children being molested or harmed by anyone, you do not go and seek revenge. Take your pipe. Go, sit and smoke and do nothing, for you are now a Cheyenne chief." (42) In the Peace Chief tradition moral power came through the patient acceptance of suffering, rather than through angry revenge.

The Cheyennes' tribal memory locates their origins in the region of present-day southern Minnesota, where they evolved a semi-settled agricultural economy. In the 1700s and 1800s, along with other tribes on the fringes of the Great Plains, the Cheyennes adopted a more nomadic lifestyle as they acquired horses and followed the migration routes of the bison. As the Plains Indian culture developed - counter to the normal shift from nomadism to settled agriculture - the ideals of the Cheyenne Peace Chiefs inevitably came into conflict with the flamboyant militancy of the Cheyenne war societies. (Plains Indian warfare was highly ritualized, consisting of brief and often indecisive conflicts by small parties. The object of much of the fighting was to gain the status of striking a "blow" or coup against the enemy, rather than massive killing.) (43) The power of the Cheyenne Peace Chiefs was moral rather than political, and it was weakened when the White invasion strengthened the warriors' case for a violent response. White military officers made no distinctions between Cheyenne dog soldiers and Cheyenne Peace Chiefs. If Cheyenne warriors, violating the counsel of the Peace Chiefs, attacked White settlers or soldiers, the United States army or militia felt quite justified in organizing massacres of the Cheyenne villages where the Peace Chiefs lived with their people.

In 1862 three Cheyenne Peace Chiefs, Black Kettle, White Antelope and Lean Bear, traveled to Washington, D.C. and received peace medals, American flags, and official documents to prove their friendly status to the frontier soldiers. Two years later Lean Bear, with the peace medal on his breast and the documents in hand, was shot and killed as he approached White troops in friendship. Black Kettle intervened to prevent Cheyenne soldiers from fighting back. Two years after that, November 1866, Black Kettle, White Antelope, and other chiefs and their people were camped along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado territory, under the guarantee of protection by the territorial governor. A volunteer militia led by Colonel J. M. Chivington, an ordained Methodist minister, viciously and without provocation attacked and massacred some 500 men, women and children in this peaceable village. Chief White Antelope refused to fight back or to flee. He stood in front of his lodge with arms folded, and was shot to death while singing his death song, "Nothing lives long, Except the earth and the mountains." The white soldiers returned to a heroes' welcome in Denver, where they exhibited more than a hundred Indian scalps between the acts of an evening theatrical performance.

Chief Black Kettle somehow survived the Sand Creek massacre. In November 1868, Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry organized a surprise attack on Black Kettle's peaceable village along the Washita River in western Oklahoma Territory. Black Kettle was flying the American flag, and assumed protection under the Treaty of Medicine Lodge which he had signed thirteen months earlier. Black Kettle refused to fight back against Custer and was cut down along with his wife. They remained faithful to the nonviolent Peace Chief ethic: "Do not go and seek revenge. Take your pipe. Go, sit and smoke and do nothing, for you are now a Cheyenne chief."

The West Coast

Native American tribes beyond the Rocky Mountains engaged in almost no warfare among large groups prior to the impact of white invaders. (44) They benefitted from an abundance of natural foods for hunting, gathering and fishing. They developed elaborate ceremonies that enabled non-violent resolution of conflict between groups. At the potlatch ritual in the Northwest, prominent individuals gave away their wealth in order to gain honor and privilege. The potlatch was a polar opposite to modern capitalism. The potlatch reduced violent warfare, rather than fostering it through competition to acquire wealth.

Perhaps the most consistent of peaceable Native-American tribes was the Sanpoil, a small group of about two-hundred people in the Pacific Northwest. The Sanpoil social order was democratic, not dominated by powerful chiefs. Economically they subsisted on salmon from the Columbia River. Their principled nonresistance left them vulnerable to raids by other tribes, but their long-term social and cultural survival remains a documented fact. Tribal wisdom remembered the response of a chief after one especially vicious raid: "Our children are dead and our property is destroyed. We are sad. But can we bring our children back to life or restore our property by killing other people? It is better not to fight. It can do no good." In 1877 the Sanpoil dreamer-prophet Skolaskin responded to invitations to join the Nez Perces tribe in war against encroaching Americans with the words, "God made the world for us to live on, not to fight or sell." Chief Komotalakia of the Sanpoil told the whites, "We do not wish to die fighting, but to die in peace. . . . We have been constant and true to the whites. Long ago our chief set us the example and we have always followed it." One social consequence of Sanpoil nonresistance was an unusually high ratio of men to women in the tribe. Their men did not die in warfare. Sanpoil pacifism did not save them from anguished dislocation and internal conflict when the whites took their land and forced them into economic dependence on a reservation together with rival tribes. True to their tradition, however, the Sanpoil did not have the blood of enemies on their hands. (45)

Who Guaranteed Cultural Survival?

Who was responsible for Indian cultural survival in the face of the double holocaust of disease and war? How did it happen that Indians, contrary to expectations of whites who predicted their extinction ("The Last of the Mohicans," etc.) were able to survive as distinct peoples? How can it be that the Indian population today grows rapidly, that Indian creative art and literature inspire the world, and that Indian spirituality attracts modern people who have lost religious roots? Was this an achievement of violent warriors--the textbook heroes? No, it was not. Courageous as they were, the warriors did not save their peoples. They perished in battle after battle across the decades and across the continent. The memories of their sacrifice were not irrelevant to Indian identity, but the real unsung heroes of Native American history were those who resisted nonviolently. Indian ways of living survived because of the patient, persistent, and creative traditionalism of ordinary women and men, and because of the special role of charismatic prophets who set forth new visions for the life of their people. While they worked to sustain traditional values, the prophets as well as the ordinary people accommodated to European culture at some levels. They borrowed selectively from white ways in order to create a viable separate space and identity in American society. Their choices were severely limited. But they were remarkably creative and successful within those limits.

For all Native-American peoples, the most significant sustainers of cultural identity were the thousands of women whose lot it was to grieve the death of sons and husbands killed in war, and then to persist in their communities to keep traditional ways alive in the face of repeated disasters. Patiently, silently, and covertly these women sustained their cultures in ways that non-natives could not see or recognize. "My mother taught me everything connected with the tipi," reported one Southern Cheyenne woman. (46) Native-American women sustained kinship relations, continued native foodways and planting rituals, used ancient herbal medicines and remedies, and practiced seasonal observances and celebrations. (47)

Some Indian women contributed much more than patient domesticity to cultural survival. Among the Pomo tribes of north central California, women "Dreamers" had a role as local religious prophets and healers in a cult known as "Bole Maru" (Dream Dance). The cult began in the 1870's as a nationalistic revitalization movement and continued in the twentieth century under a succession of powerful women Dreamers: Annie Jervis, Essie Parrish, and Mabel McKay. The message and the rituals of the cult changed in each generation according to new challenges and new visions of the leaders. Greg Sarris, a scholar of one-quarter Indian background whose Native-American identity was reestablished by McKay, tells of the complexity and vitality of this tradition in his book, Keeping Slug Woman Alive. Sarris quotes McKay's prophecy of hope and survival from the "Old Man," her grandmother's grandfather, in the face of the European arrival and assault: "You will find a way, a way to go on even after this white people run over the earth like rabbits." (48)


In 1968, the white grandsons of Custer's Seventh Cavalry, out of some strange need to rehearse the violence of their grandfathers, planned to replay the Washita massacre on the exact site and November day it had happened a century earlier. Their mock cavalry needed Indians for their play-acting celebration. The Cheyennes, infinitely patient and hospitable, agreed to set up a village for the occasion. They asked only that the re-enactment be historically accurate, and that they be allowed to re-inter the bones of one of the original massacre victims. The bones had been on public display in a small museum in the nearby town of Cheyenne. The Indians saw the centennial as a time for mourning, not for celebration.

The re-enactment went awry. The Cavalry re-enactors charged down on the Cheyenne village prematurely and unexpectedly, brandishing sabers and firing loud blanks from their rifles. The Cheyenne children ran in terror to their parents. Once again the Cheyennes had been betrayed. What could they do with their own anger at the cavalry, headed by Captain Eric Gault, "Commanding Officer, Grand Army of the Republic, Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry, Reactivated?" At the concluding centennial ceremony, an old Cheyenne peace chief called Gault forward, took the Cheyenne blanket which had been on the bronze coffin of the re-interred victim of 1868, and placed it over Gault's shoulders. It was a gesture of reconciliation, and it broke through the tension and hostility. Lawrence Hart, himself a peace chief, reported that the following scene was "hard to describe. . . . People broke down and cried . . . these grandsons of the Seventh and grandsons of Black Kettle. A reconciliation occurred exactly one hundred years after that battle and it was initiated by one of our contemporary Cheyenne chiefs." Gault presented Hart with his prized "Garry Owens" pin, a gift which Hart took as a promise that the Washita massacre would never again be re-enacted. (49)

If the Washita centennial remembrance of 1968 had resulted in bloodshed instead of reconciliation, it would have made national headlines. A goodly number of brutal killings might even have earned the event a mention in ordinary history textbooks. Instead, thanks to the Cheyenne chiefs, peace broke out. Among whites it became a largely forgotten event among people they preferred to remember as the "fighting Cheyennes." Among the Cheyennes, the event reestablished an ancient and authentic heritage of peace.


1. Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995), 208.

2. On European imaginary distortions of Native American reality, see Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man's Indian, Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1978).

3. Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, A Population History Since 1492 (Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1987), 32-7. The comparison with Europe does not include European Russia.

4. Sherburne F. Cook and Woodrow Borah, "The Aboriginal Population of Hispaniola," in Cook and Borah, Essays in Population history: Mexico and the Caribbean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), Volume One, 402-3, cited in Stannard, American Holocaust, 74-5.

5. William E. Unrau, "The Columbian Heritage: The Varieties of Violence against Native Americans in Nineteenth-Century Kansas," in Nonviolent America: History Through the Eyes of Peace (North Newton, Ks: Bethel College, 1993), 42.

6. For a recent summary see Noble David Cook, Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

7. Francis Jennings, The Founders of America: How Indians Discovered the Land, Pioneered in it, and Created Great Classical Civilizations; How They Were Plunged into a Dark Age by Invasion and Conquest; and How They are Reviving, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 169.

8. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 270-71, cited in Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1993), 39.

9. See section II, "Pestilence and Genocide," in David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World , (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 57-146.

10. Jennings, The Founders, 298-9.

11. Unrau, "Columbian Heritage," 44-45.

12. Kenneth C. Davis, "Ethnic Cleansing Didn't Start in Bosnia," The New York Times, September 3, 1995, Section 4: 1, 6.

13. See section II, "Pestilence and Genocide," in David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 57-146.

14. Paul A. W. Wallace, The White Roots of Peace (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1946), 13-14.

15. John Arthur Gibson, Concerning the League: The Iroquois league Tradition as Dictated in Onondaga (Winnipeg: Algonquian and Iroquoian linguistics, 1992), xxix.

16. Matthew Dennis, Cultivating a Landscape of Peace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

17. Dennis, Cultivating, 79.

18. Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

19. Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Bruce E. Johannsen, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center UCLA, 1991), 246.

20. This section follow the suggestion of James Drake, "Symbol of a Failed Strategy: The Sassamon Trial, Political Culture, and the Outbreak of King Philip's War," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 19:2 (1995): 111-41.

21. The "War of Conquest" designation is suggested by Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 298. The more Puritan-oriented account is Douglas Edward Leach, Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip's War (New York: Macmillan, 1958).

22. Neal Salisbury, "Red Puritans: the 'Praying Indians' of Massachusetts Bay and John Eliot," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 31 (1974), 44.

23. Drake, "Symbol of a Failed Strategy," 122.

24. Francis Paul Jennings, "Miquon's Passing: Indian-European Relations in Colonial Pennsylvania, 1674 to 1775," Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1965, 45-7.

25. C. A. Weslager, The Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972, 180-1. Anthony F. W. Wallace, "Woman, Land, and Society: Three Aspects of Aboriginal Delaware Life," Pennsylvania Archaelogist 17:1-4 (1947), 20-32.

26. Paul A. W. Wallace, Indians in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1961), 46. Wallace, typical of most historical surveys of Indian tribes, has a separate chapter on Delaware warfare, but not on Delaware peacemaking.

27. David McCutchen, translator and annotator, The Red Record, The Wallam Olum, The Oldest Native North American History (Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1993.

28. Herbert C. Kraft, The Lenape, Archaeology, History, and Ethnography (Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1986), 4-7.

29. William W. Newcomb, Jr., The Culture and Acculturation of the Delaware Indians, University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Anthropological Papers, no. 10 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, 1956), 5, cited in McCutchen, The Red Record, 13, and in Kraft, The Lenape, 22.

30. David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 452.

31. Conversation of the author with Jeanne M. Oyawin Eder, Larned, Kansas, June 19, 1995.

32. Anthony F. C. Wallace, "New Religions Among the Delaware Indians, 1600-1900," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 12 (Spring 1956): 13.

33. R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 225. See also Edmunds, Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984).

34. Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).

35. William G. McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

36. McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence, 350-1.

37. Wilbur R. Jacobs, Dispossessing the American Indian: Indians and Whites on the Colonial Frontier (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), 167.

38. John D. Unruh, Jr., The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 156.

39. Jennings, The Founders, 368.

40. George Bird Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956), vii, ix.

41. Quoted in Stan Hoig, The Peace Chiefs of the Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980), 7.

42. Lawrence Hart, "Cheyenne Peace Traditions," Mennonite Life 36 (June 1981), 4-7.

43. Peter Farb, Man's Rise to Civilization: The Cultural Ascent of the Indians of North America, rev. ed. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), 110-14.

44. John Whiteclay Chambers II, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) s.v. "Native American Wars: Warfare in Native American Societies," by James D. Drake, 478-9.

45. Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Dreamer Prophets of the Columbian Plateau, Smohalla and Skolaskin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 127, 163, 132.

46. From Truman Michelson, "The Narrative of a Southern Cheyenne Woman," Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 87 (1932): 2. Cited in Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands, American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 40.

47. Ann McMullen, "What's Wrong with This Picture? Context, Conversion, Survival, and the Development of Regional Native Cultures and Pan-Indianism in Southeastern New England," in Enduring Traditions: The Native Peoples of New England, ed. by Laurie Weinstein (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1994), 123.

48. Greg Sarris, Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 41.

49. Hart, "Cheyenne Peace Traditions," 7. Conversation of the author with Lawrence Hart, Wichita, Kansas, July 26, 1995. See also Lawrence Hart, "A Gesture of Peace," in What Would You Do?, ed. by John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 137-41.