White Roots of Peace, The Paul A. W. Wallace

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

White Roots of Peace, The Paul A. W. Wallace

White Roots of Peace, The Paul A. W. Wallace (1946)

The alliance of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora in an Iroquois league known as the Six Nations, or the People of the Longhouse, was founded in the mid-16th century. A loose association of tribes reputedly formed as far back as 1150. About 1570, the Huron prophet and mystic Deganawida of Kingston, Ontario, preached a gospel of peace that civilized and brought together the first five nations, the Tuscarora joined the confederacy after migrating north in the early 18th century. The epic story of Deganawida was written by Paul A. W. Wallace as The White Roots of Peace (1946). Drawing on previously written English version of Iroquois oral tradition, Wallace recounts social and political reform among Indian peoples. Set on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, the epic turns legend into a national saga. Themes of coexistence with nature accompany motifs of negotiation and social order. The Indians' embrace of pacifism proved crucial to tribal coexistence during the years preceding the settlement of the Canadian frontier and the separation of American colonies from the British Empire.

The history of the Iroquois confederacy, as it is best known, coincided with a period of European struggle for sovereignty in North America. The alliance resisted attacks from, amongst others, the Huron of Canada and the Mohican of the Hudson Valley. Wallace's narrative depicts the peacemaker Deganawida as an incarnation of the Great Spirit, a suppressor of sorcery and cannibalism and an advocate of deer hunting and tree planting. Magical episodes featuring his navigation aboard a stone canoe, a symbol of permanence, and subsequent tests of strength and divination advance the prophet to semi-divinity. The text, like the Mesopotamian Epic of GILGAMESH (ca. 1800 B.C.) and the Solomonic book of Proverbs (ca. 180 B.C.), expresses a high level of rationality: “Peace was not … a negative thing, the mere absence of war or an interval between wars, to be recognized only as the stepchild of the law; to the Iroquois, peace was law” (Wallace 1994, 6).

As a sign of his righteousness, Deganawida, like the protagonist of VIRGIL'S AENEID (17 B.C.) and like Arjuna, hero of the BHAGAVAD GITA (ca. 200 B.C.), accepts supernatural guidance. He obeys a prophetic dream and begins converting woodland Indians to nonviolence and brotherhood. To settle primacy among chiefs, he crowns each with antlers, a primitive symbol of power similar to the horns of the altar that Moses had made. For assistance, Deganawida allied with Yegowaneh, the Mother of Nations and descendant of the first woman; and with the Mohawk medicine man Hiawatha, whom Henry Wordsworth Longfellow immortalized in The Song of Hiawatha (1855), America's first literary epic. That poem, like The White Roots of Peace, commemorates an Indian HERO and is a striking reminder of an effective democratic alliance of nations.


Johansen, Bruce Elliott, and Barbara A. Mann.

Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000.

Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Rev. ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.

Wallace, Paul A. W. The White Roots of Peace: The Iroquois Book of Life. Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light, 1994.