Why this solar eclipse has meaning for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy

During next Monday’s solar eclipse, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy will celebrate the once in a lifetime event as the anniversary of its founding.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, is composed of the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Tuscarora nations. A total solar eclipse played an important role in its history.

On the afternoon of April 8, a total eclipse will occur where another eclipse darkened the skies over Seneca territory nearly 1,000 years ago.

“It’s amplifying the peace and the messages of peace that were given to our people,” said Michelle Schenandoah, a member of the Oneida Nation, Wolf Clan, in upstate New York, and founder of the nonprofit Rematriation.

“Each year we have been gathering at Ganondagan, and leading up to this eclipse when we also received guidance from within our communities to gather again at this eclipse.”

Rematriation hosted an event during a 2017 eclipse. (Tahila Mintz/Studio Tahila)

The gathering at Ganondagan, a state historic site of a 17th century Seneca village in Victor, N.Y., near Rochester, will include speakers, singing and traditional teachings.

According to oral history, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was founded by the prophet known as the Peacemaker.

Perry Ground, an Onondaga storyteller and cultural educator, says at that time the nations were at war. Ground said that Peacemaker was known to have had supernatural abilities and was tested by each nation before they would accept his message, known as the Great Law of Peace.

The Seneca were the last nation to ratify the constitution of the confederacy. 

“The Peacemaker comes to the Senecas and they see the sun disappearing,” he said.

“They take this as the signal that he told them, ‘Look to the sky for a signal, you know that it’s time to stop fighting and to accept the idea of peace.'”

Astronomy plus oral history

Barbara Alice Mann, a professor emerita at the University of Toledo in Ohio and a member of the Seneca nation, wrote a 1997 paper with astronomer Jerry L. Fields on when this event took place.

In an emailed statement, Mann told CBC Indigenous that Haudenosaunee oral histories indicated the ratification took place much earlier than the mid-16th-century date Western scholars had posited.

The paper cites oral testimony transmitted through Haudenosaunee knowledge keepers that as the Seneca were deliberating joining the confederacy, the sun went black for several minutes. Oral tradition said this occurred either when Second Hoeing (early July) was acknowledged or Green Corn (late August to early September).  

Mann and Fields looked for a total solar eclipse path that would include Ganondagan between July and September, in mid-afternoon, between AD 500 and AD 1700.

Women embracing.
Michelle Schenandoah says there’s something transformative and healing about coming together. (Tahila Mintz/Studio Tahila)

“It is rare enough when archeology and oral tradition agree. But when archeology, oral tradition, historical records, and astronomical science all point to the same date, Aug. 31, 1142, a significant mass of evidence is before us,” Mann wrote in the paper. 

Mann told CBC Indigenous that she’s going to watch Monday’s eclipse but won’t be attending a gathering as she’s recovering from illness. 

“I’ll leave the festivities to youngsters, with my blessing,” she wrote in an email.

Schenandoah said reliving and retelling their traditions as they’ve always done keeps them alive, and is different from knowledge that is stored in a book until someone needs that information.

“In many ways, it’s like the oral history actually has more weight because it’s constantly relived in families and within nations over and over again versus sitting on a shelf and being forgotten,” she said.

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