Hiawatha (or Heowenta), from Iroquois Haio-hwa’tha, “he makes rivers,” co-founder of the League of the Iroquois. He was born into the Turtle clan of the Mohawk tribe sometime early in the 16th century. Nothing is known of his childhood or early youth.
Apparently he became deeply impressed by the divine message of Dekanawida and joined with him in his effort to unite the Iroquois tribes in a League to insure peace. His skill as a diplomat and an orator made him vitally important to Dekanawida, who suffered from a severe speech impediment. As a disciple of the latter, Hiawatha brought the message of peace to the tribes, but at first had little success in overcoming their suspicion and intratribal hatred. He met especially strong resistance from Atotarho, the Onondaga chief, who was jealous of the role of Hiawatha in the great design to unite the Iroquois tribes.
Around 1550, Hiawatha apparently succeeded in convincing the Cayuga, Mohawk, and Oneida of the wisdom of Dekanawida’s plan, and induced them to band together, leaving the Onondaga and the Seneca alone and isolated. Eventually, around 1570, the Seneca joined, and pressure was put on Atotarho to acquiesce for the common good. Special considerations were offered to him, most particularly that the Onondaga would be regarded as the “central fire” of the League, that their village would be the “capitol,” and that all League meetings would be held there, with the Onondaga enjoying certain political powers. To further mollify his defiance, Atotarho himself was placed at the head of the roll of hereditary chiefs. Despite the fact that many concessions were made to Atotarho to persuade him to join the League, Hiawatha was credited with possessing remarkable magical powers in overcoming the obstinate opposition of the formidable chief.
The League was democratic in many of its principles. Power flowed up from the small local units, hereditary chiefs were nominated by clan matrons and elected by villages, and all member groups were given a representative voice. Built on such a firm foundation with obvious demonstrated values, it is not surprising that the organization which became established provided something of a model for later American political planning.
When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his classic epic poem Hiawatha, he confused Indian history by basing most of his narrative upon Chippewa legend rather than Mohawk legend, the tribe from which Hiawatha actually came. Hiawatha himself seems to have disappeared in antiquity; the date and place of his death are not recorded, and he, along with Dekanawida, became almost godlike beings to the Iroquois, and their memories continue to be revered today as major figures in history.
Source: Great North American Indians by Frederick J. Duckstander