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Thursday Thinkpiece: Kayanerenkó:wa–The Great Law of Peace

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Kayanerenkó:wa–The Great Law of Peace

Kayanesenh Paul Williams has been involved in protecting and explaining Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Wabanaki land, environmental, and cultural rights for forty years, as negotiator, lawyer, and historian.

ISBN: 978-0-88755-821-4 (Paper) / 978-0-88755-193-2 (Cloth)
Publisher: University of Manitoba Press
Page Count: 472 Pages
Publication Date: October 2018
Price: $35.95 / $74.95

Several centuries ago, the five nations that would become the Haudenosaunee—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—were locked in generations-long cycles of bloodshed. When they established Kayanerenkó:wa, the Great Law of Peace, they not only resolved intractable conflicts, but also shaped a system of law and government that would maintain peace for generations to come. This law remains in place today in Haudenosaunee communities: an Indigenous legal system, distinctive, complex, and principled. It is not only a survivor, but a viable alternative to Euro-American systems of law. With its emphasis on lasting relationships, respect for the natural world, building consensus, and on making and maintaining peace, it stands in contrast to legal systems based on property, resource exploitation, and majority rule.

Although Kayanerenkó:wa has been studied by anthropologists, linguists, and historians, it has not been the subject of legal scholarship. There are few texts to which judges, lawyers, researchers, or academics may refer for any understanding of specific Indigenous legal systems. Following the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and a growing emphasis on reconciliation, Indigenous legal systems are increasingly relevant to the evolution of law and society.

In Kayanerenkó:wa: The Great Law of Peace Kayanesenh Paul Williams, counsel to Indigenous nations for forty years, with a law practice based in the Grand River Territory of the Six Nations, brings the sum of his experience and expertise to this analysis of Kayanerenkó:wa as a living, principled legal system. In doing so, he puts a powerful tool in the hands of Indigenous and settler communities.

The Three Words: Peace, Power, and Righteousness

An excerpt from Part III: Bringing the Great Peace of Kayanerenkó:wa: The Great Law of Peace

The Peacemaker took his message to the Mohawk village[1] first. The people were assembled. They had to wait for three of their leaders, the chief, the Great Warrior, and his deputy.[2]

For this plan to work the Peacemaker was required to convince a very skeptical audience that all human beings really did possess the potential for rational thought, that when encouraged to use rational thought they would inevitably seek peace, and that the belief in the principles would lead to the organized enactment of the vision . . .

The Peacemaker spent considerable time moving from individual to individual among the leadership of the people who much later would come to be known as the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca nations. His mission appears to have taken time. He was interested in reaching the thinking of each of these human beings as individuals. He seemed to go right at the intended target individual to offer his hope for the future of mankind, his definition of a way of coming to power, to peace, and to a better tomorrow for all his people, indeed for all mankind.[3]

In speaking to larger groups, the Peacemaker spoke more bluntly and simply. Where with Hiawatha he engaged in a long and caring Condolence, with the Mohawks he spoke of the three basic words:[4] those that have been translated as Peace, Power, and Righteousness.

While in the law and in councils, there is frequent reference to “words,” in fact it would be better to think of these as “matters” or “ideas.” Each is something to be considered separately and in the order it was given or proposed, but each one is also inextricably linked to the others. In council, the “words” are deliberately of a manageable, understandable size, so that once all the matters have been addressed and decided, one at a time, together they form a coherent policy. A “word” may be complex. It may be part of a sequence. But it is an idea, a whole unto itself:

Then Tekanawita stood up, saying, “I, indeed, am arriving with the Good Message and the Power and the Peace; now it will cease, the warfare and the scalping and the shedding of human blood. This, actually, is how it is on earth: there are pools and streams of human blood. And this now will cease. This, too: you are the first whose village I am visiting with this message you are hearing now.”

Thereupon the chief and the Great Warrior and his deputy conversed in whispers, deciding that they would ask what was the meaning of the three words. Thereupon he stood up, the chief, saying, “We have heard you report the message you are bringing, and we want to ask you about the three words: first, what does “Good Message” mean? Secondly, what is “Power”, and thirdly, what does it mean that “Peace is now arriving”?

Then Tekanawita stood up in front of the whole group and said, “You shall listen well, for you wanted to ask questions so as to understand what it means, “Good Message”; this is what it means: people respect each other as though they are one person; also everybody is related among the various nations, so that now they will stop, the sins and activities of evil people; now everyone will repent, the old people and the young people; now everyone will respect one another among all of the nations; and just this is what will operate again, the good, and that is what the “Good Message” means.[5]

Secondly, this is what “Power” means. All of the Nations will unite all their affairs, and the group of several nations will become just a single one, and their power is that they shall join hands.[6] This, moreover, shall be the basis upon which they will survive as a group. Forming a single family, similar to being one person having one head and one life, surrounded by the Good Message. This is how peace will now come about among all of the Nations, and power will arise for families to continue from here on in.

Thirdly, this is what “Peace” means. Now it will stop, the massacre of humans and the scalping and bloodletting among themselves, specifically, among the people of the various nations. Now as to that, it will end, the human slaughter, because the Great Spirit never planned for humans to hurt one another nor to slaughter one another. So now it will end, the warpath, and everywhere it will become peaceful; the different nations’ villages are as neighbours and as to the localized families and their children, what will happen is that they will all be very close relatives; and it will come to pass that they will become just like one family which will encompass every nation and every language. And this: when everyone can travel from village to village, then it will end, the danger and terror, and then everything will be peaceful, and they will rejoice by day and by night as the family continues on, there being no end to peace; that is what it means, the Great Law of Peace, that everyone will be united.[7]

An English translation does not accurately convey the actual meaning of the three ideas. They are more complex than the English words imply.

Ne’skén:nen means “peace,” but it has different meanings when applied to a society or a people—where it means peace, tranquility, or rest (with its opposite being war, strife, or contention)—and to a living individual, where the same word also means health, soundness, and a normal functioning condition (with their opposites being disease, illness, and possession by witchcraft).[8] Good health—physical, mental, and spiritual—is thus an important aspect of the law. Haudenosaunee greetings carry this dual meaning, a wish for peace[9] in a social and a personal sense. The common Seneca greeting, “Kanien’ké:ha niyá:wen sken:nen,” conveys the hope that the other person is grateful for his peace and good health. The Haudenosaunee perception of health does not stop at the boundary of the human body or human society. It extends to the world around us: environmental health means both that humans thrive in an environment that is free of things that cause disease, and that humans must avoid doing things that cause harm to the natural world. The mandate or responsibility of people in the world can be seen through the lens of health, in which “first, do no harm”[10] is a minimum standard, and restoration and maintenance of a healthy environment is an ongoing task.

Karihwí:iyo, which is translated as “righteousness,” is more literally “the good word,” but “word” and “way” are blurred. Fenton asserts: “Its first denotation is gospel, wholesome doctrine, what is good to be heard, ethical teaching, values, ethics—righteousness. As its second meaning, it denotes justice, right, as formulated in the customs, manners, religion and ritualistic summations of the past experiences of the people. The first is the teaching of good doctrine; the second is the establishment of the good doctrine in institutional forms.”[11]

Sotsisowah John Mohawk warned of the implications of choosing the English word “righteousness” as a translation. It has taken on both a Christian religious aura and a negative tone (when someone is accused of being “selfrighteous”). He explains the pragmatism that flows from the Haudenosaunee concept: “Righteousness . . . is a very dangerous word in English history. But let me just give a sense of how it was used. Righteousness means that almost all of us agree that some things are right, correct, positive, which is to say that they may not all agree that some things are obviously right and wrong. But there are some things they will agree on. So those are the things you start to build on. You have your conversation and your negotiations until you hit the rock hard things.”[12]

Yoyanere, the root word of the law, Kayanerenkó:wa, can be translated into English as “good” or “goodness,” but it has several other meanings.

Its broad spectrum ranges from “correct, proper, right” to “righteous, righteousness,” to “a path, a way, a way of being,” and “welfare.”[13] The concept encompasses all of these positive meanings. In its breadth, it has no English equivalent.

The lack of an English equivalent to yoyanere points out how ideas that are crucial in one culture can be seen, by the lack of similar words, to be less important in another culture, or to be understood with different emphasis. In Haudenosaunee terms, yoyanere is an important legal concept. In English, none of these ideas has a great deal of legal meaning. In criminal law, the ability to distinguish right and wrong is meaningful, but “rightness,” as a moral concept, is not really what the legal system is about. Rather, it is about what is legal and illegal.[14] Yoyanere has no Anglo-American legal equivalent.

Other legal cultures in the world, though, do understand law as based on the same spectrum of meaning as yoyanere in Haudenosaunee law.[15]

One of those legal cultures is that of Hawai’i. Law, in the Hawai’ian language, is kanawai, a term translated as “responsibility for water.” A fundamental concept of the legal system is pono, which has been translated as “righteousness,” but which also carries the meanings of “good, proper, correct, righteous, a path, a way.” The concept of pono is important enough to have been made a part of the motto of Hawai’i, created by its last king: Ua mau ke ea o ha aina i ka pono, the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. Pono is also a central concept in the criminal law system of traditional Hawai’ian law, Ho’oponopono, which centres on “prayer, discussion, repentance, and mutual restitution or forgiveness.”[16]

Another legal culture that seems to have placed yoyanere at its core is that of ancient Rome. The Lex Aquilia governed loss wrongfully inflicted on property (damnum iniuria datum). For the first time in Roman history, a law provided a process for adjudicating disputes arising from property damage, and the most essential underlying element of this was the wrongfulness of the damage. Iniuria, “injury,” does not mean “physical harm.” It means a lack of ius, which is usually translated as “justice.” An injury to property, then, is wrongful because it is unjust. Ius is defined in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law[17] embracing the whole of the law, “what is always just and fair,” what is right.

The fact that “law” is linked to following a proper path of conduct is demonstrated by the way the Romans dealt with dispute resolution and compensation. A person who has been sued, and who has denied liability and been found responsible by the court, is obliged to pay a double indemnity, twice the compensation claimed. By denying responsibility, he acted in a “non-Roman” way, unrighteously. The Lex Aquilia does not specify standards of conduct in detail. Roman society at the time was that of a city state, not an empire. It was coherent and cohesive enough that people knew what was right. The Code did not need to set out the principles of justice because they were already well-known: they were the fabric of society itself.

Halakha, traditional Jewish law, is derived from an archaic term that describes the path that leads directly to the water hole. So is Sharia, traditional Islamic law. In both cases, following the correct path is the key to maintaining life in the desert that both religions lived in.

In Asia, the Buddha taught the Way to release from sorrow, the doctrine of the Eightfold Path. He spoke of right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right meditation, and right rapture. Joseph Campbell points out that “right,” in this context, is the “Sanskrit samyak, ‘appropriate, whole, complete, correct, proper, true.’”[18]

Yoyanere. Ius. Pono. Halahka. Sharia. Samyak. They are essentially the same broad set of concepts. The idea is that people know what is right and will recognize and implement it. There is a moral dimension to law, and it is that dimension that makes it enforceable by society. It is what one feels viscerally, in one’s guts (na’au in Hawai’i). There are times when this sense is manifested in modern North American society. When some of the financial firms the federal government had bailed out persisted in giving their executives generous bonuses, Congress’s 2009 clawback of the bonuses was based on a groundswell of public opinion, based not on sentiment but on a sense of injustice. What they did, people said, was not right. The danger of translating yoyanere simply as “goodness” or “righteousness” is that those words do not imply the legality, in modern English, of the concepts. Having a law with yoyanere at its core presses towards a legal system based on principle rather than detail. The key questions, as John Mohawk insisted, are consistently: What is the thinking? Is the thinking right?

The third “word” or principle of the peace, Ka’satsténshsera, is often translated into English as either “power” or “righteousness.” It is an imperfect translation. The concept can mean “the power of peace.” It is the power to get things done. John Mohawk explained:

He promised them power. Not military power, but the power of righteousness. Where would this power of righteousness come from?

In some societies this is a negative idea because righteousness is often presumptive, unthinking, and uncaring. He defined righteousness as the result of the best thinking of collective minds operating from principles which assume that a sane world requires that we provide a safe environment for our children seven generations into the future.[19]

Power, your power to act, depends upon your capacity to believe what it is that you set about doing can be done. In other words, you won’t do what needs to be done if you think it is a futile gesture.[20]

Simeon Gibson explained to William Fenton that the term’s first meaning is “force, authority based on force, as expressed in the war power of the people; and its second meaning is the power, force or authority of the orenda or magic potency of the institutions of the people.” Both of these ideas are quite different from the thoughtful, pragmatic way John Mohawk explained the power to act.

The English word “power” derives part of its usefulness from its vagueness. It means two quite different concepts, ability and authority.[21] Thus, when one says The Prime Minister has the power to chair cabinet meetings (a matter of authority), one is referring to something very different from Superman has the power to fly (a matter of ability).[22] In the case of Thadadaho, the authority he ended up with in the law, as a result of the consent and consensus of the founders of the Confederacy, was quite different from the authority he had taken in his earlier form, which flowed from his “preternatural” ability to do harm.

The dual meanings in Haudenosaunee languages of the Peacemaker’s three basic messages were generally complementary, each word implying a range of desirable consequences, whether the peace was social or personal, a matter of health or tranquility; whether the righteousness was about justice or about religion; whether the power was the physical or the spiritual force of the people. Translated into English, the three concepts have acquired the further baggage of the English words. “Peace” tends to lose the health connotations of ne’skén:nen; “power” tends to accentuate its military meaning; “righteousness” takes on its Christian connotations.

John Mohawk would translate the three concepts as “peace, righteousness and reason.” Reason, he said, “means that you’re going to do the rock hard things”:

You’re not going to settle them, really, but you’re going to do the best you can with them. You’re going to move them as far forward on as many points as possible. The Iroquois law of peace assumes that you will not achieve peace. You will not achieve a perfect agreement between two warring sides about how the world ought to be in the future. But it also assumes that you can reach enough of it to have something to work on so that you can take the conflict from physical warfare over to a place where, as they used to say, thinking can replace violence.[23]

The ability to grasp the principles of Righteousness is a spark within the individual which society must fan and nurture that it may grow. Reason is seen as the skill which humans must be encouraged to acquire, in order that the objectives of justice may be attained and no one’s rights abused. The Power to enact a true Peace is the product of a unified people on the path of Righteousness and Reason—the ability to enact the principles of Peace through education, public opinion and political and, when necessary, military unity.[24]

In explaining the three great ingredients of the law and the peace as a process, John Mohawk reflected on the difference between English, which would use statutes to establish standards, and Haudenosaunee languages, which look towards processes and relationships. Peace, he says, is permanently an objective rather than an achieved state.[25]

The Haudenosaunee Environmental Health Model, a modern manifestation of the three great matters of the law, breaks these three words down into additional components:

Kanikonhriio is measured by assessing several areas:
Iakorihwenton – Commitment
Karihwakwenienhtshera – Respect
Kaiatakweniiotsera – Responsibility

Skennenkowa is measured by assessing several areas:
Enskarihwakwarihshion – Ability to resolve issues
Kanoronhkwahthsera – Love
Atenonhwaratonhtserakon – Gratitude

Kasatstenhsera is measured by assessing several areas:
Iakotahsnienonhskon – Generosity
Ronatennikonhraroron – Collective thinking

Why three words? While they may be a reflection of the three words (eyes, ears, and throat) at the beginning of the Condolence, the words used without wampum in a greeting at the woods’ edge, the number three is itself significant.[26] It recalls the three breaths that the Creator blew into the first human to give him life. Not all Haudenosaunee thinking involves duality: there are also triads.

Taiaiake Gerald Alfred explains:

It starts with the rhetorical gestures that we call the “rare words”[27]: wiping the eyes, cleansing the throat, and unblocking the ears. These are symbolic gestures to pacify grieving people, or the former adversary in a treaty process. The reason that you have to pacify these people is that they are in pain: they can’t see properly, they can’t hear, and they don’t speak the truth. Something serious has happened to them, and the challenge for the strong-minded, the peacemakers, is to take them beyond the pain to a place of peace. What happened to bring them pain? In the ritual—and all your life, if you desire peace—you have to figure out a way of saying something to those people, doing something, or giving them something that will make them capable of seeing, hearing and speaking their way back to peace.[28]

The three concepts can also be understood as a sequence. A person hears and is persuaded by the word, the Good Message. He becomes good-minded, and this infuses him with the power of righteousness. In turn, this enables him to seek, create, and maintain the peace.[29] The three concepts are, in a way, a mirror of the three concepts contained in the silver links of the Covenant Chain treaty relationship, made with the British Crown in 1677 and with the United States more than a century later: respect, trust, and friendship. Respect must be achieved first. Based on respect, one may build trust, and friendship may grow from that. But one cannot trust someone one does not respect, and one cannot build a friendship with someone who cannot be trusted. In each case, the three concepts have an order to them, and must be implemented in sequence.

If the three factors that led to the breakdown of the society of the five nations were greed, hatred, and jealousy, the three new words are their counterparts and antidotes.

A constant element in the story of the making of the law is that the Cannibal, Hiawatha, and Tsikonsaseh are living alone—and the Peacemaker invites them not only to return to civil society, but also to learn to share again, for they were not only living but also eating alone. Refusing to share is selfishness, a denial of social responsibility. That is why these people share a meal with the Peacemaker once their minds accept the peace. It is a sign that they have once again accepted the proper way to live with other people. Restoring physical health, mental health, and social health are interwoven.


[1] In some versions of the Great Law, there is one village for each nation, it seems. By the time the Europeans arrived, it looks as if the Mohawks were living in clan villages— Bear, Turtle, and Wolf—and that some time afterward the villages became multi-clan. Archaeologically, it appears there would be a large palisaded or fortified village with several smaller hamlets up to four or five miles away. In wartime, the people of the outlying hamlets would retreat into the larger town.

[2] This contains the shadow of the suggestion that civil and military affairs were already separated, with the chief dealing with peace and civil matters, and the Great Warrior dealing with war.

[3] Mohawk, John C. (Sotsisowah). 1989. “Origins of Iroquois Political Thought.” In New Voices from the Longhouse, edited by Joseph Bruchac, 218–28. Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press: 221

[4] In a culture without writing, it is understandable that the word for a “matter” and for a “word” would be the same: orihwa. But “word,” the spoken part of speech, is also owenna.

[5] Part of the procedure of a modern Haudenosaunee council, or a modern treaty council, is illustrated in this encounter. The speaker stands, while everyone else sits. When the speaker for one side of the fire has done speaking, the people on the other side talk softly about what they intend to reply, and then someone stands up to deliver the response. The two-sidedness, the gradual building of consensus, and the designated speaker are all things that would be typical of Haudenosaunee councils, at the clan, nation, Confederacy, and international levels.

[6] The joining of hands—tehatiatnetsha—is the symbolic way of becoming one family. It is repeated, later, in the making of peace with nations beyond the Longhouse, and in the making of the Covenant Chain with the British.

[7] Gibson, John Arthur (Skaniatariio). 1912. Concerning the League: The Iroquois League Tradition as Dictated in Onondaga by John Arthur Gibson, edited by Hanni Woodbury. Winnipeg: Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics, 1992 (cited in the text as Gibson 1912, because it is Skaniatariio John Arthur Gibson’s 1912 version of the Great Law, translated by Woodbury and Reg Henry): 101–8.

[8] Gibson’s views, explains the multiple meanings of the three words. He translates them as “reason, righteousness and justice, peace and health, and authority or the force of law.”

[9] Shalom, salaam aleikum, pax vobiscum—greetings conveying the desire for peace are widespread. They are often interpreted as intended to wish personal peace, but they can be understood in the wider context, as well. Other concepts are also both societal anpersonal: jihad can mean holy war, but it is said that the great jihad is the one that iswaged within each person.

[10] In the Hippocratic oath taken by Western doctors, this is the preliminary thought, the equivalent of the Three Bare Words.

[11] Gibson, John Arthur (Skaniatariio). 1899. “Founding of the League.” NAA ms. 3569: para. 133, fn. 5. Karihwí:iyo, today, is also used to describe the “Code of Handsome Lake,” the summation of what the Seneca chief and teacher Skaniatariio taught in the late eighteenth century, codified at Tonawanda in the decades after his death. The Code represents “a good way of living” and is seen as an addition to the Kayanerenkó:wa.

[12] Mohawk, John C. (Sotsisowah). 2005b. “What Can We Learn from Native America About War and Peace?: The Progressive Pragmatism of the Iroquois Confederacy.” Lapis Magazine Online, n.d. http://arnieegel.blogspot.ca/2006/12/john-mohawk-what-can-we-learn-from.html.

[13] This last meaning is put forward in Fenton and Simeon Gibson’s translation of Gibson 1899, para. 38.

[14] There is an important exception: equity is a distinct stream of British and hence Canadian law, governed by principles or maxims of fairness rather than statutes and the common law. As such, it is closer to many Indigenous legal systems and to the fundamental questions those systems address.

[15] The Highland Scots, too, carried a sense of righteousness. “The Gaelic word náire is usually translated into English as ‘shame’ or ‘modesty’, although it has a wider usage than this in Gaelic, referring to the sense of what is right, proper and honourable. It is a key concept in the operation of Gaelic society. ‘Am fear a chaill a náire is a modh, chaill e na bh’aige’ (The person who has lost his propriety and his manners lost all he had).” Newton 2009, 148.

[16] Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Samuel H. Elbert. 1992. Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

[17] Berger, Adolf. 1953. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 525.

[18] Campbell, Joseph. 1972. Myths to Live By. New York: Viking Press., 133.

[19] Mohawk 1989, 224.

[20] Mohawk 2004. “The Warriors Who Turned to Peace.” Yes! Magazine. November. http:www.yesmagazine. org/issues/healing-resistance/the-warriors-who-turned-to-peace.

[21] In French, pouvoir is verb as well as noun, and is much more linked to being able to do something.

[22] The example comes from Dr. Kanakalût Roland Chrisjohn. In French, pouvoir is much closer to its root in ability: the verb means that one can do something.

[23] Mohawk 2004, n.pag.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Perhaps Canada and Australia applied this reasoning when they provided lukewarm endorsements of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—which they had earlier voted against—as an “aspirational document.” It is more likely, though, that they were worried about the implications of the Declaration concerning land and consent.

[26] A chief is warned three times before he is removed. There are three attempts to persuade Thadadaho, and the third succeeds.

[27] Again, not “rare,” but “bare”: they are the words spoken at the edge of the woods without wampum in the speaker’s hands.

[28] Alfred, Taiaiake Gerald. 1999. Peace, Power and Righteousness: A Mohawk Manifesto. Toronto: Oxford University Press., xx–xxi. Taiaiake uses the structure of the Condolence to suggest political and social paths to “requickening” the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.

[29] A person who has joined the peace has the obligation to maintain and spread it. Similarly, a person who has been healed by a Haudenosaunee medicine society becomes a member of that society, who then takes part in maintaining its medicine and healing other people.

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