The Great Law of Peace

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Kayanesenh Paul Williams
  • Winnipeg, Manitoba: 
    University of Manitoba Press
    , October
     472 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Haudenosaunee are the “People of the Longhouse” (1), popularly known as the Iroquois, an appellation “of uncertain origin” (60). The term “Haudenosaunee” literally means, “they are making the house,” or “they are building the house,” where the verb tense indicates a continual, ongoing process. The Haudenosaunee “archipelago” (63, 105) today consists of some fifteen communities (63, 70), comprised of the original “Five Nations”: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (1), and is often referred to in history books as the “Iroquois Confederacy,” to which was added, before 1722, the Tuscarora Nation (267). The main title, Kayanerenkó:wa (a Mohawk term of complex etymology) is represented in the subtitle as The Great Law of Peace. In the pre-contact era, the Great Law of Peace was brought by the Peacemaker, “a messenger from the Creator” (421, although some do not consider the Peacemaker to have been a divine messenger), with the assistance of Hiawatha (190–215) and Tsikonsaheh (182–190), together forming a “peace trio,” as it were. 

A Haudenosaunee/Canadian attorney, author Kayanesenh Paul Williams is of the Wolf Clan, Onondaga Nation (15). Kayanesenh is Williams’s political name (denoting citizenship in a Haudenosaunee nation). Since naming is “an act of power” (ix), throughout the book Williams adopts a dual naming convention: using a person’s Haudenosaunee name as a “first name,” followed by the individual’s English first and last names. This unfamiliar naming convention sets the tone and implies the agenda. “This is a Haudenosaunee law book” (23), the author declares. Kayanerenkó:wa: The Great Law of Peaceis therefore a work of legal scholarship—and much more. Williams is an “insider” (15), and thereby offers valuable insights regarding Haudenosaunee tradition and “living” (i.e., contemporary) law. Technical terms, for the most part, are given in “modern Mohawk orthography” since “Mohawk is the language of the council” (101), and uses “a standard keyboard and simpler spelling” (101). 

The author has mastered the extant legal (i.e., traditional) materials, and is fully conversant with them (including unpublished manuscript versions). Williams notes that there are several versions of the Great Law of Peace, and of the companion “Creation story” as well, which is prefatory and foundational to the Haudenosaunee worldview, though, as Williams notes, “[m]uch has been lost” (23). Notwithstanding, Chief John Arthur Gibson (d. 1912, Seneca) has delivered “the most complete recital of the Creation story” (27), and “the most complete version” of the Haudenosaunee law code (Concerning the LeagueUniversity of Manitoba Press, 1992) with a transcription of the original Onondaga text (and full linguistic apparatus) in addition to an English translation (16). “As a matter of approach,” Williams writes, “I have generally chosen the structure of the 1912 John Arthur Gibson text as the most complete,” but Williams goes on to say, “where other versions are different, I cite the differences” (99). His treatment of this wide array of Haudenosaunee traditions is both respectful and “critical”—“critical” in that Williams acknowledges, and describes in some detail, points of divergence as well as points of convergence, among the various versions of the Great Law, while underscoring the underlying principles that unify all of the Haudenosaunee traditions as a whole, when taken together.

Three core ideas inspire, empower, and enable the Peacemaker’s “Great Law of Peace” (Kayanerenkó:wa): (1) the “Good Message” (Karihwí:yo, often translated as “Righteousness”); (2) the “Power” (Ka’satsténshsera); and (3) the “Peace” (Ne’skén:nen). These potent sociomoral principles are illustrated by this speech of the Peacemaker in Concerning the League, recited, in the regional Onondaga language by Chief John Arthur Gibson (Seneca) in 1912, “Then Tekanawitaˀ [Deganawida] 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 the nations; and just this is what will operate again, the good, and that is what the “Good Message” means. 

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. This moreover, will 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 come about among all 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 all will 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 the terror, and 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, and everyone will be united.” (217–218).

It is not considered proper to refer to the Peacemaker by name, unless in the context of ceremony. Note that where the Peacemaker’s name does appear in the passage of Concerning the League quoted above, Chief Gibson is, in fact, speaking within the context of ceremony.

The principles of Haudenosaunee law—although particularly designed for the people and the biome they live in—are universal in principle. The prepublication endorsement by John Borrows, “Haudenosaunee law has the power to change the world,” is a theme that is implied, although not developed, in Kayanerenkó:wa: The Great Law of Peace. Williams also mentions, in passing, the Haudenosaunee delegation to the United Nations in 1977 (66–67). 

Kayanerenkó:wa: The Great Law of Peace is an impressive, comprehensive hornbook of Haudenosaunee law and tradition. The author’s style is clear and lucid, with extensive documentation provided by informative, running footnotes. It is recommended for all law school and university libraries, and as a required text for courses in indigenous studies, indigenous law, Canadian law, comparative law, and cultural anthropology. As the first genuine democracy in the pre-contact era “New World,” Haudenosaunee law is of historical, as well as contemporary, interest. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Buck is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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.


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