Kanienkehaka, circa 1653 - circa 1726

Note: All narratives about people are, to the extent possible, based on primary and secondary historical sources. Some narratives necessarily contain invented, yet plausible, scenarios and personal attributes. Please see About This Narrative to learn more about how this person's narrative was created.

Aronhiatehka - Prologue | The Great Peace | Raid on Deerfield: A Campaign for Survival | About This Narrative |

circa 1653-1700

The Burning Sky

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Aronhiatekha began his life in the Mohawk Valley, but like many of his people resettled in their northern territory at Kahnawake.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

In the winter of 1653, a young Kanienkehaka mother presented her baby swaddled in a cradleboard and wrapped in soft wool blankets, to her clan, the Turtles. Outside, the Elder Brother the sun, Tsitewatsi:a otiohnanehka karahkwa, was just emerging and in the quiet stillness the sky was bright in both blue and red. A speaker walked her around the longhouse with her clan mother introducing and welcoming the child to his people so that his name would be recognized by all creation as, Aronhiatekha, the burning sky.

Aronhiatekha was born in a time of change. The world as the Kanienkehaka understood it had undergone much change in the past seven generations. The newcomers had once tied their ships to the shores of Turtle Island with a rope of hemp, but when the Kanienkehaka realized that they expected to remain, the rope had to be replaced with a stronger tie to the land so a chain of iron was forged that would hold fast the newcomers ships to turtle island. The first agreement called the Kahswentha was ratified by the creation of a wampum belt woven from thousands of small quahog shell beads. This agreement of mutual respect and self-determination was initially between the Kanienkehaka and the Dutch. The two-row as it came to be known, would guide the Kanienkehaka and the Dutch along the river of life from that point on.

Life along the River

As a young boy growing up along the Mohawk River, Aronhiatekha had many teachers. He was raised by his mother, and her sisters, in his family's Kanonses or "longhouse." He learned all the responsibilities that Kanienkehaka women had held since time immemorial. Working the fields of corn, squash, beans, tobacco required many hands. His mother was very influential within her clan and his Father was always invited to listen to the Rotiia:ner or "Chiefs" discuss the future of the Kanienkehaka. He grew to understand the complex and intricate methods of negotiation from his close relationship with his family.

He longed to travel with the men when they set out to trade for furs or to protect the northern boundaries from their Native neighbors. For many years the Kanienkehaka people had suffered great losses as a result of the fierce competition in the fur and the future remained uncertain so it was the responsibility of the men to protect Kanienkehaka interests and territory. Aronhiatekha was still quite young and had not yet been taken by his uncle for his formal training, yet that didn't preclude him and his cousins from practicing at hunting, which they did whenever the opportunity allowed.

In 1665, Aronhiatekha was ready to receive the teachings that all Kanienkehaka boys receive from their clan uncles. He began to accompany the men on their travels and from intense observation he began to understand the duties that were expected of him. He was well prepared and in great physical condition from the very active lifestyle of his people. He mastered the use of the flintlock and was even gifted a fine French Fusil by his Mother's brother while on a long trek north to Montreal. He soon developed the ability to travel long distances with just a small bag of ground burnt corn, called wadenosstatsaha'to, as his sustenance, to construct a bark covered canoe and paddle all day long with out much rest for days on end. He learned to travel light and where to set an ambuscade or how to hide your tracks if you had to escape. He also had to learn the very long and complex speeches that had to be recited at the ceremonies throughout the year. It was, after all, the obligation of the men to act in the roll of a speaker for his people.

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Firearms were highly valued trade items, and the Kanienkehaka secured an early advantage by trading extensively with their European allies for these weapons.
Courtesy Parks Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

He noticed as he grew into manhood that his people were becoming greatly influenced by the English and the French. The English had taken over the former Dutch territory of Albany and had inherited the strong relationship with the Kanienkehaka. Aronhiatekha began to see the French and English in a competition for the attentions of his people. He also realized how interconnected his people had become with the French and English and how dependent they were on European goods. Gunpowder, woolen cloths, shirts, knives and axes were all part of life in Kanienkehaka towns and it required careful negotiation to keep those goods available.

Trade goods were not the only things the Europeans gave to the Kanienkehaka. Disease swept through Native villages with an alarming speed and cruelty. Hundreds of people suffered and died from smallpox during the 17th century. In 1669, Aronhiatekha's own village was ravaged by the sickness leaving many families crushed by grief. The old methods of condolence were difficult to practice with so many lost. People felt an overwhelming sense of confusion and frustration. Some turned to Catholicism to find comfort. Many of the Wendat-born Kanienkehaka fell back on the old Jesuit teachings and unknowingly influenced many to convert to the new religion.

A New Life in the North

One summer in 1671, Aronhiatekha met a woman who would become his wife later that fall. Aronhiatekha's wife was a convert to Catholicism after her adopted Huron sister used the Catholic teachings to console her after smallpox took most of her family. Marriages between traditional Kanienkehaka and Catholic Kanienkehaka were common, yet created tremendous stress on the community. The constant warfare and losses from disease left huge holes in the fabric of Kanienkehaka lives. Expeditions to outlying settlements for the purpose of replacing family members, was part of the Kanienkehaka culture. The new clan members were given full rights and responsibilities as family members in many cases they were given exact names of the people they were replacing.

In 1677, Aronhiatekha led his new family on the long journey north to live closer to the Montreal markets where the promise of prosperity had drawn his attentions. Many people began to leave the Mohawk Valley with the largest group being led by the charismatic leader Kryn. The decision to move was a difficult one, Aronhiatekha had to leave behind his beloved Mohawk Valley and forge a new life that would rely on the French and on his ties to his home community.

The 1680's brought Aronhiatekha to a new position among his new community at Kahnawake. He was given the title Roia:ner or "Chief" and from that point on he was expected to live his life in service to his people. He carried the horns of office, which were represented by the antlers of the deer, which he would wear symbolically until he passed from this world. The responsibility was a great one, from the day he was raised up into a Roia:ner his life would no longer be his own.

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As a Chief, Aronhiatekha would have worn a headdress similar to this example. Click here for more details.
Courtesy of McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal, Canada

Aronhiatekha found that he would have to make some difficult decisions with his new title. Many times the French would expect his people at Kahnawake to aide them in their efforts to control the fur trade and gain more land yet his commitment to the rest of the Rotinonsionni (Iroquois) forbid him to break the Kaiaenerakowa or "Great Law of Peace." The Kaiaenerakowa was an ancient agreement between the original Five Nations that had bound them inextricably for the past millennia. As an agent of his people he too had to consider the Kaiaenerakowa when he made his mind known.

A People Divided

In 1683 men from Kahnawake, including Aronhiatekha, lead the Governor of New France, Joseph-Antoine Le Febvre de LaBarre directly into an ambush by the Onondaga and Seneca. His ties to the Rotinonsionni were stronger than the tentative alliance with his French neighbors. The French government was interested in striking deep into the Great Lakes and establishing a foothold in Seneca territory and they compelled the Kahnawakerónon to aide them in their efforts. The Seneca had been attacking French trading centers throughout the Great Lakes for many years and the French wanted to punish them for their actions. In 1687, Jacques Renee DeBrisay, who replaced the humiliated LaBarre, led an army of 1,700 French regulars and Habitant militia against the Seneca with the aide of 200 Kahnawakerónon led by the Christian leader Kryn. Aronhiatekha opted to stay out of the affairs of the French and advised against the actions, which would create a rift between the Kahnawakerónon and the rest of the confederacy.

The punitive strike into Seneca territory was a lukewarm attempt at best. The French were robbed of the grand deathblow they intended so they resigned themselves to waging war on the vast cornfields that the Seneca cultivated. This classic European tactic was not well received by the Native allies, who began to talk of desertion. In one instance a group of Kahnawakerónon and Miami went out to scout for Seneca, but the Miami returned having slaughtered the Kanienkehaka allies stating that they tried to convince the Miami to desert. News of such actions and attitudes would find its way back to Kahnawake and the idea of a new peace grew stronger.

The next year, Aronhiatekha observed the largest aboriginal force the northeast had ever known attack and lay siege to the capitol of New France. The Rotinonsionni had sent a message to the French which they were forced to understand very well. The Kahnawakerónon were growing tired of the constant warfare and stress of mixed alliances.

Even though the French and English had drawn an uneasy peace after King William's war in 1697 they continued to antagonize the Rotinonsionni with border warfare and by encouraging rival Nations to attack the western boundaries of the confederacy. Many expeditions to the western door of the Grand Longhouse were made in an effort to negotiate a peace. Aronhiatekha was one of many leaders who sought to find this new peace and bolster the Great Tree that was the confederacy.

Aronhiatehka - Prologue | The Great Peace | Raid on Deerfield: A Campaign for Survival | About This Narrative |

The Great Peace

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Aronhiatekha represented Kahnawake at the Great Peace of 1701 proceedings.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

In 1701 a new peace was found. Montreal became the setting for an agreement that was monumental in scope and expectation. Many Rotiia:ner from every corner of the Grand Longhouse came and signed this historic document, including Aronhiatekha. In an address to his people, Aronhiatekha stated, "You know, you Iroquois, that we are attached to our father, we who dwell with him and live in his bosom. You sent us a collar [of wampum] three years ago to invite us to make peace for you. We sent you one in return. We also give you this one to tell you that we have labored for that goal. We ask no more than it will be lasting. Do also for your part what needs to be done for peace."

Aronhiatekha, in the years after the Great Peace, became an advocate for that treaty and refused to attack his brethren the Rotinonsionni for any reason. When the War of the Spanish Succession broke out the French petitioned Aronhiatekha to support a fight against the English in New York but he refused to advocate a fight in any place where his brothers might be involved. Constant reminders of his charter from his clan mothers and the women's council kept the Kaiaenerakowa foremost in his mind.

Aronhiatehka - Prologue | The Great Peace | Raid on Deerfield: A Campaign for Survival | About This Narrative |

Raid on Deerfield: A Campaign for Survival

When the Wobanakiak and French came to Kahnawake to discuss an attack on English soil, Aronhiatekha heard their request and then appropriately “slept on it,” which gave time for the Clan Mothers to discuss the issue with their clans, and then finally in a joint council amongst themselves. The women came to a consensus of opinion: the attack would provide replacements for lost family members, so they advised the Chiefs in the matter. Aronhiatekha came to approve the campaign against Deerfield although he didn't participate. He was a grandfather many times over and at 51 years old his duties kept him at Kahnawake.

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Prisoner halters were sometimes used by the Kanienkehaka to restrain prisoners en route to the captors' home village. Click here for more information.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA

That winter, the men who carried out the campaign against the town of Deerfield returned with many captives. The captives would have an intricately embroidered collar of Native fibers and porcupine hair that would be placed around their necks, called a kanats-kwa, the ends of which were bound with leather made from a human heart; further symbolic of the binding of the captives mind and heart. The process of capture and adoption was a serious one, which required great reverence and ceremony. Aronhiatekha oversaw the adoption process for those who would replace lost family members. The process was one of ceremonial rebirth. In former times, captives were ritually “killed” as they ran through a gauntlet where they were struck with clubs and even burned with firebrands. Once they emerged, they were given new names and new parents and siblings. This ancient practice was on the decline. Aronhiatekha was part of a new tradition and a new way of thinking and as one of the leaders in charge of the adoptions he spoke out against the old practice of ritualized rebirth. He encouraged the outward transformation of the adopted, new clothing, new hair styles, even piercing ears and noses without the physical aspects of the old ways. The old ways are hard to die however, and it was common that some captives were still being put to the test by running the gauntlet into the village much to the disdain of Aronhiatekha.

Jesuits became agents for the government, and negotiated with Aronhiatekha for the release of the Deerfield captives. Sometimes, the captives were ransomed from the Kanienkehaka for goods or even money. Most Kanienkehaka became too attached to the new family member to even consider a ransom payment for the new family members. For the young “captives” assimilation was total and complete within mere months of their new lives. They were afforded the same rights as Kanienkehaka born into the society, which included the freedom to come and go as they wished. Several wished to stay, even when their former family members came to recover them. The bonds of family were strong at Kahnawake and would remain so for centuries.

Aronhiatehka - Prologue | The Great Peace | Raid on Deerfield: A Campaign for Survival | About This Narrative |

About This Narrative

The life of Aronhiatekha is a blending of actual events and ancient cultural history. We used two sources of information to bring to life the story of Aronhiatekha. The written record of the late 17th century and early 18th century was the skeleton from which we hung the ancient stories and traditions; and the oral tradition of the Kanienkehaka was the flesh that brought Aronhiatekha to life. The Kanienkehaka people have very long memories, and with the help of countless teachers and storytellers, and many hours of research, we were able to create a story of one man who lived in such incredible times. We hope that readers will come to know Aronhiatekha as an actual person from that time period and begin to understand the events that shaped his world. This narrative was written by Iakonikonriio "Tonia" Loran-Galban and Michael Galban.

See Further Reading for a list of sources used in creating this narrative. For a discussion of issues related to telling people's stories on the site, see: Bringing History to Life: The People in The Many Stories of 1704.

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