Combing The Snakes Out Of Atotarho's Hair

A Transformation from War to Peace

"Both the Charter of the United Nations and the Constitution of the United States of America are founded on the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Great Law of Peace. We, the carriers of the Haudenosaunee traditions consider it our duty to remind the world of the basic principles and spirit of the Great Law for bringing peace and harmony to human relations. In our teachings, there was a man named Atotarho. Atotarho is described as a powerful evil man who spread fear and death everywhere he went - visually he is represented with snakes coming out of his head and as having a crooked and misshapen body. He was a cannibal, a sorcerer who killed and maimed people for his pleasure and caused dissention, exploiting people to feed his own selfish greed. The world was at war. Sound familiar?

Long before the Europeans came to North America, two men, Dekanawida and Ayonwatha taught the warring nations about the Great Law of Peace which brought peace and established the Confederation of Five Nations. Over 200 nations allied themselves with the Confederacy and accepted the terms of equality and peace.

How did Dekanawida and Ayonwatha straighten Atotarho out and comb the snakes out of his hair?

When Dekanawida was trying to bring peace to the warring nations by forming the Confederacy and showing people how to work together, he had trouble convincing the Onondaga to join because they were lead by Atotarho. Atotarho enjoyed the power and fear he put into people.

Dekanawida and Ayonwatha sang him a song to help him calm down. They massaged his aching, crooked body and then started to gently comb the snakes out of his hair. As they did so, they taught him about the Great Law of Peace.

Dekanawida and Ayonwatha worked gently and with great patience. As Atotarho began to relax, he was transformed and became straight, strong and whole again. Atotarho, after he was pacified, became head of the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Atotarho learned the ohenton kariwateken, the words of thanksgiving that come before any gathering of the people. As he began to understand his place in the universe - a universe where everything and all people are interconnected and equal - he could no longer exploit the fears of others.

Instead of removing him from any position of power in the new confederacy, he was given the opportunity to act as chairman, listening to everything everyone else had to say and presiding over discussions. He acted as a peacemaker and diplomat, listening to all the positions carried from the people by their representatives. He made sure that relations were conducted in a friendly and respectful manner. This position still exists in the modern day Confederacy.

In this position, he does not represent anybody or any nation. He does not force others to follow his way. He is a mediator for all of the nations and for the Great Law of Peace. It is understood that because he had been so crooked to begin with, he understood the opposition and imbalance that could occur among people.

The person who sits in Atotarho's place cannot be in two canoes at once - that of war and that of peace - he would fall into the river. Their paths naturally go in opposite directions. Atotarho realizes that if you have everything, you have nothing. He knows the importance of keeping balance within the circle where everyone is equal.

Where is our Atotarho today? Is there anyone who knows how to comb the snakes out of the hair of our most recalcitrant warring leaders so we can have peace? Have we forgotten the lessons of the past? Why is America at war?

We are all like Atotarho. We are living in a time of violence and destruction. We all have snakes in our hair. Our minds are crooked and we are wasting our energies. But we all have power. We have the power to look after each other, to comb the snakes from each other's hair, to straighten aching bodies and to learn the soothing songs of peace.

There is no need to go back to the time before Atotarho learned the Great Law of Peace. We must bring back the principles that Atotarho learned.

We must not be afraid. We must take on the responsibility of making sure that all people are cared for. We must give up our positions of dominance and remember our connectedness to all people and all things. We must remember the small condolence where we wipe our eyes with the softest cloth so we can look at reality. We must take an eagle feather and gently wipe our ears so we can listen and hear what is really being said. We must drink pure water to soothe our rasping throats so our words are soft and clear, without sharp edges.

We must ask ourselves, are we ready to hear the message of Deganawida? Are we strong enough to learn from the past? Surely we have suffered enough. The mountains are cracking. The rivers are boiling. The fish are turning with their bellies up. We must leave the millennia of death and destruction behind. We can link our hands together in peace. We have the United Nations already, let's use it!

We can make the world safe and beautiful for everyone. The Indigenous spirit can come back. Our brothers and sisters from all parts of the world can teach us. We can burn our good medicines and call on Creation, so Deganawida's message returns like a light from the east. We can respect each others' differences and live in harmony together.

Now is the time for us to take responsibility for our future and the future generations. We must use our voices and speak up! Act out! We are not powerless. We have to let people know that we all have the power to do something about this conflict and misunderstanding!"

Kahn-Tineta Horn, Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) Mother, Grandmother
Kahente Horn-Miller, Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) Mother
Karonhioko'he, daughter
Kokowa, daughter
Grace Lix-Xiu Woo, Aunt, Sister, Ally
Ekiyan, Mi'kmaq Son, Ally


"Patria est communis omnium parens" - Our native land is the common parent of us all. Keep it beautiful, make it even more so.

Blessed is all of creation
Blessed be my beautiful people
Blessed be the day of our awakening
Blessed is my country
Blessed are her patient hills.

Mweh ka allay!