Tree of Peace: The Iroquois Legend of the Eastern White Pine

eastern white pine needles

When we discuss the history and value of the Eastern White Pine, we typically do so within the framework of American colonialism, repeating tales of ‘The King’s Broad Arrow’ and other events that took place around the time of the Revolutionary War. But of course, the venerable pinus strobus and the landscape in which it grows flourished for a long time before any European settlers arrived on the shores of what we now call North America, and it remains important to some Native American tribes all these centuries later.

The Iroquois (whose true name is Haudenosaunee Nation) call the Eastern White Pine the ‘Tree of Peace.’ The origins of its legend lie within that of a man they called Dekanawidah, the peace-giver, who helped create the Five Nations Confederacy (Kayanerenh-kowa, or ‘Great Peace’) between the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes.

five nations

As the story goes, Dekanaweidah traveled between each of these warring tribes to spread a message of peace, friendship, and unity, but was not always met with understanding. The Eastern White Pine tree was known to them as “the tree of the Great Long Leaves,” and Dekanaweidah used it as a symbol of his intentions. It was said to have four symbolic roots, the Great White Roots of Peace, which extended north, east, south and west.

Dekanaweidah planted an Eastern White Pine on the land of the Onondagas (in the present-day state of New York), and the chiefs of each tribe who agreed to be a part of the peace agreement would meet beneath its branches to talk about preserving The Great Peace. The clusters of five needles on each branch symbolize the Five Nations joined together as one.

“The Tree of Peace is an important symbol of peace in Iroquois tradition and in the historical record of diplomacy between the Iroquois and Westerners,” says author and American anthropologist AC Parker in the book ‘Certain Iroquois Tree Myths and Symbols. “Weapons would be buried under a tree to seal a peace agreement. A tree might even be uprooted to create a cavity for the weapons. The replanted tree on top would become a tree of peace.”

tree of peace sealThe proliferation and long lives of the pine trees represent the passing of The Great Peace down from those first chiefs to their successors, keeping the pact alive long after they died. In essence, that first ‘Tree of Peace’ lives forever through the Eastern White Pine forests that remain throughout the Northeast United States today. The Eastern White Pine remains the centerpiece of the seal of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Images via Wikimedia Commons and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy

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