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From beads to banner

The flag of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is based upon the Hiawatha Wampum Belt, which portrays the five original nations in the order that their original homelands stretched across what is now Upstate New York. The belt was created from purple and white wampum beads centuries ago to symbolize the union forged when the former enemies buried their weapons under the Great Tree of Peace.

Tim Johnson, executive editor of Indian Country Today, was one of those responsible for the flag's creation in the late 1980s. He reproduced the design by tracing a photograph of the original belt to ensure the dimensions were correct and remained in proper proportion. Over the traced design was placed a red contact film, from which the symbol was cut and prepared for high contrast photography. The red contact film image appeared clear on the negative, and the white tracing paper became an opaque black.

Tim's father, Harold "Jack" Johnson, runs a business printing Native designs on clothing and used his son's high contrast negative to print the first flags. Jack, who is president of the North American Iroquois Veterans Association and a frequent attendee at pow wows throughout the Six Nations, believed the new flag would catch on quickly.

"I produced a dozen flags that sold immediately, with a couple purchased by Rick Hill at Tuscarora for the Iroquois Nationals," Jack said. "We were delighted that those first flags would be seen by people from other nations half way around the world." Those flags first flew when the Nationals, a lacrosse team representing the Haudenosaunee, carried them and displayed them at the 1980 world championships in Australia.

The Johnsons, Mohawks from the Six Nations reserve, stress that the first Haudenosaunee flag was precise and accurate in relation to the actual dimensions of the symbol on the wampum belt. As the banner is part of the public domain, others may now reproduce it but may not necessarily be remaining true to the original proportions.

Jack recommends that "All our Six Nations governments adopt technical standards and requirements for the faithful production of the flag, to be as true and accurate as possible to the original intent of our Confederacy's founders."

The flag has become a hugely popular symbol among the Haudenosaunee, a people divided by both the U.S.-Canada border and by a strong internal philosophical and political conflicts between followers who hold different interpretations of their traditional beliefs. Yet the Haudenosaunee have universally accepted this powerful symbol of peace.

"The symbol originates with the Hiawatha Wampum Belt, which long predates the incorporation of New York state and the establishment of the United States," Tim Johnson said. "It is an ancient symbol whose meaning is as relevant today as it was when it was first conceptualized many hundreds of years ago.

"The Haudenosaunee flag carries with it a universal appeal among all Six Nations people," Tim continued. "It belongs to all of our families and clans and nations. As a creative visual expression symbolizing principles of peace, unity and prosperity, it is a living message that serves to reinforce our collective identity and to underscore the freedoms our sovereign nations hold dear."

The Haudenosaunee, the "People of the Longhouse," include the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora nations, and comprise more than a dozen communities within the U.S. and Canada.

The flag's white symbols rest on a purple background; the tree in the center represents both the Great Tree of Peace and the Onondaga Nation, while the squares represent from left to right, the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Mohawk nations. (The Tuscaroras joined the confederacy in the early 1700s after the original belt was created.) The lines extending from the outermost squares represent a path of peace that other nations may follow to take shelter under the peace tree.