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Solar Eclipse: Casting Wonder From Iroquois Confederacy Beginnings to Australia 2012 Beachgoers

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In a stunning display, the sun devoured by the moon just as the golden orb peeked over the ocean off Cairns, Australia. Thousands watching on the beaches, from cruise ships and from as diverse viewing spots as hot-air balloons erupted in cheers as “night” fell for two minutes. Temperatures dropped, and birds and animals became momentarily confused, as the Associated Press reported.

The event, which will not be duplicated anywhere until 2015 and won’t be seen in Australia again until 2029, was not unlike the eclipse of 1142, which may have in fact inspired the Great Law of Peace that sparked the Iroquois Confederacy, according to new research. Moreover, study of eclipse data recently showed that the date of the confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is 300 years earlier than previously thought—making it among the longest-surviving democracies in human history, reports

Citing research by Barbara A. Mann and Jerry L. Fields, author Bruce McClure brings out a tale of academic and astronomical intrigue as the debate swirls over which eclipse—because authorities generally agree that a total or near-total solar eclipse was a sign that helped move things along for the Iroquois—was part catalyst for the signing of the declaration between the original five nations, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca.

He buttresses his argument with quotes from an article by Bruce Johansen, who also wrote one of Native American Heritage Month’s best reads, Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy (Harvard Common Press, 1982), detailing the Great Law of Peace and the role it played in forming the U.S. Constitution.

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Johansen’s article “Dating the Iroquois Confederacy” was originally published in 1995 in Akwesasne Notes New Series and highlights the research of Mann and Fields, out of Toledo University, Ohio, in asserting that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy “is at least three centuries older than most previous estimates.”

Current academic consensus, Johansen wrote, puts the date at 1451, a mere 40 years before contact, or in the 1500s, which is after contact. Although the 1451 eclipse was indeed total, researchers say, its main shadow fell over Pennsylvania. The 1142 date is much more feasible given a host of other historical factors, including McClure’s procurement of NASA’s map of totality for the eclipse of that year, available in modern times thanks to the Internet and Google maps.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, in which viewers in Australia used smart phones and instant photography to capture the moment of totality both on the Internet and in person. Such astronomical phenomena and their effects on human and American Indian history are worth keeping in mind, especially in light of Native American Heritage Month.