Academic journal article Early American Literature

Going to War on the Back of a Turtle: Creation Stories and the Laws of War in John Norton's Journal

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Going to War on the Back of a Turtle: Creation Stories and the Laws of War in John Norton's Journal

Article excerpt

In the middle of his Journal (1810-16), John Norton breaks away from an account of his career as a Mohawk war chief to tell the story of the world's creation. The story seems out of place in a narrative that is otherwise occupied with diplomacy and warfare. Norton tells of an ancient mother, her fall and rescue by a turtle who rises from the deep to catch her, and finally the victory of her good grandson, Teharonghyawago, over his evil twin, Tawiskaron. Yet near the end Norton makes a surprising connection between the creation story and the military exploits in the rest of the Journal. The triumph of the good twin, he writes, illustrates an ethic of warfare that has guided the people in all of their conflicts, from ancient times to their present alliance with Great Britain. "Teharonghyawago always assisted [the people] in their wars, when they were undertaken with just cause," he concludes (88).

In Norton's retelling, this famous creation story, sometimes known as the earth-diver story, becomes a parable of just war, a source of moral principles that explain and justify collective acts of violence. (1) It also becomes, in its concluding wisdom about the rights of war, an argument about the relationship between native and Western law. In using the phrase "just cause," Norton referenced a well-known formula from the European laws of war requiring that nations possess a valid casus belli, or cause of war, before engaging in hostilities. (2) Norton wrote his Journal at a time when many Western jurists, surveying the very wars in which Mohawks had fought, were expounding anew on the need for a just cause for war. (3) Norton's creation story comes in a form radically different from most European writings on the topic, found usually in academic treatises or diplomatic conventions. Yet for all its dissimilarity, it reaches some of the same conclusions as European scholars, implying a hidden identity between indigenous and Western traditions. Norton's story hints that the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy may have answers to some of the most intractable problems of European diplomacy.

In this essay, I consider the many creation stories retold in Norton's Journal, a magisterial account of Six Nations mythology and military history. I argue that throughout the book Norton portrays Six Nations stories as a source of ethical and legal norms that intersect at crucial points with the European laws of war. These intersections--seen, for example, in a common embrace of just cause--support the broader claim, found throughout the Journal, that Native American nations are entitled to recognition from Western diplomats, not simply as dependent nations, but as equals under international law.

For Six Nations leaders in Norton's era, there was an important link between the laws of war and diplomatic recognition. Norton wrote his Journal to support an appeal to the British Crown for land rights on behalf of the Six Nations of the Grand River. He composed most of it after 1810 and in 1816 deposited an unfinished copy with supporters in Great Britain, with hopes they would oversee its printing and distribution. (4) The book, which remained in manuscript until its publication by the Champlain Society in 1970, was part of a largely failed campaign to interest philanthropists and government leaders in the Mohawk cause, with the aim of creating a metropolitan base of support for the tribe. One of the many obstacles standing in Norton's way was the allegation of "cruelties exercised by the Indians" fighting in the service of the British Crown (303). From the beginning of the American Revolution, propaganda on both the American and British sides had portrayed Indians as war criminals. (5) In the Declaration of Independence (1776), Thomas Jefferson had written that the Crown's Indian allies, among them Six Nations warriors, were "merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions" (431). …

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