While in Syracuse, New York, Temple cofounder Dr. William H. Dower sought to bring about a better understanding of Native Americans through regular visits to the surrounding local Indian reservations. By 1898, a major component of the emerging Temple group was the inspiration it received from forging relationships with the “ancient wisdom” of Native American longhouse culture in upstate New York.
The group supported the notion that spiritual and political ideals of kinship had emerged much earlier on the American continent through Hiawatha, the great unifier of indigenous peoples. They believed that his Iroquois League, which unified several tribes together, was an excellent model applicable to the political and social problems of their era, an ideal illustrated in the largest oil painting in the series, “The League of Six Nations.” Both cofounders Dower and Francia LaDue became honorary members of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga tribe in order to establish certain “lines of spiritual force” they believed would facilitate the group’s success. This led them to use Native American legend as a foundational myth for their visions of theosophical community.
The Temple literature on native spirituality is beautifully expressed in the prayer “In the Lodge of the Red Star.” As Guardian in Chief Eleanor Shumway puts it, the “ensouling force behind Hiawatha, the Native Americans, and the lessons we might learn from them: the ability to walk lightly upon the land, to honor each other for the qualities that each of us can bring to the group, and to live in harmony with the forces of Mother Nature,” continue to inform the ideals of the Temple of the People.
Harold Forgostein was born in Marquette, Michigan, on May 11, 1906. He attended high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was staff cartoonist for the weekly school paper and for the yearbook. He was elected as a member of the National High School Society for his political cartoons. As a young man, Harold had opportunities to explore the beautiful countryside of the Great Lakes area, where his family returned to spend summers after moving to Pennsylvania. In later life, he liked to share fond memories of long hours spent alone, paddling along the quiet waterways in a canoe. His love of virgin nature would later be evident in much of his artwork.
Harold graduated from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh with a B.A. in painting in 1927. He worked for two years to save enough money to go to New York in order to pursue a career in commercial art and painting.
In September 1929, Harold arrived in New York. His commercial art career plans dashed by the Great Depression, he took a job teaching art to adults through the WPA program. Besides working, Harold also found time to make daily trips to various art museums and galleries, and to paint. During this time he contacted the Temple of the People through a mutual friend. Through this contact and at the request of the Temple founder, Harold began the magnificent Hiawatha series of oil paintings that is now part of the permanent collection of the Temple of the People in Halcyon.
In 1941, Harold moved to California to live in Halcyon. Over the years, between work and community responsibilities, Harold finished the majority of the Hiawatha oils, and began to paint watercolors of the Oceano sand dunes, a subject that fascinated him and led him to paint over 800 works.
In 1947, Harold began teaching art, drawing, design, watercolor, and still life painting to adult education classes in San Luis Obispo, and later in Morro Bay. Several of his students became the core group that formed the San Luis Obispo Art Association. Throughout this period he continued to paint, both in watercolor and in oil, a body of work of diverse subject matter and masterful technique, filled with love for the forces of nature and the drama and mystical significance of the moment.
In 1967, Harold retired from teaching, and in 1969 he became the Guardian in Chief of the Temple of the People. He continued in that capacity until his death in March of 1990. Harold enjoyed painting until the very end of his life.
In the early 1930s, artist Harold Forgostein used watercolors as a way to generate ideas for the ambitious series of 24 paintings on the life and legends of Hiawatha, as requested by the second Guardian in Chief, Dr. William H. Dower. After much research, Harold made dozens of working sketches to test ideas and resolve matters of composition, color, and content in preparation for the much larger four-foot square canvases that he painted in oils.
Living at the time near New York City, Harold mailed the packet of sketches to Halcyon, asking for Dr. Dower’s comments and approval before starting work on the final paintings.
Doctor wrote back to Harold a couple of weeks before the 1934 Convention, saying the group of watercolor sketches for the paintings were “indescribably beautiful.” Dower continued, “You have faithfully interpreted the historical and legendary facts concerning that Great Soul — Hiawatha … [and] you have demonstrated by these pictures, in my opinion, that your own interpretation is masterly, and the symphony of the color schemes goes right to the heart and inner being of anyone who so far has seen them.”
Depicting the legends of Hiawatha and the Four Winds proved to be a challenge, as the possibilities for symbolism and pictorial style were boundless. Working sketches show some of the approaches that artist Harold Forgostein explored, conveying a sense of the artist’s creative process.
In taking on this project, Harold knew it would take years to complete the ambitious series of canvases that Dr. Dower had envisioned. Besides referring to Longfellow’s classic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, he often visited museums in New York to research the culture and cosmology of the Native American peoples.
As an artist, Harold experimented with multiple approaches to each painting in terms of symbolism, color, visual composition, action, and storytelling. His imagination is especially evident in the sketches generated for the East and West Winds, and we can sense the electricity in the creative process as history, legend, and the spirit of Hiawatha come to life.
The Iroquois League was made up of five original member nations from New York State and the southern Great Lakes area. Together, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes were known as the Haudenosaunee, “People Who Build a House.”
The Iroquoians were known for their longhouses — multifamily dwellings whose end walls could be removed so another room with a hearth could be added to accommodate new families. The longhouse symbolized their belief that all the tribes are meant to live in peace under one roof.
Evidence suggests the Iroquois tribes began to consolidate as a culture a thousand years ago, and that the League was formed around 1400 AD, before European contact.
Some three centuries later, the Tuscarora migrated away from white settlements in what is now North Carolina, seeking refuge with the Haudenosaunee. They were invited to join the League in 1722, expanding the confederation to the Six Nations of the Iroquois.
Each nation or tribe had a distinct language, territory, and function within the League, playing a defined role in the conduct of government.
The Mohawks, or People of the Flint, lived in the shadow of the great trees. The First Nation, they had fire and arrows, and were guardians of the territory’s eastern boundaries.
The Oneidas, who lean their bodies against the everlasting, immovable rock, were the Second Nation. Known as the People of the Standing Stone, they added stability and good counsel.
The Onandagas lived by the great mountain, and were the Third Nation. Known as the People of the Hills, they were greatly gifted in speech and powerful in war, acting as mediators during deliberations. The Keepers of the Central Fire, the Onandaga Nation is respected as the seat of the alliance.
The Cayugas were the Fourth Nation. Known as the People of the Great Swamp, they were peace-loving. Their home was everywhere, and they were superior hunters.
The Senecas were the Fifth Nation, known as the Keepers of the Western Door. They excelled at agriculture, growing corn, squash, and beans, and knew the art of making cabins. They were the defenders of the territory’s western boundaries.
The Tuscaroras became the Sixth Nation after they joined the League in 1722. Known as the Shirt Wearing People, they symbolized the growth of the League.
The Iroquois League was formed sometime around 1400 AD near what is now Syracuse, New York. According to legend, Hiawatha helped bring the Great Law of Peace to the five squabbling Iroquoian nations, creating union among the Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. The Tuscaroras were accepted into the League in 1722, and the confederacy was thereafter known as the League of Six Nations.
Women and men shared equal roles and responsibilities in their government, a complex structure allowing for the separation of powers, checks and balances, ratification, public opinion, and equality of all peoples.
The principles set forth in the Great Law of Peace remain the code of civic and social ethics that guide the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee people today.
The ability to communicate ideas grew as the most gifted warriors from each tribe of the Haudenosaunee people were trained to interpret the concepts and meaning embedded in wampum designs. In time, anyone acquainted with wampum language could “read” the message encoded into a string or belt sent between tribes and translate it.
Wampum is still held sacred by the Iroquois, respected as a living record of the importance and authority of the treaty or message associated with it. The symbol patterns woven into the wampum belts were used as aids to memory in narrations for storytelling, religious ceremonies, or recording treaties and historical events.
As a history tool, new strings of wampum beads could be added to record and relay developments. Over many centuries, original meanings and ideas were conveyed faithfully in narrative form, no matter one’s spoken language or generation.
The sacred wampum belts carried by Hiawatha to the chiefs of the five warring nations allowed him to give voice to the Creator’s powerful words of peace in the Great Law, and unite the separate tribes together as one.
Because the Iroquois people had no written language, the Great Law of Peace was transmitted as an oral constitution. Spoken in narrative form, its 117 articles outlined laws, ceremonies, and the governing role taken by each tribe in the League.
In the Peacemaker legend, the messenger Hiawatha is said to have invented wampum as a way to remember all of the powerful words of the Creator each time he taught the laws of peace. The complete telling of the Great Law took several days, and Hiawatha needed a way to communicate the vision of unity and brotherhood he was sent to share with the tribes.
Traditional wampum beads were painstakingly flaked and drilled from freshwater quahog clamshells, in colorations of whites, purples, blacks, and some reds, with varying shapes like cylinders, balls, cones, diamonds, squares, or hourglasses.
In the legend, Hiawatha made his beads and, as he threaded them together, spoke into each one the words of a particular concept from the Great Law. Every bead in every string became invested with meaning, to help him fully and consistently share the Creator’s message of peace and unity.
“In the Lodge of the Red Star, we have met and renewed our allegiance to the tribes — to the warrior forces of the Universal Chief of Life. His war lance is the flaming sun. His peace pipe is the silvery moon. His lance has as many points as the sands of the sea, and no one can escape them. When the Great Chief lights his pipe at night and passes it to his brothers, the Star Men, great rings and wreaths of light glow in the sky. This is the voiceless chant of peace that bears to the Great Spirit the message that all is well with his world Children. And the Great Spirit lights another star with love; another soul glows with the fires of hope and faith in the Master Chief, whose songs of life and sweetness fill the cabins of the tribes.” — Hiawatha