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Our Constitution and the Iroquois

Guest Author - Jane Winkler

On the 4th of July we celebrate the founding of our country. It was truly the “Great Experiment” as described by one of our Founding Fathers. But was this the first such experiment with a system of governing by and for the People?

Oral history tells of Dekanawidah, the Peacemaker, a Mohawk who traveled among the Onieda, Onandaga, Cayuga, Mohawk, and Seneca of the Northeast encouraging peace and cooperation among the tribes. His travels met with good fortune and the People listened. The Peacemaker arranged for the first League of Nations meeting. When the tribal representatives arrived in arms, he instructed them to bury their weapons under a large tree. This tree will forever be known as the Great Tree of Peace. He gave each representative a single arrow and showed how one could be easily snapped. But when all the arrows were bundled together, they could not be broken.

The Iroquois Confederation was formed sometime in the mid 1400’s to early 1500’s. The Tuscarora People joined in the early 1700’s. Ne Gayaneshagowa, Great Binding Law is what we refer to as the Iroquois Constitution, the first known type of governing codex in the Americas. How much our Founding Fathers knew of this unique form of government, and how much of an example it was in drafting our Constitution has been hotly debated for decades. The debate continues, as do the striking similarities.

Council Representatives were appointed by the Clan Mothers of each tribe and served in positions named after the original representatives. There was not an equal number for each Tribe, as in our House of Representatives, and decisions were made on consensus. However, each tribe was considered equal within the Council and had the right of veto. The Council was divided between the Older Brothers and the Younger Brothers, not unlike our Senate and House. If agreement could not be reached within the Council, each tribe maintained its sovereignty and could act upon the issue as they chose, restricted only from preventing harm to other member tribes. The tribes maintained their own government, precisely as the States within our union.

It’s hard to imagine that two such unique systems of government would arise in the same part of the world, a few hundred years apart, without any influence being exerted by the first on the second. Our leaders knew of the Iroquois Confederation well before they gathered to draft our Constitution. Benjamin Franklin’s publications were widely read and had included quotes by Iroquois leaders prior to the Revolutionary War. Canasetoga, an Onandaga speaker advised the colonists to follow the example of his Forefathers in establishing a union. Franklin is attributed with stating “It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union… and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies.” Bearing in mind the time and audience of this statement, Franklin no doubt realized the “Savages” were anything but ignorant.

Having visited the Iroquois and witnessed their system of government, Franklin used their names and phrases at the Albany Congress in 1754. He was also a strong advocate for a one house legislature as that of the Council. At the Constitutional Convention, John Rutledge was head of the Committee of Detail. He was reported to have referenced the Iroquois Great Law of Peace during the Convention, and to have opened proceedings with a quote attributed to an Iroquois Chief. “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity and order…” That should sound familiar.

However, there were other examples of confederations, and federalist governments for our Founding Fathers to glean ideas from. In his Federalist papers, James Madison references several, including the Roman Empire and the Swiss Confederacy, with no mention of the Iroquois. With only the written words of learned men with many influences, this debate will no doubt continue. As Brian Cook states in his Iroquois Influence Thesis, “there simply does not seem to be the solid, documented, primary, linear sources that the current historical establishment typically relies on for indicators of veracity.” Oh those problematic linear sources documenting what was in the minds of our Founding Fathers, they cannot be produced.

Whatever role the Iroquois Confederation may have had in the founding of our nation, it should be considered, valued, and celebrated. As for the “Linear Sources” to prove it, I prefer the Circle in which all things are connected.

Iroquois Influence Thesis by Brian Cook
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Content copyright © 2014 by Jane Winkler. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Jane Winkler. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Jacqueline Olivia Pina for details.

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