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Iroquois Constitution

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    The Iroquois Constitution forms the first democratic republic and example of sovereign governance by the consent of a people in North American history. The confederacy of the League of Five Nations, who constructed the Iroquois Constitution, preceded the European colonization. Historical records and references provide evidence of the strong influence the Iroquois legislative process and constitution had on shaping the ideas and words of the US Constitution. Specific and distinct similarities unquestionably mark the Iroquois Constitution as a strongly influential model America’s founding fathers used in forming our United States Constitution, despite criticism to the contrary. The connection between the two is referred to as the Influence Theory.

    The precise date of origination of the Iroquois Constitution is difficult to place, since no written language existed. The oral record was committed to memory, and passed down to the children through song and storytelling. The only tangible artifacts preserved were beaded belts of shells. Historians often have noted the Iroquois’ oratorical skills and their excellence with the spoken word. The oral history of the Iroquois is imprecise, and some sources place the date of their constitution as early as 1100 AD while others insist it was later, about 1450-1500 AD. Scholars use the first recorded league Grand Council in 1535, called the Welcome at the Woods’ Edge by French Explorer Jacques Cartier, as a reference point, establishing that the confederacy had been established before then (Favor 31). Though the specific years are not determined, the outside range makes it unquestionable that, in any case, Iroquois had established it well before the colonization.

    All the Iroquois woodland Indians people spoke the same language, believed in the same gods and had many similar customs, but there was endless infighting. The legend tells that long ago, the Creator sent Peacemakers to teach cooperation and tolerance to the most powerful tribes. These “Peacemakers,” one a tribal lord of the Mohawks, Deganawida, and the other an Onondaga chief, Hiawatha, brought peace and unity through the shared common heritage and values of the people. The devotion to peace principles and rules by which this confederacy would govern, were recognized by the natives as “Great Laws of Peace,” and have become known to us as the League of the Five Nations, and the Iroquois Constitution. Their great Laws were recorded on 114 beaded wampum belts, each one designed to provide specific visual reminders to communicate long and complex set of provisions that outlined the confederacy’s devotion to peace, mutual assistance, tolerance, and protection of member’s individual liberties from common threats. (_____) Its provisions organized the leaders to be responsible for the larger community by dividing the League of Nations into subdivisions called moieties.

    The Mohawk and Seneca tribes were regarded as older brothers, an upper house (like the US Senate), and the Oneida and Cayuga as younger brothers, a lower house (like the US House of Representatives). The Onondaga held the status and title of the Fire Keepers, and their land as the Capitol of the confederacy, so that council meetings were to be convened on the Onondaga land, where the wampum belts and other symbols were collected. One can readily draw the parallels to the branches of the US government, and to Washington D.C. as “the seat of the United States government” (Favor 33) where America’s symbols and its key historical documentation are likewise collected. The Iroquois Constitution allowed each nation to govern itself, but under the guidance and intent of the Great Law of Peace. In this way, too, a strong parallel is seen in the American architecture of federalism, in which the individual states govern themselves, but only in concert with the higher authority of the federal government (Holcombe 25). The governing body of the Five Nations was entrusted in a Grand Council of chiefs, fifty “sachems” to represent the respective nations in political decisions and actions of confederacy.

    The term sachems, in the oral tradition, distinguishes them from other kinds of chiefs. Grinde and Johansen, in Exemplar of Liberty, seek to draw a parallel to the forty-eight delegates proposed by Benjamin Franklin in the Albany Plan. In the Iroquois Constitution, the first North American political document to divide the responsibility among deliberative councils, the Grand Council served as the principle lawmaking body responsible to the larger community, and the council of five war chiefs served as advisors to the Grand Council regarding issues of warfare. That is similar to our “joint chiefs” serving as advisors to our American commander in chief, the President. The Grand Council balanced its internal powers, designating the Mohawks as the leaders, as they were the foundation of the Great Peace. If they opposed any resolution, the Grand Council could not pass it. The requirement for unanimous agreement accounted for the essential representation of the individual members’ interests, and for their compliance.

    Unanimous decision-making is a crucial requirement and foundation of the Grand Chiefs, although not with equal representation by the nations, and that does differ greatly from the foundation and ideology of the American Founding Fathers, a distinction not lost on the Influence Theory critics. Another significant difference critics of the Influence theorists point out is that the Iroquois culture, as a matriarchal society, gave a traditional role for women to have power in the leadership. Upon marriage the Iroquois husband joined his wife’s clan, and kinship was traced though the women. Chiefs who were, in fact, chosen by the oldest living female, or “clan mother,” led the clans. The sachems were nominated through the clan mothers. This gave the women an equal role in power and leadership of government, whereas American woman would wait over 130 years to have an official voice, and only recently have begun to have truly consequential influence of a magnitude their Iroquois predecessors had long exercised.

    Numerous sources concur with the thesis that the Iroquois Constitution had a strong influence on the founding fathers. One of the first historical recognitions recorded by the European colonists of the Iroquois Confederacy was by the Dutch, after they had allied with a neighboring tribe that challenged the Five Nations in 1624. (McIntosh 22) That alliance baffled the Iroquois, because they had no issues with the Dutch and did not understand their involvement. Following victory by the Iroquois, they assembled a Two Row Wampum belt to explain the Great Laws of Peace to the newcomers and acknowledge mutual respect. That Wampum belt was white, with two purple rows down the middle. The rows depicted the straight courses that each group of people was responsible for steering to maintain peace, indicating that neither side should attempt to interfere with or force upon the other laws, traditions, languages or religious beliefs. (“Official website of the Mohawk Nation “) Of great symbolic connotation is the speech by an Onondaga Chief, Canstego, whom the colonial representatives in Pennsylvania invited to attend a treaty conference they held in Lancaster in 1744. Chief Cansatego’s speech encouraged the unification of the colonies.

    He stated, “Divided, a single man may destroy you. United, you are a match for the whole world (” Following that conference Chief Canstego bestowed on Benjamin Franklin a bundle of five arrows to symbolize the solidarity and loyalty of the five nations. Canstego’s speech reminded the representatives that separately they were vulnerable, but together they were strong. This symbolism can be found today on the one-dollar bill, with the olive branch in one eagle talon and 13 arrows in the other. Franklin published numerous pamphlets of the proceeding of the Grand Chiefs in the Pennsylvania gazette during his appointment head of Indian Affairs (Morgan). It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies. — Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, 1751 Franklin’s essential inquiry was, “If the Iroquois can do it, then why can’t we colonists?” At the Albany conference in 1754, Franklin proposed a colonial plan for a single legislature and a president general. His plan recognized individual dynamics and differences of each colony, and allowed for the retention of individual constitutions for each colony.

    Franklin’s idea would allow colonies to choose their own speakers, who would also wield a veto power in regard to decisions made within the “Grand Council” (the name was Franklin’s). Franklin’s plan in the division of the number representatives was based on population and military force, as tradition determined in the Iroquois system (Johansen). Thomas Jefferson, representing thought of the Enlightenment period, shared Franklin’s respect for core values also found in the native Indian traditions. Jefferson’s writings referred often to “pursuit of happiness” and the “consent of the governed,” and prized notions of independence. Popular belief holds that Jefferson drew inspiration from the Iroquois Constitution, and his interactions doubtless helped shape his own social values and philosophical beliefs about governance. Jefferson’s writings reflect the impact of the Iroquois concepts clearly in “inalienable rights” of individuals, and in a power for the people to impeach leaders who do not behave in the interest of its members, or who break the laws of the constitution.

    Profound support for the Influence Theory is founded in an official invitation to 21 Iroquois chiefs in May 1776 to participate in meetings of the Continental Congress. The Iroquois chiefs were provided lodging in the State house in Pennsylvania for several weeks leading up to the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. The chiefs addressed the delegates, even giving John Hancock the Indian name “Karanduawn,” or “the Great Tree.” James Wilson asserted that “Indians know the striking benefits of Confederation,” and we have an example of it in the Union of the Six Nations (Johansen).” The influence the Iroquois Constitution and their ideology of the Great Laws of Peace are undeniably reflected in both the historical record, and in the construction of our American Constitution, including its Bill of Rights. Other specific similarities between the Iroquois Constitution and the United States Constitution are the protection of religious ceremonies, protection of individual liberties and property, powers of war, rules of adoption, treason or secession of a nation; and laws of emigration. (Daly) Many writers have recognized the Influence Theory, that the Iroquois Constitution was a most influential model used by the founding fathers to develop the United States Constitution.

    Critics, however, refute that theory, and assert that those writers have used carelessly unsupported statements, and even manipulated quotations, changing the referential basis of inferences that the founding fathers were replicating the Iroquois legislative form of governance. Elisabeth Tooker, a particularly outspoken critic, labels the influence thesis a “scholarly misapprehension (Levy, p. 598).” Some critics suggest the Influence theorists’ literary accounts have exaggerated the founding fathers’ encounters with the Iroquois chiefs, and have taken them out of context. Others have expressed outrage that the Influence theory discredits the founding fathers as true idealists who originated such notions as protection of individual liberties, and leadership by the consent of the people; and above all, discredits recognition of the US Constitution as the rightful claimant of embodiment of the first Democratic form of Government in the western hemisphere. They promote recognition, instead, of the European ideologists in the formation of the American democracy, of thinkers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau (Favor, p.61). The Founding Fathers may have been the first to write down the ideas of democratic principles and representative government, but it was the Iroquois who first said it.

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    Iroquois Constitution. (2016, Jun 09). Retrieved from

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