How did the Iroquois influence democracy in America?
When Rousseau and Locke were charting their visions of democracy, it’s hard to imagine that a near perfect model was already well established across the sea. Turns out, the Iroquois had been participating in the oldest, most highly evolved form of participatory democracy on earth. What’s even harder to imagine, is that early American notions of democracy may very well have been directly influenced by that of the Iroquois. It seems the legacy of the Native Americans had a bigger impact than any of us could’ve ever imagined, right to the roots and groundings of our constitution.
Underneath all the policies, the main idea behind Iroquois politics was of a spiritual nature, in that peace was the one true goal, and the will of the creator. There was the idea of applying reason through the lens of a spiritual mind, for the sake of righteousness, justice and health. All of this was made formal in their constitution, The Great Law of Peace. It allowed for the separation of powers, checks and balances, ratification, public opinion, and equality of all people. There’s the idea of a constant balance between the responsibilities of the men, the women, the chief, the faithkeepers. Everybody had an appropriate role and responsibility to fulfill. The constitution also layed the groundwork for the League’s Great Council, 50 chiefs who each represented one of the female-led clans of the nation. The leagues authority was constantly kept in check, and the most power was always assured to the people. They really were hell-bent on the ideals of a true democracy. The whole system was designed to ensure that power was spread and away from the hands of any one individual. Unanimity in decisions was the constant goal. When approaching the most urgent matters, the chiefs went so far as to surrender decision-making completely to the people.
Even if many policies between the Iroquois constitution and and the American don’t match up, this much is true: the Iroquois notions of democracy flat out inspired early American thinkers. They made noble concepts of liberty and democracy seem reachable. Over a course of two centuries, the European newcomers came to know the natives well, and the border between the two became almost non-existent. They became trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts. As resentment among colonists for their homeland festered to an unbearable degree, one can only imagine how tasty Iroquois images of liberty looked. As frontiersman Robert Rogers told a British audience “every man is free”, referring to Indian villages, mouths gaped in disbelief. George Washington expressed “great excitement” over the Iroquois after a visit to their grand council. As European colonists began to adopt the insubordinate attitudes of the Indians, the crown even took measures too put a plug on it, by attempting to educate the Indians, which main lesson was to teach their inferiority. Needless to say, the attempts were unsuccessful. Although a key difference between the two constitutions, the emphasis on women’s rights in Native society would still prove to inspire the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage. So over time, these differences proved to even out. Evidence has also been presented that Thomas Jefferson adopted many of the symbols behind the Peacemaker legend (the lore behind The Great Law of peace) in the tree of liberty and the eagle, both symbols of the new American government.
While many democratic values of the Iroquois are seen in our system of government, the society that it governs is so far from what our influences demonstrated in theirs. The difference is quite obvious, spirituality. Spirituality and connectedness to the earth served as the basis for everything the natives practiced. We may have gotten the freedom part right, but is it enough? Are we missing something? As many natives predicted, our society is collapsing in on itself. We have created a monster of consumerism, and the idea that everything we need is “out there” or can be bought. The last place we think to look is in ourselves or into the earth, as the natives practiced. And these ideas were the basis of everything they did. Even the Great Law of peace, a brilliant work of political philosophy, was set forth by a spiritual teacher. The story goes that this figure, known as the “Peacemaker” was sent down by the creator to undo the strife between constantly warring factions. And will you look at that? It worked! The tribes reached a general consensus on how to live together peacefully in the Great Law.This represents the power of spiritual practice to make practical and feasible solutions to many highly scrutinized, “under the microscope” issues. Another key difference between the execution of the constitutions was the notion of rights and responsibilities. Americans have always been dead-set on affirming our rights, and spend little time tending to our responsibilities. To the Iroquois constitution, responsibility was everything. Without it, it wouldn’t have worked.
For many, the legacy of the Natives is all but gone and something for the history books. Looking around, their influence cannot be seen , for we destroyed them. Funny how we destroyed them, and they helped create us. Without the presence of Iroquois democracy, America might never have happened. And even though this might detract from glorious images of American patriotism for some, well, the truth never makes noise.