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The Iroquois Confederation and the United States Constitution

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

The Juxtaposition of Nations – a Centuries-Old Democracy Is Encountered by Colonial Leaders of an Embryonic Federation.

The story of how the Iroquois received thd "Great Law of Peace" and the "Tree of Peace" has its origins over 1000 years ago. Their oral tradition tells the story. It was a time when the Iroquois people forgot to be thankful and a time when almost all of the people strayed from the Creator. This was the darkest and the most violent time in our history, say the elders.. It was amidst this chaos that the Creator sent Peacemaker, a messenger of peace. The mission of Peacemaker was to restore love, peace and harmony back to the people., He proposed a set of laws which enabled the people and nations to live in peace and unity. It was a system of rule and was guided by moral principles called the Great Law of Peace.

The Iroquois story goes into much more detail but I am abbreviating it for this blog post.

Peacemaker traveled from village to village succeeding, despite many trials, in persuasively giving his message of love and peace. Near the end of his mission, Peacemaker looked around and saw this very tall tree. He thought because the tree was so tall, it could be seen from distant places, because the top of the tree pierced the sky, attention would be drawn to it.

On this white pine tree, the needles are in clusters of 5. (Since I originated in Minnesota where the white pine is the stage tree and since my partner/wife has planted a white pine in our WA yard to help me feel at home, I can verify the 5 :-). The Peacemaker used this as a symbol to describe how the 5 Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy would be bound together as one. He took some needles off the branch and told the people that even though there are changes of the seasons, the tree stays green for all time. So shall the Great Peace stay among the 5 nations for all time.

He then uprooted the tree and it created a cavity. Peacemaker Instructed the men to cast down their weapons into the cavity to bury their greed, hatred and jealousy. The tree was then replaced and the peacemaker said: “into the depths of the earth, down into the deep under earth currents of water, flowing into all- regions, we cast all weapons of strife. We bury them from sight forever and plant again the tree. The all Great Peace is established and hostilities shall no longer be known between the 5 nations but peace to a united people”

The roots that spread out from the tree are called the Great White Roots of Peace, and they spread to all 4 directions. On top of this tree was placed an Eagle. The meaning of planting a tree symbolizes the great peace strength. The Eagle symbolizes keeping a watchful eye on the roots and any evil or danger approaches she will scream loudly, sounding the alarm and the Confederacy will at once come to the defense and rescue. This symbolizes that everyone has the responsibility to protect the peace. The peacemaker then took an arrow from each 1 of the 5 nations and bound them together. Each nation contributing an arrow symbolized the combining of the individual powers into one great power and union which no one can bend or break. The peacemaker then said “we have now completed our union so that we the 5 nations Confederacy shall in the future be one body, one mind, and one heart. If any evil should befall us in the future, we shall stand or fall united as one.”

The cataclysmic defeat of Native American resistance in King Philip’s war, effectively ended effective Native American resistance to the advance of colonial settlement in New England.

The grim symmetry of the Wampanoags’ fate - Massasoit helps the newcomers to establish themselves in a new continent, and two generations later they expel his descendants in chains to another world. This irony that returned Native American hospitality with genocide goes further. In the middle and late 1700s, when United States forefathers were shaping their Constitution, the Iroquois Confederation was the outstanding example of democratic functioning in the world. Their Constitution provided inspiration to Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and other framers of the United States Constitution, including at the Constitutional convention in 1787. But soon thereafter, George Washington, who had previously confessed to a cynical attitude toward Native American treaties as nothing more than an expedient “to quiet the mind of the Indians,” ordered that the Iroquois territory should not “merely be overrun but destroyed.” (Native Americans had previously nicknamed Washington as “Community Destroyer.”) Gen. Jon Sullivan promptly invaded western New York, cutting down the Indians’ orchards and crops, burning their villages and destroying more than 8 million bushels of corn, while Col. Broadhead, in what became known as the “Squaw Campaign,” massacred hundreds of Iroquois women and children. The justification for this brutality was the supposed “savagery of the Indians.” Given the value of this episode for understanding the devastating impacts of racism and wetiko, it is worth recounting the Iroquois constitutional government and its impact on America in more detail.

United States Founding Fathers Learn of The Iroquois Constitution

The Iroquois Constitution, formed between 1090 and 1150 CE, ended the violence of competition and wars between five Tribal Nations. For ~600 years before coming to the attention of our forefathers, it had maintained peace, justice, prosperity and nurturing of territorial lands for agriculture, hunting and the thriving of all their relatives. (Oren Lyons, an Iroquois elder, stated “what you call resources, we call relatives.”) This Constitution is still actively used by many of the Iroquois people on reservations now scattered through New York, Wisconsin, and Canada. While the attempts of the United States and Canadian governments to limit their freedoms have continued, the Iroquois cling tenaciously to their right to be free from foreign influence in the exercise of the authority of their Constitution, which they received as a gift from God.

Records show that at the Treaty of Lancaster meeting in 1744, Iroquois leaders offered instruction in their democratic methods of government. Franklin took copious notes and circulated copies of the proceedings among his fellow colonists. In follow-up, at the Albany Congress in 1754, representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy and seven colonies heard Benjamin Franklin champion the Iroquois example as he presented his Plan of Union.

''It would be a strange thing,'' Franklin told the assembly, ''if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming such a union, and yet it has subsisted for ages and appears indissolvable, and yet a like union should be impractical for 10 or a dozen English colonies.''

Subsequently, John Rutledge of South Carolina, delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, read lengthy tracts of Iroquoian law to the other framers, beginning with the words "We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order..." While scholars debate the extent of influence, there is no doubt about the inspiration. In 1987, the US Congress passed Concurrent Resolution 331 to recognize the influence of the Iroquois Constitution upon the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Aspects of the Iroquois Constitution That Influenced Framers of the U.S. Constitution

United States forefathers were particularly enamored by the Iroquois concepts of:

· a bicameral legislative process and an approximate executive branch; an overseeing Supreme Court with veto power; and

· a Federation with internal autonomy and governance for participant tribes with a Federal Council for common issues.

Core Aspects of the Iroquois Constitution Overlooked Due To European Cultural Differences

Other important aspects of the 117 Article Iroquois Constitution, contributing to its ~600 years of survival were left out of United States documents; among them:

· inclusiveness within all creation -- the Iroquois Constitution begins with a statement from their legendary founder, (first of a few collated excerpts from their Constitution)

I plant the Tree of Great Peace. Roots have spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace, one to the north, one to the east, one to the south and one to the west. Their nature is Peace and Strength.

· The core of inclusiveness within Creation is gratitude. Constitutional instructions for opening the Confederate Council included,

an offering of thanks to the earth, to the streams of water, the pools, to springs and the lakes, to the maize and the fruits, to the medicinal herbs and trees, to the forest trees for their usefulness, to the animals that serve as food and give their pelts for clothing, to the great winds and the lesser winds, to the Thunderers, to the Sun, the mighty warrior, to the moon, to the messengers of the Creator who reveal his wishes and to the Great Creator who dwells in the heavens above, who gives all the things useful to men, and who is the source and the ruler of health and life. Then shall the Council be declared open.

· The Constitution also mandated how gratitude would be expressed through Thanksgiving festivals.

It shall be the duty of the appointed managers of the Thanksgiving festivals to do all that is needful for carrying out the duties of the occasions. The recognized festivals of Thanksgiving shall be the Midwinter Thanksgiving, the Maple or Sugar-Making Thanksgiving, the Raspberry Thanksgiving, the Strawberry Thanksgiving, the Corn Planting Thanksgiving, the Corn Hoeing Thanksgiving, The Little Festival of Green Corn, the Great Festival of Ripe Corn, and the Complete Thanksgiving for the Harvest. Each nation's festivals shall be held in their Longhouses.

· The prominent role of women included:

ü matrilineal longhouses,

ü appointing the male leader delegates to Councils, and removing those who failed in character or in their responsibilities, and

ü exercising the right of veto over the decisions of the councils.

· Character qualifications for council members:

the thickness of their skin shall be seven spans -- which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. With endless patience they shall carry out their duty and their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in their minds and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation.

It shall be the duty of all of the Five Nations Confederate Lords, from time to time as occasion demands, to act as mentors and spiritual guides of their people and remind them of their Creator's will and words. They shall say:

"Hearken, that peace may continue unto future days!”

"Always listen to the words of the Great Creator, for he has spoken.”

"United people, let not evil find lodging in your minds.”

"For the Great Creator has spoken and the cause of Peace shall not become old.”

"The cause of peace shall not die if you remember the Great Creator." I

Every Confederate Lord shall speak words such as these to promote peace.

Council decision-making was mandated to include consideration of future generations. Deliberation processes were spelled out to foster consensus.

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