The Effect of the Iroquois Constitution
on the United States Constitution

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The Effect of the Iroquois Constitution
on the United States Constitution

originally titled

The United States Constitution: Is it a Native American Myth?

Janet L. Daly  Fitchburg State College (1997)

The United States Constitution was influenced by the concepts and the principles contained in the Iroquois Indian Confederacy form of governance which was founded in Native American mythology.

Several different areas must be discussed in order to substantiate this premise that the Native Americans that arrived on the North American continent around 12,000 years ago did indeed influence the very basis of the United States governmental system which is written in the form of the United States Constitution. One of the first concepts which must be explored is the tradition of the Iroquois League, since the basis of the thesis is that the League tradition preceded and influenced the thinking of the Founding Fathers. The next topics must include a discussion of opinions and supporting details that the Iroquoian Confederacy method of governance did influence the development of the U.S. Constitution and specifically how key contributors to the writing of the Constitution, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were brought into the Native American sphere of thinking. Finally, a comparison of the League Tradition and several areas of the U.S. Constitution will show clearly that the "Native American Myth" lives on even though the Native American population has been drastically diminished by the very Country which it helped to found.

The Iroquois League tradition was first written down in an Iroquois language format in 1912 by anthropologist Alexander A. Goldenweiser.1 This handwritten transcript as dictated by Chief John Arthur Gibson has been recently (1992) newly elicited, edited and translated by Hanni Woodbury in collaboration with Reg Henry and Harry Webster with the resultant fluently reading legend of the foundation of the League of the Iroquois.

Chief John Gibson, born in 1849 was "unquestionably the greatest mind of his generation among the Six Nations... [who] became the greatest living source on Iroquois culture at the turn of the century."2 Chief Gibson was appointed a member of a committee of chiefs that undertook the task of codifying the League Tradition because of the high regard by his own people for his knowledge of the League traditions and the various rituals connected with them.3

What follows is a condensed version of the League Tradition as put forth in the work translated by Hanni Woodbury which will provide a general overview of the mythology which lead to the Tradition and the components of the Tradition which allowed a working unification system for the Iroquois Confederacy. This Confederacy contained the original Five Nations of the Confederacy which included the Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga and in 1715 increased to Six Nations with the inclusion of the Tuscaroras.

Feuding and warfare were endemic in the land of the Mohawks which was located on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. A mother Kahetoktha ("End of the Field") takes her daughter Kahetehsuk ("She Walks Ahead") to live in a remote area of bush in order to protect her child. After living there a considerable amount of time the daughter becomes pregnant and the Mother accuses her daughter of wrongdoing. The Mother then has a dream from the messenger of the Great Spirit which reveals her daughter and not been with a man and will have a divine birth and the boy child to be born will be called Tekanawita and his life will be devoted to promoting peace among men. After the dream message is received the Mother and daughter reconcile and the son is born as prophesied. The boy grows quickly and when he is a young man Tekanawita returns to his mother's and grandmother's former settlement to announce to their people the Good Message (kaihwiyoh), the Power (katshatstehsae) and the Peace (shenu) which are the three concepts that together spell out the call to unify the separate nations of the Iriquois.4

Tekanawita visits the then separate nations and convinces them through demonstrating some miraculous feats. One such trial proposed by the Mohawk Nation was forTekanawita to sit atop a tree next to the river. The tree would then be cut down and Tekanawita would be thrown into the cold raging waters. If he emerged the next day alive this would be proof that he was the true messenger of the Great Spirit and the Good Message, the Power and the Peace would be accepted. When he successfully emerges the next day from the waters the Mohawk tribe is convinced. The five nations are receptive to the message and Tekanawita proceeds to frame the central concepts of the Great Law and organizes the Confederacy Council on the basis of principles which underlie Iroquois social structure. He divides the five nations into moieties related to one another as fathers (Mohawk, Onondaga and Seneca) and sons (Oneida and Cayuga).5

The decision making process which was to be followed involved the Mohawk Nation considering the issue and after a consensus is reached within the Nation, V' the question was to be passed to their moiety brother, the Seneca who reach a consensus. There is to be an attempt to consolidate their decision with that of the Mohawk. If two groups agree they are to appoint a speaker for the moiety who moves'across the fire'to bring the opinion and the question to the Oneida. The Oneida are to pass the question on to the Cayuga and if the two groups reach consensus the issue is to be passed back across the fire to the Mohawk who present the outcome to the firekeepers, the Onondagas. The Onondagas then consider the issue and if they agree with the consensus reached by the other four nations, they ratify the opinion.6

However, if there are divergent opinions from the Mohawk and Seneca, both opinions are to be handed across the fire to the Oneida and Cayuga to be considered equally. If the Oneida and Cayuga are split in opinion then both opinions must be handed on to the firekeepers. The Firekeepers can break the tie by choosing one opinion over the other. If the Oneida and Cayuga agree wit just one of the opinions handed to them by the Mohawk and Seneca, they return this opinion to the latter, and the speaker for the Mohawk and Seneca will present the opinions to the firekeepers, with an explanation of the outcome. The Onondaga consider the issue together with the results arrived at among the other nations, and the final decision will be announced.7

After establishing the vital decision making process to be followed Tekanawita establishes the symbolism of the central hearth, that is the Confederacy fire, "whose smoke will rise, the beautiful smoke, piercing the sky."8 At the central fire he planted a tree - a great white pine - that put forth white roots East, West, North and South. Each nation would contribute one arrow to form a single strong bundle bound together with the sinew of a deer and as joined were to represent the Confederacy solidarity. Tekanawita addressed the Nations with the message that all Nations exercise equal authority in the Confederacy and that as individuals the Chiefs - the tall trunks of the Confederacy - are all equal in status. He then warned that if the arrows of the Nations are withdrawn from the bundle that represent the power of their solidarity, the bundle of arrows will weaken.9

After describing the basic workings of the Confederacy, Tekanawita called a lengthy recess, and members of the council returned to their settlements to inform the people of the Confederacy of the formation and to determine the existing organization of lineages and clans in their respective nations, and to select in terms of their lineage affiliations more candidates for the positions on the council. Fifty titles are eventually assigned by clan and were assigned as follows- Mohawk - 9, Seneca - 8, Oneida - 9, Cayuga -10, and Onondaga - 14. The women of the clan or clan mothers were designated to be the holders of the clan titles and had control in large measure in the choice of successors.10

The chiefs appointed were expected to maintain certain standards or there was to be a recall process that would be followed. At times of stress in the Confederacy, the hereditary Chiefs were to be allowed to appoint a "Pine Tree" Chief who would have special skills or qualities that could be of help to the hereditary chiefs in their difficult tasks. Pine Tree Chiefs were to be appointed for life and their titles were not to be passed on after their death.11

The final major process that Tekanawita was to call for was the orderly replacement of the Chiefs upon their dismissal or more likely their death. This process was to allow an orderly transition of power within the Confederacy. This process consisted of the Clan Matron selecting a candidate and the women of the clan approving the selection followed by the chiefs who represent the tribal moiety, then the Chiefs of the Nation, then the Chiefs from her side of the Confederacy fire. At the Condolence Council the candidate was to be "stood up" for approval by the chiefs of the opposite moiety. The candidate is to be raised up by being "crowned with the antlers" of office representing his status as a Chief.12

This was then the basic outline of the principles and philosophy of the Confederacy of the Iroquois. They agreed to stop fighting amongst themselves and to accept the Good Message that called upon them to find a peaceful way to resolve issues among the tribes. They were directed by the messenger of the Great Spirit to uphold certain standards of leadership and to fill vacancies in a peaceful manner. They were to stand together so that they may be stronger than one individual tribe.

There is a plethora of opinion which concurs with the thesis that the Iroquois Confederacy had a strong influence on the final document which was to be the law of the land for the United States from its inception to present day. Some of these sources not only attribute the Iroquois Confederacy with significantly affecting the form of the Government of the United States but also with instilling the American independence mentality which would give rise to the impetus to make the initial break from the British.

As the Indians were standing along the shore watching the Puritans arrive, the Indians carried with them a tradition of meeting and democracy, of free speech, of free thinking, of tolerance for each other's differences of religion, of all those things which got attached to the Bill of Rights.13 White leaders watched the method of government that the Iroquois utilized and they learned union and democracy from it. Historians are now beginning to admit what they must have been aware of, that the government of the United States is not patterned after something across the ocean where there was a belief in the divine right of kings and where the people had no voice, but it is patterned after the government of the People of the Long House, where all people, including both men and women were respected and took a part in their government.14

The interaction between the colonial Americans and the Iroquois Confederacy began immediately upon the arrival of the Europeans. The importance of conciliating the powerful Confederacy was fully appreciated by the colonial authorities and great pains were taken to secure and retain the favor of the confederacy. Each successive governor announced his arrival to the Sachems of the League, and invited them to meet him in council, at an early day, to renew the "covenant chain" or agreement to work together peacefully.15

Beginning in the early 1740's, Iroquois leaders strongly urged the colonists to form a federation similar to their own with the immediate benefit to their interests of having a unified management of Indian trade with resultant minimization of fraud, and a unity of the two peoples in the face of the "cold war" which was occurring between the English and the French.16 This urging became a more forceful admonition when the Iroquois Chief Canssatego spoke to Pennsylvania officials gathered at Lancaster in 1744 with the following words:

    Our wise forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations. This has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and by your observing the same methods, our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire such Strength and power. Therefore whatever befalls you, never fall our with one another.17
A crucial step forward towards colonial American unification necessary for the eventual independence movement took place in Albany, New York in 1754. The Albany Plan was a landmark on the rough road that was to lead through the first Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation and then to the Constitution of 1787.18 On the eve of the Albany Congress, Franklin had a great deal of exposure to the imagery and political ideas of the Iroquois from first hand experience and from his study of Cadwallader Colden's History of the Five Nations.19 Franklin met with both Colonial and Iroquois delegates to create a plan of unity that was in part derived from some of the tenets of the Great Law of the Iroquois.20 During the discussions at Albany Franklin addressed the assemblage in words that freely acknowledged the Iroquois Confederacy as a model to build upon:
    It would be a strange thing...if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impractical for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interest.21
When Franklin proposed his plan of union before the Congress it had a 'Grand Council," a "Speaker," and called for a "general government... under which... each colony may retain its present constitution" all nomenclature and concept derived from the Confederacy.22 Franklin's writings indicate that as he became more deeply involved with the Iroquois and other Indian peoples, he picked up ideas from them concerning not only federalism, but concepts of natural rights, the nature of society and man's place in it, the role of property in society, and other intellectual constructs that would eventually be called into service by Franklin as he and the other American revolutionaries shaped an 23 official ideology for the soon to be founded United States of America.23

As the relationship between the colonies and Great Britain became more and more strained rebellion became a more realistic and viable alternative. In the eyes of the rebellious American Colonists, the Iroquois symbolized autonomy and a new American identity.24 The intervening years between the Albany Plan of Union, the Articles of Confederation and the final Declaration of Independence included events such as the protest of the Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, formation of the Sons of Liberty. Each of these events drew upon the symbolism and philosophy of the Iroquois. The Sons of Liberty during the Stamp Act Crisis sent wampum belts to the Iroquois asking them to intercept the British moving down the Hudson.25 The Boston Tea Party was carried out by Colonists dressed as Indians and the formation of the Sons of Liberty involved putting up a pine post called the Tree of Liberty, a direct transference of symbolism from the Iroquois symbol of Liberty.26

On June 11, 1776, while the question of independence was being debated, twenty-one visiting Iroquois chiefs were actually lodged on the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House and were formally invited into the meeting hall of the Continental Congress.27 During speeches delivered to the delegation of Native Americans they were addressed as "Brothers" and told of the delegates wish that the "friendship" between them would "continue as long as the sun shall." shine" and the "water run."28 The speech expressed hope that new Americans and Iroquois would act "as one people, and have but one heart."29 In a speech on July 26, 1776, James Wilson, delegate from Pennsylvania and future author of the first draft of the U.S. Constitution, argued forcefully for a confederation similar to the Iroquois League and asserted that "Indians know the striking benefits of confederation" and we "have an example of it in the Union of the Six Nations."30 In essence, Wilson, a friend of Franklin, believed that a strong confederacy like the Iroquois Confederacy was crucial to the development of a new nation and to maintaining a friendly relationship with the Indian populations.31

Thomas Jefferson has also documented his appraisal of the attributes of the Native American concepts of morality and governance. In his writings Jefferson states:

    Their only controls are their manners, and that moral sense of right and wrong, which, like the sense of tasting and feeling in every man, makes a part of his nature. An offense against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the case is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns. Imperfect as this species of coercion may seem, crimes are very rare among them; insomuch that were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage American, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last; and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves. It will be said, the great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones.32
Several areas of the Iroquois Constitution of the Five Nations which clearly have a parallel in the U.S. Constitution would be paragraph 84 dealing with the right of self-determination, paragraph 96, stipulating government by the people, "by the consent of the governed," Paragraph 98 stating definite provision for such consent of the governed and controls by those governed and as a last example; Paragraph 99 guaranteeing freedom of religion.33 Paragraph 33 stipulates the process by which a Chief shall be replaced upon dismissal or death. This systematic transmission of official rank was, in fact, the vital principle of the Iroquois Government.34

The decision-making process of the League resembles that of a two-house congress in one body, with the "older brothers" and "younger brother" each comprising a side of the house.35 The Onondagas filled something of an executive role, with a veto that could be overridden by the older and younger brothers in concert.36

By implication in five places within the U.S. Constitution the impact of the Iroquois Confederacy's continual urgings that the colonists should coordinate Indian negotiations and policies through a central authority were codified.37 This codification is included in Article 11, Section 10, which prohibits the States from entering into treaties; Article 11, Section 2, which also prohibits States from entering into treaties; Article 11, Section 2, Clause 2, which defines the treaty process- Article VI, Section 2, which defines a treaty as the supreme law of the land; and finally, Article 111, Section 2, which grants the federal courts over U.S. citizenry who violate treaties.38 These provisos were to find an impact on the Native American populations to present day and beyond.

Even in light of the preceding discussion of the documented influence by the Iroquois Confederacy on the Founding Fathers and the resultant inclusion of many of the basic concepts and premises of the Iroquois Law within the U.S. Constitution, there is still an apparent oversight of the this impact in a scholarly work as recently as 1994. David N. Mayor in his discussion of the influences on the thinking of Thomas Jefferson in relation to his intellectual contribution to the U. S. Constitution mentions only Locke, Scottish moral sense of philosophy, deistic natural religion and the economic theories developed by British and French antimercantilists.39 Not one mention or word of credit is given to the Native Americans who have so clearly been a major contributor in the formation of the American persona.

Donald A. Grinde comments that ignoring the processes whereby Euroamericans created a new culture out of the American experience impoverishes everyone and gives an appearance that scholars are seeking to stop the process of de-Europeanizing America.40 He specifically discusses Temple University anthropologist Dr. Elisabeth Tooker who contends that American Indian government figures "not at all in the standard histories of the Constitution, nor in the documents on which they rest."41 As a refutation of this premise Grinde goes on to quote many of the specifics of the writings generated by the founders some of which have been stated herein along with scholarly input with justification for their own viewpoint.

It is truly a revelation as a student of history to study the impact that Native America had in the development of the United States of America. The fact that the Native Americans preceded the settlement of the Europeans and were a part of the innate character of the New World must logically affect the development of the new settlers. It is the ultimate irony that by the initial assistance given to the entering immigrants by the Native American population that they were in fact aiding in the ultimate decimation of their people, and the diminishment of their land and their mythological based form of government.

reprinted from the Social Science Journal

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