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The societies colonial
Americans observed

This is reversing the natural order of things. A tractable
people may be governed in large bodies but, in proportion
as they depart from this character, the extent of their
government must be less. We see into what small divisions
the Indians are obliged to reduce their societies.

               -- Thomas Jefferson,
      disputing proposals
      to enlarge the size
      of states to be
      admitted to the Union.[1]

All along the Seaboard, Indian nations had formed confederacies by the time they encountered European immigrants, from the Seminoles in what is now Florida (Crevecouer called them "a federated republic")[2], to the Cherokees and Choctaws in the Carolinas, to the Iroquois and their allies, the Hurons in the Saint Lawrence Valley, and the Penacook federation of New England, among many others. Wallace found that "Ethnic confederacies were common among all the Indian tribes of the Northeast.
Village bands, and tribes speaking similar languages, holding similar customs, and sharing a tradition of similar origin usually combined into a loose union that at least minimized warfare among themselves. The Illinois Confederacy, the "Three Fires" of the Chippewa, Ottawa and Pottawatomi, the Wapenaki Confederacy, the Powhatan Confederacies, the tripartate Miami -- all the neighbors of the Iroquois -- were members of one confederation or another. [3]

By the late 18th century, as resentment against England's taxation flared into open rebellion along the Atlantic Seaboard, the colonists' formative ideology displayed widespread knowledge of native governmental systems. How did these native confederacies govern themselves? Each had its own variations on the common theme of democracy in councils, but most were remarkably similar in broad outline. Jefferson, Franklin, Adair, Le Jeune, and others -- from framers to farmers, the length of the coast into the Saint Lawrence Valley -- all saw governmental systems which shared many similarities. These systems had evolved to co-ordinate governance across geographic distances that seemed huge to European eyes at the time, and to permit maximum freedom to nations within confederations, and individuals within nations.

The colonists forming the United States laid before themselves much the same task in molding their own government, so it should not be surprising that early government in the United States, especially under the Articles of Confederation, greatly resembled native systems in many respects. This is (once again) not to say that the creators of the United States copied Indian societies -- if they had, we would have evolved precincts along family lines and had our senators and representatives nominated by women. It is to say that the native systems of governance were factored into a new ideological equation, along with European precedents.

The Iroquois' system was the best known to the colonists, in large part because of the Haudenosaunee's pivotal position in diplomacy not only between the English and French, but also among other native confederacies. Called the Iroquois by the French and the Five (later Six) Nations by the English, the Haudenosaunee controlled the only relatively level land pass between the English colonies on the Seaboard and the French settlements in the Saint Lawrence Valley, the later route of the Erie Canal. The Iroquois' diplomatic influence permeated the entire eastern half of North America. Cadwallader Colden, who, in the words of Robert Waite, was regarded as "the best-informed man in the New World on the affairs of the British-American colonies,"[4] provided the first systematic study of the Six Nations in 1727, and augmented it in 1747. Colden's History of the Five Nations Depending on the Province of New York in America was read by Franklin before he began his diplomatic career by representing Pennsylvania with the Iroquois and their allies. After drawing up his Albany Plan of Union in 1754, which in some respects greatly resembled the Iroquois Confederacy's governmental structure, Franklin made his first stop at Colden's estate.[5]

Colden held several colonial offices, including lieutenant governor of New York. He also carried on extensive research in various natural sciences. An anthropologist before the field had a name, Colden was also an adopted Mohawk.[6] Because of their skills at oratory, warfare and diplomacy, as well as the republican nature of their government, Colden compared the Iroquois to the Romans. "When Life and Liberty came in competition, indeed, I think our Indians have outdone the Romans in this particular. . . . The Five Nations consisted of men whose courage could not be shaken."[7]

Colden's belief that the Indians, particularly the Iroquois, provided the new Americans with a window on their own antiquity was not unique to him. It was shared as well by Franklin, Jefferson and Paine and, a century later, by the founders of modern feminism, as well as Marx, and Engels. Such a belief provided a crucial link between Indian societies and their own , as well as a counterpoint by which to judge society's contemporary ills for two centuries of revolutionaries and reformers. "We are fond of searching into remote Antiquity to know the manners of our earliest progenitors; if I be not mistaken, the Indians are living images of them," Colden wrote.[8]

Elaborating on his belief, Colden was reflecting an assumption he shared with many other writers about the New World and its peoples from Peter Martyr in the sixteenth century to Frederick Engels in the late nineteenth:

The present state of the Indian Nations exactly shows the most Ancient and Original Condition of almost every Nation; so, I believe that here we may with more certainty see the original form of all government, than in the most curious Speculations of the Learned; and that the Patriarchial and other Schemes in Politicks are no better than Hypotheses in Philosophy, and as prejudicial to real Knowledge. [9]

Describing the Iroquois' form of government extensively, Colden wrote that it "has continued so long that the Christians know nothing of the original of it."[10]

Each Nation is an Absolute Republick by its self, governed in all Publick affairs of War and Peace by the Sachems of Old Men, whose Authority and Power is gained by and consists wholly in the opinions of the rest of the Nation in their Wisdom and Integrity," Colden wrote. "They never execute their Resolutions by Compulsion or Force Upon any of their People. [11]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Five Nations have such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories. [12]

Figure 3
Figure 3. Peacemaker presents his vision. By John Kahionhes Fadden.

Although some twentieth century anthropologists maintain that the Iroquois League was not fully formed until Europeans made landfall in North America, the historical records those Europeans created contain no hint that the confederacy was in formation at that time. The consensus of writers who saw the Confederacy in its full flower in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries agree that it formed before colonization. The oral history of the Iroquois indicates a founding date at between 1000 and 1450 A.D.[13] Lewis Henry Morgan and Horatio E. Hale estimated the founding date toward the end of that spectrum. William N. Fenton makes his estimate of the founding of the Iroquois League even later. All of these are estimates, educated guesses. In the final analysis, what matters is that the League was firmly in place before the coming of the Europeans

The Confederacy was formed by the Huron prophet Deganawidah (called "the Peacemaker" in oral discourse), who enlisted the aid of Aiowantha (sometimes called Hiawatha) to spread his vision of a united Haudenosaunee confederacy (see figure 3). The oral history attributes the Peacemaker's stuttering to a double row of teeth. The Confederacy originally included the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. The sixth nation, the Tuscaroras, migrated into Iroquois country in the early eighteenth century.

Peace among the formerly antagonistic nations was procured and maintained through the Haudenosaunee's Great Law of Peace [Kaianerekowa], which was passed from generation to generation by use of wampum, a form of written communication that outlined a complex system of checks and balances between nations and sexes. A complete oral recitation of the Great Law can take several days; encapsulated versions of it have been translated into English for more than a hundred years, and provide one reason why the Iroquois are cited so often today in debates regarding the origins of United States fundamental law. While many other native confederacies existed along the borders of the British colonies, most of the specific provisions of their governments have been lost.

To understand the provisions of the Great Law, one must understand the symbols it uses to represent the confederacy. One was the traditional longhouse. The confederacy itself was likened to a longhouse, with the Mohawks guarding the "eastern door," the Senecas at the "western door," and the Onondagas tending the ceremonial council fire in the middle (see figure 4). The primary national symbol of the Haudenosaunee was the Great White Pine, which serves throughout the Great Law as a metaphor for the confederacy. Its branches shelter the people of the nations, and its roots spread to the four directions, inviting other peoples, irregardless of race or nationality, to take shelter under the tree (see figure 5). The Haudenosaunee recognized no bars to dual citizenship; in fact, many influential figures in the English colonies and early United States, such as Colden, were adopted into Iroquois nations.

Each of the five nations maintained its own council, whose sachems were nominated by the clan mothers of families holding hereditary rights to office titles. The Grand Council at Onondaga was drawn from the individual national councils. The Grand Council also could nominate sachems outside the hereditary structure, based on merit alone. These sachems, called "pine tree chiefs," were said to have sprung from the body of the people as the symbolic Great White Pine springs from the earth.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The Six Nations Confederacy was likened to a longhouse.By John Kahionhes Fadden.

Rights, duties and qualifications of sachems were explicitly outlined, and the women could remove (or impeach) a sachem who was found guilty of any of a number of abuses of office, from missing meetings, to murder. An erring chief was summoned to face charges by the war chiefs, who acted in peacetime as the peoples' eyes and ears in the council, somewhat as the role of the press was envisaged by Jefferson and other founders of the United States. A sachem was given three warnings, then removed from the council if he did not mend his ways. A sachem guilty of murder lost not only his title, but also deprived his entire family of its right to representation. The women relatives holding the rights to the office were "buried," and the title transferred to a sister family.

The Great Law stipulated that sachems' skins must be seven spans thick to withstand the criticism of their constituents. The law pointed out that sachems should take pains not to become angry when people scrutinized their conduct in governmental affairs. Such a point of view pervades the writings of Jefferson and Franklin, although it was not fully codified into United States law until the Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) made it virtually impossible for public officials to sue successfully for libel. Sachems were not allowed to name their own successors. Nor could they carry their titles to the grave. The Great Law provided a ceremony to remove the title from a dying chief. The Great Law also provided for the removal from office of sachems who could no longer adequately function in office, a measure remarkably similar to a constitutional amendment adopted in the United States during the late 20th century providing for the removal of an incapacitated president.

The Great Law also included provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion and the right of redress before the Grand Council. It also forbade unauthorized entry of homes -- all measures which sound familiar to United States citizens through the Bill of Rights.[14]

The Iroquois Confederacy is fundamentally a kinship state. The Iroquois are bound together by a clan and chieftain system that is buttressed by a similar linguistic base. However, the League of the Iroquois is much more than just a kinship state. Through the "hearth" that consisted of a mother and her children, women played a profound role in Iroquois political life. Each "hearth" was part of a wider group called an otiianer, and two or more otiianers constituted a clan. The word otiianer refers to the female heirs to the cheiftainship titles of the League, the fifty authorized names for the chiefs of the Iroquois, passed through the female side of the otiianer. The otiianer women selected one of the males within their group to fill a vacated seat in the League.

Such a matrilineal system was headed by a "clan mother." All the sons and daughters of a particular clan were related through uterine families that lived far apart. In this system, a husband went to live with his wife's family, and their children became members of the mother's clan by right of birth.[15] Through matrilineal descent, the Iroquois formed cohesive political groups that had little to do with where people lived or from what village the hearths originated.

The oldest daughter of the head of a clan sometimes succeeded her mother at her death upon the judgement of the clan. All authority sprang from the people of the various clans that made up a nation. The women who headed these clans appointed the male delegates and deputies who spoke for the clans at tribal meetings. After consultation within the clan, issues and questions were formulated and subsequently debated in council.[16]

Figure 5
Figure 5. The Tree of Peace.By John Kahionhes Fadden.

Iroquois political philosophy was rooted in the concept that all life is unified spiritually with the natural environment and other forces surrounding people. The Iroquois believed that the spiritual power of one person is limited, but when combined with other individuals in a hearth, otiianer, or clan, spiritual power is enhanced. Whenever a person died either by natural causes or force, through murder or war, the "public" power was diminished. To maintain the strength of the group, the dead were replaced either by natural increase or by adopting captives of war.[17] This practice of keeping clans at full strength through natural increase or adoption insured the power and durability of the matrilineal system as well as the kinship state.

Childrearing was an important way to instill political philosophy in the youth of the Iroquois. The ideal Iroquois personality was a person that had loyalty to the group but was independent and autonomous. Iroquois people were trained to enter a society that was equalitarian with power more equally distributed between male and female, young and old than in Euroamerican society. European society emphasized dominance and command structures while Iroquois society was interested in collaborative behavior.

Since Iroquois society prized competence as a protector/provider more than material wealth, Iroquois children were trained to think for themselves and yet provide for others. The Iroquois did not respect people that cowed to authority and were submissive. Iroquois culture could be loosely called a "shame culture" because the emphasis was on honor and duty while European culture was more "guilt" oriented since the emphasis was on an authoritarian hierarchy and advancement through the acquisition of property, status, and material possessions.[18]

With this approach to authority, Iroquois society had none of the elaborate mechanisms to control and direct the lives of the citizenry. Instead of formal instruments of authority, the Iroquois governed behavior by instilling a sense of pride and connectedness to the group through common rituals. Ostracism and shame were the punishments for transgressions until a person had atoned for their actions and demonstrated that they had undergone a purification process.[19]

To sanctify and buttress their society, the Great Law of Peace outlined the ways the tribal councils could function within the Iroquois nations. The origins of the League of the Iroquois arise out of the desire to resolve the problem of the blood feud. Before the founding of the League, blood revenge caused strife. Once clans were reduced by murder or kidnapping, relatives were bound by clan law to avenge the death/abduction of their relative. This resulted in endless recriminations among clans. As long as justice and the monopoly on violence resided in the clans, there was no hope of peace and goodwill.

Visionaries among the Iroquois such as Hiawatha, who was living among the Onondagas, tried to call councils to eliminate the blood feud but they were always thwarted by the evil and twisted wizard, Tadodaho, an Onondaga who used magic and spies to rule by fear and intimidation. Failing to defeat the wizard, Hiawatha traveled to Mohawk, Oneida, and Cayuga villages with his message of peace and brotherhood. Everywhere he went, his message was accepted with the proviso that he persuade the formidable Tadodaho and the Onondagas to embrace the covenant of peace.

Just as Hiawatha was despairing, the prophet Deganawidah entered his life and changed the nature of things among the Iroquois. Together, Hiawatha and Deganawidah developed a powerful message of peace. Deganawidah's vision gave Hiawatha's oratory substance.[20] Through Deganawidah's vision, the Constitution of the Iroquois was formulated.

In his vision, Deganawidah saw a giant evergreen (White Pine), reaching to the sky and gaining strength from three counter-balancing principles of life. The first axiom was that a stable mind and healthy body should be in balance so that peace between individuals and groups could occur. Secondly, Deganawidah stated that humane conduct, thought and speech were a requirement for equity and justice among peoples. Finally, he foresaw a society in which physical strength and civil authority would reinforce the power of the clan system.

Deganawidah's tree had four white roots which stretched to the four directions of the earth. From the base of the tree a snow-white carpet of thistle down would cover the surrounding countryside. The white carpet protected the peoples that embraced the three double principles. On top of the giant pine, an eagle was perched. Deganawidah explained that the tree was humanity, living within the principles governing relations among human beings. The eagle was humanity's lookout against enemies who would disturb the peace. Deganawidah postulated that the white carpet could be spread to the four corners of the earth to provide a shelter of peace and brotherhood for all mankind. Deganawidah's vision was a message from the creator to bring harmony into human existence and unite all peoples into a single family guided by his three dual principles.[21]

With such a powerful vision, Deganawidah and Hiawatha were able to subdue the evil Tadodaho and transform his mind. Deganawidah removed evil feelings and thoughts from the head of Tadodaho and said "thou shalt strive . . . to make reason and the peaceful mind prevail."[22] The evil wizard became reborn into a humane person charged with implementing the message of Deganawidah. After Tadodaho had submitted to the redemption, Onondaga became the central fire of the Haudenosaunee and the Onondagas became the "firekeepers" of the new Confederacy. To this day, the Great Council Fire of the Confederacy is kept in the land of the Onondagas.[23]

After Tadodaho's conversion, the clan leaders of the Five Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) were gathered around the council fire at Onondaga to hear the laws and government of the Confederacy. The fundamental laws of the Iroquois Confederacy espoused peace and brotherhood, unity, balance of power, natural rights of all people, impeachment and removal and sharing of resources. Moreover, the blood feud was outlawed and replaced by a Condolence ceremony. Under the new law when a person killed someone, the grieving family could forego the option of exacting clan revenge (the taking of the life of the murderer or a member of the murderer's clan). Instead, the bereaved family could accept twenty strings of wampum (freshwater shells strung together) from the slayer's family (ten for the dead person and ten for the life of the murderer himself). If a woman was killed, the price was thirty wampum strings.[24] Through this ceremony, the monopoly on legally sanctioned violence was enlarged from the clan to the League.

Deganawidah gave strict instructions governing the conduct of the League and its deliberations. Tadodaho was to maintain the fire and call the Onondaga chiefs together to determine if an issue brought to him was pressing enough to call to the attention of the Council of the Confederacy. If the proposed issue merited Council consideration, the Council would assemble and Tadodaho would kindle a fire and announce the purpose of the meeting. The rising smoke penetrating the sky is a signal to the Iroquois allies that the Council is in session. The Onondaga chiefs and Tadodaho are charged with keeping the council area free from distractions.

The procedure for debating policies of the Confederacy begins with the Mohawks and Senecas (the Mohawks, Senecas and Onondagas are called the elder brothers). After being debated by the Keepers of the Eastern Door (Mohawks) and the Keepers of the Western Door (Senecas), the question is then thrown across the fire to the Oneida and Cayuga statesmen (the younger brothers) for discussion in much the same manner. Once consensus is achieved among the Oneidas and the Cayugas, the discussion is then given back to the Senecas and Mohawks for confirmation. Next, the question is laid before the Onondagas for their decision.

At this stage, the Onondagas have a power similar to judicial review: they can raise objections to the proposed measure if it is believed inconsistent with the Great Law. Essentially, the legislature can rewrite the proposed law on the spot so that it can be in accord with the Constitution of the Iroquois. When the Onondagas reach consensus, Tadodaho gives the decision to Honowireton (an Onondaga chief who presides over debates between the delegations) to confirm the decision if it is unanimously agreed upon by all of the Onondaga sachems. Finally, Honowireton or Tadodaho gives the decision of the Onondagas to the Mohawks and the Senecas so that the policy may be announced to the Grand Council as its will.[25]

This process reflects the emphasis of the League on checks and balances, public debate and consensus. The overall intent of such a parliamentary procedure is to encourage unity at each step. This legislative process is similar to the mechanisms of the Albany Plan of Union, the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution.

The rights of the Iroquois citizenry are protected by portions of the Great Law. Section 93 states that:

Whenever an especially important matter . . . is presented before the League Council . . . threatening their utter ruin, then the chiefs of the League must submit the matter to the decision of their people . . . [26]

The people of the League also can initiate impeachment proceedings, treason charges and alert the Council to public opinion on a specific matter. The Iroquois people also have the power to remove sachems of the League's Council.[27]

Upon the death or removal of a Confederacy chief, the title of the chief reverts to the women in his clan. The women protect this title and determine who will assume the position of chief. As in the power of removal, the women have the first priority in the installation of a new chief. The esteemed women of a clan gather when a title is vacant and nominate a male member to be chief. Next, the men of the clan give their approval. After this process, the nomination is then forwarded to the Council of the League where the new chief is installed.[28]

Public opinion is of great importance within the League of the Iroquois. Iroquois people can have a direct say in the formulation of government policy even if the sachems choose to ignore the will of the people. The Great Law of Peace provides in section 16 that the people can propose their own laws even when leaders fail to do so. Section 16 states:

If the conditions . . . arise . . . to . . . change . . . this law, the case shall be . . . considered and if the new beam seems . . . beneficial, the . . . change . . . if adopted, shall be called, "Added to the Rafters." [29]

This provision resembles provisions for popular initiative in several states of the United States, as well as the mechanism by which the federal and many state constitutions may be amended.

If the Council would not act on the will of the people sachems faced removal under other provisions. Through public opinion and debate, the Great Law gave the Iroquois people basic rights within a distinctive and representative governmental framework. The Great Law solved disputes by giving all parties an equal hearing. The Grand Council often functioned like a think tank. Above all, thinking was the activity that went on underneath the Great Tree. For the Iroquois, the more thinkers that were beneath the tree the better. This process is in marked contrast to European hierarchical political and educational traditions.

The League of the Iroquois was a family-oriented government that had a Constitution with a fixed corpus of laws that was concerned with mutual defense. Through the elimination of the clan blood feud, the state was given a monopoly on legally sanctioned violence. This process brought peace through a fundamental social contract.[30] But the Iroquois were not inclined to give much power to authorities because of the basic psychological attitudes instilled in Iroquois people. Thus, unity, peace and brotherhood were balanced off against the natural rights of all people and the necessity of sharing resources equitably. Unity for mutual defense was an abiding concept within the League. Iroquois imagery of unity was a bundle of five arrows tied together to symbolize the complete union of the nations and the unbroken strength that such a unity portrays (Section 57 of the Great Law of the Iroquois). With the strength of many comes peace for future generations.[31]

The Iroquois also had built-in checks and balances through the processes of consensus, removal and public opinion. The notion of federalism was strictly adhered to by the Iroquois. The hereditary (hereditary is used here in the Iroquois sense because the clan mothers "inherited the right" to appoint and remove Peace Chiefs to the Confederacy) Iroquois Sachems were interested only in external matters such as war, peace and treatymaking. The Grand Council could not interfere with the internal affairs of the tribe. Each tribe had its own sachems, but they were limited in that they could only deal with their tribe's relations with other tribes and had no say in matters that were traditionally the concern of the clan.[32]

Certainly, the imagery and concepts of the League had a powerful influence on the hearts and minds of the founders and the American people. Likewise, the Iroquois leaders took an active interest in teaching colonial leaders about the tenets of the Iroquois Constitution.[33]

The Iroquois League accorded prestige to the peace chiefs and thus sought to reduce conflict between war and peace chiefs and the generations. The middle-aged Peace Chiefs were the firekeepers, encircled by warrior/providers, women and, finally, the public-at-large. Although the tribes had unequal representation, this was irrelevant since each tribe voted as one. At the level of village, tribe and Grand Council, consensus devices were used to obtain unanimity and to report up and down the governmental structure. The League was not able to centralize power in matters other than mutual defense, but it was effective in diminishing friction amongst the Five Nations. The kinship state with its imagery of a longhouse spread afar was clearly comprehended by the Iroquois people.[34] Iroquois power rested upon the consent of the governed and was not coercive in areas of military service, taxation, and police powers. To the colonial Americans chafing under British authority, such a government and attitude towards freedom was a powerful ideal that could be used in resisting British sovereignty and tyranny.

The system of the Hurons was remarkably similar to that of their neighbors, the Iroquois. According to Bruce J. Trigger's Children of the Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People,[35] the Hurons' polity, like the Iroquois, was rooted in family structure. Leaders of the various clans used public opinion and consensus to shape decisions. Issues "were usually decided upon by majority vote . . . [and] discussed until a general consensus was reached." No human being would be expected to be bound by a decision to which he had not given his conscious consent.[36]

As with the Iroquois, the clans -- Porcupine, Snake, Deer, Beaver, Hawk, Turtle, Bear and Wolf -- created familial affinity across the boundaries of the four confederated Huron nations. Members of each clan could trace their ancestry to a common origin through the female line. In each village, clan members elected a civil chief and a war chief. The titles were carried through the female family line, but bestowed on men, again resembling the Iroquois. While the titles were hereditary in that sense, they did not pass from head to head of a particular family as in most European monarchies. When time came to choose a leader, members of each clan segment in a particular village had a choice of several candidates, among whom, according to Trigger, personal qualities counted most heavily: "intelligence, oratorical ability, reputation for generosity and, above all, performance as a warrior."[37]

If a village included more than one clan segment (most did, but not all), the elected leaders of each segment formed a village council. The council resolved issues through debate, leading to consensus, on purely local issues. Each of the four tribes, including several villages, held councils which included all the village civil and war chiefs. The four nations, the Attignawantan, Arendarhonon, Attigneenongahac and Tahontaeanrat, also held a central council, which, according to Trigger, probably consisted of all the village chiefs, representing all the clans. Compared to the Iroquois Grand Council, we know very little about how this council operated once it met. It is likely that the Huron Confederacy was looser than the Iroquois, since the central council met only once a year, usually for several weeks in the spring, although emergency meetings could be called at any time. The meeting of the central council was meant to bind the four nations, and served as much as a social occasion as a legislative session. Its proceedings were embellished with feasts to install new village headmen, reacquaintances between old friends, singing, dancing, and war feasts. The central council dealt with issues that affected all four nations in common, such as treaty negotiations, and trade with Europeans.

When the central council met the Attignawantan, by far the largest of the four nations, sat on one side of a ceremonial longhouse, with the representatives of the other three nations opposite them, across the council fire. The speaker, always an Attignawantan, presided over speeches of welcome and thanksgiving, followed by recitation of the agenda.

As each item of the agenda was taken up, representatives stated their opinions in turn, without interruption. Speaking in council called for a special oratorical style, according to Trigger, "full of metaphors, circumlocations, and other rhetorical devices that were uncommon in everyday speech."[38] Members of the council were expected to retain their composure even during severe disagreement, guiding the debate toward eventual consensus on which all could vote in favor. We do not know whether the nations on each side of the council fire debated among each other before deliberating as a whole (as the Iroquois did), nor do we have the detail of procedure regarding qualities for sachems or grounds for impeachment. Such provisions probably existed, but have been lost to history.

The Cherokees took public opinion so seriously that they usually split their villages when they became too large to permit each adult a voice in council. In the early eighteenth century, the Cherokee nation comprised sixty villages in five regions, with each village controlling its own affairs. Villages sent delegates to a national council only in times of national emergency. The villages averaged 300 to 400 persons each; At about 500 people, a village usually split in two. It may have been this political organization that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he penned the following comment regarding a proposal to make the states several times larger than the original colonies:

This is reversing the natural order of things. A tractable people may be governed in large bodies but, in proportion as they depart from this character, the extent of their government must be less. We see into what small divisions the Indians are obliged to reduce their societies. [39]

In Cherokee society, each adult was regarded as an equal in matters of politics. Leadership titles were few and informal, so when Europeans sought "kings," or "chiefs" with whom to negotiate treaties, they usually did not understand that whomever they were speaking with could not compel allegiance or obedience of others. The Cherokees made a conscious effort to keep government to a minimum, in the belief that personal freedom would be enhanced.[40]

As with many other confederacies, a clan system among the Cherokees bound the individual villages together. A man or woman outside his or her own village knew that members of the same clan would await them in other villages to provide hospitality and other support. The clan system cemented the confederacy, giving it a strength and enduring quality that prevented a high degree of local autonomy from degenerating into anarchy. In village councils, each clan caucussed before decisions were reached by consensus in a general session. In the new United States, a similar function was provided not by family ties, but by a large number of voluntary organizations that were national in scope, the kind of affiliations which Benjamin Franklin encouraged, in order to tie together people in a geographical area that seemed vast to immigrants, and their sons and daughters, accustomed, as they were, to the smaller scale of Western Europe.

George Milliken Johnson, a surgeon who lived with the Cherokees during the middle of the eighteenth century, observed that "Subjugation is what they are unacquainted with . . . there being no such thing as coercive Power among them."[41] Another observer of the Cherokees commented at about the same time: "It is by native politeness alone . . . that the chiefs bind the hearts of their subjects, and carry them wherever they will."[42]

Some of the similarities between the political systems of the Cherokees, Iroquois and Hurons probably were not accidental, since all three groups were linked by common ancestry. Floyd G. Loundsbury, a linguist, traced the Iroquois and Cherokee linguistic base to a shared language that split between 3,500 and 3,800 years ago.[43] It is believed that the Cherokees migrated southeastward from the Ohio valley, where they had shared the basics of their language with both the Iroquois and the Hurons, with some movement taking place as late as 1700.[44] About that time, the Tuscaroras moved from an area near Cherokee country to become the sixth nation of the Iroquois.

Like the Iroquois, the Cherokees frowned on acquisition of material wealth. Henry Timberlake speculated that the Cherokees buried valuables with the dead to prevent development of a class structure based on inherited wealth, to make "merit the sole means of acquiring power, honour and riches."[45] One cannot help but wonder how the native example helped shape the debate ongoing in the colonies and early United States about the same time over primogeniture -- the right of the first-born son to all or most of his father's estate, a European custom which Jefferson bitterly opposed.

According to Timberlake's account, the Cherokees also maintained a ceremony meant to provide for the poor. During a special war dance, each warrior was called on to recount the taking of his first scalp. During the ceremony, anyone with something to spare, "a string of wampum, piece of [silver] plate, wire, paint, lead" heaped the goods on a blanket or animal skin that had been placed on the ground. Afterwards, the collection was divided among the poor of the community, with a share reserved for the musicians who had provided entertainment during the ceremony.[46]

The Choctaws, like the Cherokees, elected leaders from each town or village, and sent them to a central council, a system that has been characterized as "amazingly efficient," combining "elected officials, unlimited debate, civilian rule, and local self-government."[47]

The similarities in the ways colonial observers described native societies may have owed something to what they sought from them, whether or not the native polities actually operated similarly. As noted above, the observers' perceptions of these societies often was incomplete, and profoundly shaped by an image of liberty they sought for themselves. Thus, native political reality was likely much more varied, and differences more pronounced, than many contemporary observers believed. It was their beliefs that shaped the reality they knew, however, so knowledge deemed incomplete or inaccurate by present-day lights does not mean those who drew an image of liberty from native societies got nothing from them. Quite the opposite was true.

The American Indian was so tightly intertwined with images of liberty in the colonists' minds that both the Puritan and Jamestown colonists passed statutes against "Indianizing." "Such is the influence of this Wildernes on inhabitants who were born here that it inclines them to and Indian way of life," Daniel Leeds wrote in his Almanack for 1700.[48] In 1642, the Connecticut General Court set a penalty of three years in the workhouse for any colonist caught "forsaking godly society." The rationale for the law was that "divers persons depart from amongst us, and take up their abode with the Indians in a profane course of life."[49] As early as 1612, the Jamestown colony prescribed the death penalty for "any man or woman [who] shall runne away from the Colonie, to Powhathan, or any Weroance else whatsoever."[50]

Thomas Morton, the nettlesome hedonist who so antagonized the Puritan authorities of the soul from his trading post at Merry Mount, left no doubt whose company he preferred: "The one Christian, the other Infidels, these [Indians] I found most full of humanity and more friendly than the other."[51] We do not know whether Morton had read Montaigne. We do know his trading post was a transcultural nexus, where Morton found that the native people:

According to humane reason onely guided by the light of nature, these people leads the the more happy and freer life, being voyde of care, which torments the minds of so many Christians. [52]

Morton's characterization of American Indian societies sounds much like that of Montaigne, or Rousseau, or the first-hand accounts of many another traveler opening his eyes to America for the first time. Morton had found his Canaan (calling Europe "Sodom"), his real-life example of "Plato's Commonwealth [which is] so much practiced by these people."[53]

Such was the appeal of native societies, and the images Europeans in America developed about them. They were ideas that turned the heads of those sent into the wilderness to convert the "heathens." Views and visions of America also profoundly shaped debate, and the course of empire, in Europe as well. Knowledge of Native political structures became ever more crucial to conduct trade and diplomacy in North America.


  1. Thomas Jefferson, quoted in Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: The Modern Library, 1944), p.408.

  2. St. Jean de Crevecoeur, Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York [1801, in French] (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964), p. 461.

  3. Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Vintage, 1972), p. 42.

  4. Cadwallader Colden, The History of the Five Nations of Canada [1765], (New York: Amsterdam Book Co., 1902), 2, p. v.

  5. The evolution of the Albany Plan of Union and Franklin's borrowings from the Iroquois during its development are described in detail in Bruce E. Johansen, Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois, and the Rationale for the American Revolution (Ipswich, Mass.: Gambit, 1982), pp. 56-76.

  6. Colden, Five Nations, p. vi. The importance of the Iroquois among other Native nations is (like many of other historical themes) a matter of debate. For an interpretation that disagrees with ours see Daniel K. Richter and James Merrell, eds., Beyond the Covenant Chain (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987). For an additional discussion of the ways in which we part company in this debate see footnote 29, below.

  7. Cadwallader Colden, History of the Five Indian Nations Depending on the Province of New York in America [1727 & 1747] (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968), p. vi.

  8. Ibid., p. 49.

  9. Ibid., p. xx.

  10. Ibid., p. xvii.

  11. Ibid., p. xx.

  12. Ibid., pp. xvii-xix.

  13. See Helen A. Howard, "Hiawatha: Cofounder of an Indian United Nations," Journal of the West, X, 3 (1971), p. 428.; Arthur C. Parker, Parker on the Iroquois, [Ed. by William N. Fenton], (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968), p. 428; Paul A.W. Wallace, The White Roots of Peace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946), p. 3.

  14. English language copies of the Great Law of Peace are available through Akwesasne Notes, the journal of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, Rooseveltown, New York. Arthur C. Parker's version of the Great Law, published in the New York State Museum Bulletin, April 1, 1916, is available in Donald A. Grinde, Jr., The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1977), pp. 147-167. For references to "pine tree chiefs," sachems and rights and duties of women, see sections 20-40 in Great Law of Peace of the Longhouse People (Rooseveltown, New York: White Roots of Peace, 1971).

  15. "Abram Charles, Law of the Woman Chief, May 21, 1923," Bureau of American Ethnology Mss #1636, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Hazel W. Hertzberg, The Great Tree and the Longhouse: The Culture of the Iroquois (New York: Macmillan, 1966), pp. 55-60. Lewis Henry Morgan, Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), ed., and intro., Paul Bohannon, and William N. Fenton, "The Iroquois in History," in North American Indians in Historical Perspective, eds., Eleanor B. Leacock and Nancy O. Lurie (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 138-139.

  16. See William N. Fenton, "Seth Newhouse's Traditional History and Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 93, 2, pp. 141- 158. See also Henry R. Schoolcraft, Notes on the Iroquois (New York: AMS Press, 1975), p. 80. It may be contended, in opposition to our case, that at the time the Great Law was committed to writing it was shaped to conform to existing United States fundamental law. Since we argue that intellectual influence flows both ways, we could hardly contend that such a thing never took place. Oral tradition and copious references in the historical record (reaching to long before the development of the United States Constitution) support an assertion that the written Great Law is not simply a pale imitation of the United States Constitution.

  17. John Mohawk, "Origins of Iroquois Political Thought," Northeast Indian Quarterly, III, 1. See also William Canfield, The Legends of the Iroquois: Told by "The Cornplanter," (New York: A. Wessels Company, 1902), passim, and Frank H. Severance, ed., Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society Publications, 1903), VI, pp. 415-416.

  18. Wallace, Rebirth of the Seneca , pp. 34-38.

  19. Ibid, and James Dean, "Mythology of the Iroquois," Mss #4961, NAA, Smithsonian Institution.

  20. See Paul A. W. Wallace, The White Roots of Peace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946), pp. 4-7.

  21. See Tehanetorens, Wampum Belts (Onchiota, New York: Six Nations Museum, n.d.) pp. 6-7, and White Roots of Peace, The Great Law of Peace of the Longhouse People (Rooseveltown, New York: White Roots of Peace, 1971).

  22. Wallace, White Roots, p. 29.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Wilbur R. Jacobs, "Wampum, the Protocol of Indian Diplomacy," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, IV, pp. 596-604, Hertzberg, Tree, pp. 104-105, Arthur C. Parker, The Constitution of the Five Nations (Albany: State Museum, 1916), and Rev. Joseph F. Lafitau, S. J., Moeurs de sauvages americains, comparees aux premiere temps (Paris: Saugrain l'aine, 1724), I, pp. 466-467.

  25. White Roots, Great Law, Sections 1-12.

  26. Ibid., Section 93, and Cadwallader Colden, History of the Five Indian Nations (New York: New Amsterdam Book Company, 1902), I, xvii-xix.

  27. White Roots, Great Law, Section 16. While the British did not have direct referendum, records indicate occasional impeachment -- removal of a political figure by his or her peers -- as early as the 14th century. In 1621, Francis Bacon, then Lord High Chancellor to the King as well as a noted scientist, was impeached. In the Act of Settlement (1701), the king's right to overturn impeachments via pardon was eliminated. From personal correspondence, Dr. Leslie Goldstein, professor of political science, University of Delaware, to Johansen, October 27, 1988.

  28. Ibid., Section 47.

  29. Ibid., Section 16. During the debates on the ratification of the Constitution, newspaper editorials used the "rafters" analogy and styled James Wilson as the architect. Wilson was said to state that "the intention was to make a firm and substantial roof by uniting the strength of the thirteen rafters." See Charleston Columbian Herald, April 24 & 28, 1788.

  30. In discussing the origins of the Iroquois League, too much is made of external pressures that possibly necessitated the development of the League. In the "upstreaming" method, there is an emphasis on studying the rhetoric and diplomacy of the League as the Europeans gained more knowledge of it. Scholars such as William N. Fenton and others forget that the origin of the League lies in the abolition of the blood feud. This assumption about the external necessities for the origin of the league demonstrates clearly the limitations of "upstreaming" because it eventually crowds out the explanation of the origin of the League as told by the Iroquois people themselves and shifts the focus to external, i.e. Non-Indian factors. "Upstreaming" is also overly dependent on non-Indian sources. Operating within a logical positivist tradition, "upstreaming" studies surviving the aspects of native cultures often gleaned since the academic birth of anthropology in the mid-and-late nineteenth century. In this process, the researcher then telescopes these limitations back into earlier history, despite documentary evidence. A post-modernist approach looks to documents left behind by primary participants in the events we describe, piecing them together -- as in the examples from British, French, Dutch, and Swedish accounts cited in this chapter, building a mosaic that perceptually reinforces itself. If observers of so many ethnicities utilized basically the same images, does not a pattern develop? The logical positivist tradition in which Fenton and other mainstream anthropologists operate limits their understanding of events recorded before the formal birth of anthropology. Thus, Fenton can call the roll call of the chiefs (as recorded on the Condolence Cane of the Iroquois) the key to the confederacy, but he can ignore the significance (to cite one of many hundred examples) of Lafitau's description of the "stick of enlistment" (as he called the Condolence Cane) in Moeurs des sauvages americains, II, pp. 186-87).

    When discourse turns to the Iroquois' role in shaping Western thought, the fact that descriptions of and debates over their political system pervaded the colonial, revolutionary and Constitutional periods of American history often seems to fall silently on such ears. Thus, structural anthropologists often stare evidence of native influence on the development of Western thought straight in the face without realizing what they are observing. (See the following works by William N. Fenton, "Problems Arising from the Historic Northeastern Position of the Iroquois," in Essays in Historical Anthropology of North America, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, No. 100 (Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1940), "Collecting Materials for a Political History of the Six Nations," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 93, 3, pp. 233-238, "The Roll Call of the Iroquois Chiefs: A Study of a Mnemonic Cane From the Six Nations Reserve," Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, No, 111., "The Iroquois in the Twentieth Century: A Case Study of the Theory of Lewis Henry Morgan in "Ancient Society," Ethnohistory, Vol. 4, 3, Parker on the Iroquois (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968), "The Iroquois in History," in Eleanor B. Leacock and Nancy O. Lurie, eds., North American Indians in Historical Perspective (New York: Random House, 1971), and "The Lore of the Longhouse: Myth, Ritual and Red Power," Anthropological Quarterly, Vol 48, 3. for examples of this approach.). It is plain from the above discussion that the League was formed initially to resolve the internecine blood feud and thus was precipitated by internal and not external forces. In gaining unity that extend beyond the clan and a respective nation, the Iroquois then proceeded to discover the power that such a social contract could give them to defend themselves. For a good legal study of the evolution of tribal structures that transcended the clan blood feud and granted the monopoly of violence to the state, see John Phillip. Reid, A Law of Blood (New York: New York University Press, 1970).

    Unfortunately, many historians and ethnohistorians only dimly perceive the legal importance of overcoming the internecine war of the clan blood feud. Daniel K. Richter, "Ordeals of the Longhouse: The Five Nations in Early American History," in Daniel K. Richter and James H,. Merrell, eds., Beyond the Covenant Chain (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987) goes even further than Fenton and Morgan in denying the political viability of the Iroquois confederacy before the American Revolution. Richter believes that "The Grand Council was not designed to make policy decisions or to provide a central government for the villages of the Five Nations" (p. 18). Richter believes that the 19th and 20th Century accounts of the Iroquois League are much different than the 17th and 18th Century accounts and thus he infers that the Iroquois Confederacy changes a great deal over time. Actually, Richter misreads Morgan's statements on the Iroquois League when he assumes that Morgan believed the Iroquois League to be all powerful. In fact as Elizabeth Tooker points out in "The United States Constitution and the Iroquois League," Ethnohistory , 35, No. 4 (Fall, 1988), p. 317, Morgan realized that the Iroquois ability to govern rested on unanimity "to accomplish its aims as the Iroquois . . . saw them." While Richter rejects this free form government as practically no government at all, this concept is precisely what attracted many of the founders to the Great Law as an alternative to coercive European states. Richter makes no allowances in his sources for an European autocratic perception of the Iroquois League before the American Revolution and the possibility of a growing Euroamerican awareness of the "republican" nature of the Iroquois confederacy.

  31. "Abram Charles, Law of the Woman Chief," BAE, Mss #1636, NAA, Smithsonian Institution, George B. Goode, ed., The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896 (Washington: GPO, 1897), p. 390.

  32. "Interview with Oren Lyons," Akwesasne Notes, III, 7, p. 6; Felix Cohen, "Americanizing the White Man," The American Scholar, XXI, 2, pp. 179-180; Bruce Burton, "Iroquois Confederate Law and the Origins of the U.S. Constitution," Northeast Indian Quarterly, III, 3, pp. 4-9.

  33. Dr. William M. Newell (Mohawk), Akwesasne Notes, III, 4, pp. 22-23, and Edward S. Corwin, "Franklin and the Constitution," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, C, 4, pp. 283-288.

  34. Fenton, "Iroquois in History," p. 139.

  35. Bruce G. Trigger, Children of the Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1976), I, pp. 54-58; 102-103.

  36. Ibid., I, p. 54.

  37. Ibid, I, p. 55.

  38. Ibid., I, p. 59.

  39. Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: The Modern Library, 1944), p. 408.

  40. John Phillip Reid, A Better Kind of Hatchet: Law, Trade and Diplomacy in the Cherokee Nation During the Early Years of European Contact (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), pp. 4-5. See also: Reid, A Law of the Blood: the Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation (New York: New York University Press, 1970).

  41. Cited in Fred Gearing, Priests and Warriors: Social Structures for Cherokee Politics in the Eighteenth Century, Memoir 93, American Anthropological Association, Vol. 64., No. 5, Part 2, October, 1962.

  42. John Howard Payne, Payne Buttrick Papers, Ayer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, IV, p. 66.

  43. William N. Fenton, et. al., eds., Symposium on Cherokee and Iroquois Culture, Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 180, 1961, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1961), p. 11.

  44. Cyrus Thomas, The Cherokees in Pre-Columbian Times (New York: N.D.C. Hodges, 1890).

  45. David H. Corkran, The Cherokee Frontier: Conflict and Survival, 1740-62 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), p. 91. A case has been made that Cherokee society was marked by a growing economic inequity, an assertion that does not necessarily negate the fact that Euroamerican observers drew on the same societies for images of liberty. For a discussion of the idea that Cherokee society was evolving along these lines, see Theda Perdue, Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979).

  46. Ibid.

  47. Jesse O. McKee and Jon A. Schlenker, The Choctaws: Cultural Evolution of a Native American Tribe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1980), p. 17.

  48. Daniel Leeds, An Almanack for . . . 1700, New York, 1700, p. 11, in Proc. of the American Antiquarian Society, Vol. 90, Part 1, April, 1980, p. 90.

  49. J. Hammon Trumbull, The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut (Hartford: Brown & Parson, 1850-1890), 1, p. 78.

  50. "For the Colony of Virginia Britannia, Laws Divine, Lorall & Martiall &c., Paragraph 29," cited in Peter Force, ed., Tracts and Other Papers relating . . . to the origin . . . of the colonies in North America (New York: Peter Force, 1836-1846), Volume 3, n.p.

  51. Cited in Lucy Lockwood Hazard, The Frontier in American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931), p. 7.

  52. Thomas Morton, New England Canaan (Amsterdam: J.F. Stam, 1637), p. 40.

  53. Donald F. Conners, Thomas Morton (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969), p. 172.

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