Native American Political Systems
and the Evolution of Democracy:
An Annotated Bibliography
Bruce E. Johansen
Professor of Communication and
Native American Studies
University of Nebraska at Omaha
1990Books, Scholarly, and Specialty Journals
Clifton, James. The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1990.
American Indians had no environmental ethic, had few notions of political equality, and had nothing to do with the development of democracy. Meet the "Indian" as invented by James Clifton, who labels even James Axtell as an Indiansymp (p. 41). On pages 25 and 26, Clifton begins this book of essays by various authors by whining that Indians will use the approaching anniversary of Columbus' first landings as an excuse to indulge in "victimization" through such "in-house journals" as Northeast Indian Quarterly and the American Indian Culture & Research Journal. Clifton takes aim at Weatherford's Indian Givers , and at Vine Deloria, Jr., whom, he predicts, "will publish a book titled, Columbus Was Red." (p. 26) This book also contains an abridged version of Elisabeth Tooker's 1988 Ethnohistory article "The U.S. Constitution and the Iroquois League," on pp. 107-128. For reaction, see Deloria  and Churchill .Johansen and Grinde. "The Debate Regarding Native American Precedents for Democracy: A Recent Historiography." American Indian Culture & Research Journal 14:1 (Summer, 1990), pp. 61-88.
Survey of the debate over the "influence" issue to the end of 1989.Johansen, "Native American Societies and the Evolution of Democracy in America, 1600-1800," Ethnohistory 37:3(Summer, 1990), pp. 279-290.
Rebuttal to Elisabeth Tooker's "U.S. Constitution and the Iroquois League," in Ethnohistory .Lowi, Theodore J. and Benjamin Ginsberg. American Government: Freedom and Power. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1990.
Page 68 of this textbook contains a sidebar ("Box 3.1") titled "The Iroquois League: Native American Model." The text briefly outlines the origins and nature of the Iroquois League, and says that "at least one clear link" indicates that Iroquois ideas were incorporated into Euroamerican political philosophy -- the 1754 Albany conference and Franklin's Albany Plan. Ironically, the authors' major cited source is Elisabeth Tooker's essay on the Iroquois in The Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15, ed. Bruce G. Trigger [Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978, pp. 418-441]. The discussion in this textbook is marred by a mangled spelling of "Seneca" (as "Secca").(*) MacLaine, Craig and Michael S. Baxendale. This Land is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka. Montreal: Optimum Publishing International, 1990.
In this journalistic account of the confrontation at Kanesatake (Oka) and Kahnawake during 1990, Louis Hall, founder of the Mohawk Warrior Society, is quoted on page 65 as saying: "There has been a 300 year dark age for the Great Law of Peace. It was used frequently in the writing of the constitution of the United States of America but there is little knowledge of it among non-Natives....The white man has always tried to eliminate the Longhouse law and replace it with his Indian Act." In the same volume, on page 87, "Dale," a clan mother of the Mohawk Bear Clan, is quoted as saying: "One aspect of the Iroquois Law that was not copied (in the American constitution) was those that established women's rights. Now Americans are trying to pass an equal-rights amendment because they ignored the equality of women two hundred years ago." On pages 99 and 100, in the introduction of a condensed version of the Great Law, the authors write: "When the founding fathers of the United States of America were writing the constitution of their newly-established country, they borrowed liberally from the Great Law. The Senate acknowledged this in 1987..."McGaa, Ed. Mother Earth Spirituality. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.
In Chapter 3 ("Pilgrims, Founding Fathers, and Indians"), McGaa briefly describes Cannassatego's advice to the colonists (1744), Benjamin Franklin's use of Iroquois models in the Albany Plan (1754), and the Founders' use of federalism similar to the Iroquois. The book cites Forgotten Founders [1982, 1987].(*) Morocco, Maria. "Rediscovering the Roots of American Democracy." Human Rights, Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall, 1990), pp. 38-39.
Morocco covered the panel on the Iroquois and democracy at the American Bar Association 1990 convention for the event's daily newspaper (below). In this article, she develops material from the panel at greater length in Human Rights, citing Grinde, Kickingbird, and Johansen from the ABA panel. Human Rights is published by the Amnerican Bar Association in Chicago, where Morocco was a copy editor in 1990.Nollman, Jim. Spiritual Ecology: A Guide to Reconnecting With Nature. New York: Bantam, 1990.
On page 13, in the context of describing the Iroquois belief in decision-making for the seventh generation to come, Nollman writes: "Thomas Jefferson was said to have drawn much inspiration from the structure of Iroquois democracy in the process of blueprinting our American system of government....How would our lives be different today if Jefferson had included the rights of the seventh generation in the Bill of Rights?"(*) Ravitch, Diane. "Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures." American Scholar 59 (1990), pp. 337-354.
Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Teacher's College, Columbia University, surveys disputes related to multicultural education, bringing into her ambit the Haudenosaunee: Past, Present, Future curriculum then being assembled in New York State. She believes that assertions of Iroquois influence on American democracy in this curriculum is "filiopietism and ethnic boosterism" (p. 347), which she says have taken place in New York State because of Iroquois political influence. Ravitch's line of reasoning is borrowed nearly verbatim by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in Disuniting of America (1992).(*) Shenandoah, Audrey. "Women: Sustainers of Life." Turtle Quarterly [Niagara Falls, N.Y.], Summer, 1990, pp. 5-10.
Shenandoah, an Onondaga clan mother, describes the role of women in Iroquois society, as well as the influence of that role on non-Iroquois women: "Reading and working with women from around the world, I have met with several white women who don't feel that it's at all coincidental that most of the women's movements began around what is now central New York....[T]hey are beginning to feel and see in their research that they [suffragists] did in fact follow the pattern of what they saw was already here, the Houdenosaunee. Women's suffrage began in central New York..."Tooker, Elisabeth, "Rejoinder to Johansen," Ethnohistory 37:3 (Summer, 1990), pp. 291-297.
(*) Williams, Robert A., Jr. "Gendered Checks and Balances: Understanding the Legacy of White Patriarchy in an American Indian Cultural Context." Georgia Law Review 24 (1990), p. 1019.
The main emphasis of this article is ways in which women's legal and political roles differ in Iroquois and some other indigenous societies vis a vis mainstream American culture. Williams mentions the "influence" issue as an aside, citing Grinde  and Johansen [1982, 1987].Waldman, Carl. Who Was Who in Native American History. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
In his entry on Benjamin Franklin, Waldman notes (on page 123) that "Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence and organized the new American government, basing some political concepts, it has been suggested, on the Iroquois League of Six Nations."Yarrow, David. The Dragon and the Ice Castle: Rediscovery of Sacred Space in the Finger Lakes. Charlottesville, VA: Solstice, circa 1990.
Yarrow's examination of Upstate New York "sacred space" includes a brief recount of the Iroquois Confederacy's founding epic, and refers to Iroquois attendance at debates which shaped the Declaration of Independence in the spring of 1776.
Newspapers and Magazines
__________. "Interior Kicks Off Indian Month Celebration." Indian News: Week in Review. Vol. 14, No. 13. Washington, D.C.: Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. November 2, 1990, p. 2.
Interior secretary Manuel Lujan observed National Indian Heritage Month with an address November 1 in the South Interior Auditorium, Washington, D.C. His address included material contributions to American culture by Native Americans. On the subject of intellectual contributions, Lujan said: "...When it came time to set up a government that has lasted for more than 200 years, we did not hesitate to borrow in part from a pattern that was working well for the Iroquois Nation."Berger, Joseph. "Now the Regents Must Decide if History Will be Recast," New York Times [Week in Review], Feb. 11, 1990.
See Starna, William A., letter to New York Times, March 7, 1990, below.Fadden, John Kahionhes. "Democracy," Letter to the Editor, Massena [New York] Daily Courier-Observer, November 3, 1990.
Cites from Exemplar of Liberty and other books, as well as Iroquois oral history, to support the influence thesis. Fadden, a Mohawk, created line drawings for Exemplar, and was reading early drafts of the ms. at this time.Gastil, Raymond D. "What Kind of Democracy." The Atlantic, June, 1990, p. 92.
Gastil surveys roots of democracy worldwide in his search for definitions that fit conditions in today's world. In his survey (much as John Adams did in his Defence of the Constitutions...), Gastil includes the Iroquois Confederacy, along with European precedents such as the Swiss cantons, the Dutch republic, and provisions of English common law.Grenier, Richard. "Historic Identity Crises." Washington Times, March 27, 1990, p. F-3.
Grenier spars with notions of multicultural education, including: "African-Americans claim that Queen Nefertiti of ancient Egypt was black. Iroquois Indians have induced New York State education officials to include in their 11th-grade syllabus the dogmatic assertion that the Iroquois Confederacy was a major influence on the U.S. Constitution." He labels such assertions unfactual, and racist. If the Iroquois can claim to have influenced the Constitution, then people of Mongolian descent have the right to insist that Genghis Khan "was a principle influence on the United States Constitution." Grenier is a columnist for The Washington Times.Grenier, Richard. "The New Treason of the Clerks: Criticism of American Liberal Intellectuals." National Review 42:14 (July 23, 1990), p. 42.
Grenier, a columnist for the conservative Washington Times, takes aim at a speech by Czechoslovakia's president Vaclav Havel that urged American academics to become more politically involved. Grenier replies that on American university campuses, "a new breed of treasonous clerks has emerged" who express "hostility to the ideals that underlie American democratic institutions [which] has become both blatant and grotesque." The "treason" is that standard European-derived fare in humanities departments now faces competition from "a hodgepodge of world cultures." First on Grenier's list of such transgressions is "the constitutional principles of the Iroquois."Hart, Jeffrey. "Japan to the Rescue: Japanese Higher Education." National Review, May 28, 1990, p. 39.
Hart asserts that the Japanese are becoming more "Eurocentric" as many people in the United States advocate becoming more "multicultural." As an example of this trend, he takes up the New York State "Curriculum of Inclusion," which he says "tells minorities that the Iroquois Indians contributed to the political theory of the U.S. Constitution. That's right. Lies will make us free."Hendricks, Mike. "Does Constitution Copy Confederacy?" Associated Press in Syracuse Herald-American, July 18, 1990.
Quotes Grinde regarding attendance of Iroquois at debates over the Declaration of Independence, as well as references to the Iroquois government in John Adams' Defence of the Constitutions.... Also describes native concepts of federalism. Rebuttal by Jan Wojcik, humanities professor at Clarkson University, Potsdam, New York, who is quoted as saying "The evidence is flimsy at best....[Franklin] was contemptuous of the Iroquois and referred to them as savages."House, Billy. "Regents Tackle Social Studies." Gannett News Service, Feb. 16, 1990.
This is a discussion of New York State's "Curriculum of Inclusion," and the debate over its multicultural emphasis. Speaking of pre-inclusionist curricula, House says that "Word that a democracy existed in New York state centuries before patriots convened in Philadelphia might not have gotten...to classrooms." The article quotes State School Chancellor Martin Barrell as he "rattled off dozens of examples that he said showed that blacks, Latins, Indians, Asians, and others have not been given their due in U.S. history....Among them, Barrell noted that a democracy was in place in New York state in the form of the six-nation Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Confederacy long before the arrival of Europeans."Johnson, Margaret. "A Historic Year." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 1, 1990, p. 2-B.
The author is taking issue with George Will's characterization of multicultural education. She applauds the day when school curricula will be purged of Eurocentric bias, "and the Iroquois people are honored for the ideas of our Constitution as...[it] is based on the constitution of the Iroquois nation, one of the Native American civilizations that the white European invaders systematically destroyed."Jones, Clive. "Two Founding Peoples Ignore the Aboriginals." [Letter to the editor] Toronto Star, August 20, 1990, p. A-14.
Jones criticizes the idea that Canada has "two founding peoples" -- the French and the English. The Canadian constitution and school textbooks ignore the rights of "our true founding peoples -- the aboriginal nation[s] of this continent," he asserts, adding: "Do most Canadians realize that the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy (a sophisticated system of checks and balances to ensure peace and stability) predates our own by a matter of some 850 years?"Leo, John. "A Fringe History of the World," U.S. News & World Report, November 12, 1990, pp. 25-26..
Leo assails "multiculturalism" in school curricula, beginning with "afrocentric" ideas, continuing (on page 26) to the Haudenosaunee curriculum in New York State. Leo hews to the "party line" of the curriculum's opponents, who assert that the influence of the Iroquois on American statecraft was included only to appease the Iroquois, not because it was part of history. "In Upstate New York, a Native American lobby demonstrated how a curriculum can now be altered by adroit special pleading. After a visit by an Iroquois delegation to the state education department, the school curriculum was amended to say that the political system of the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution."Morocco, Maria. "Indians Reclaim Legal History." American Bar Association Journal, August 6, 1990, p. 5.
[The meeting with State Education Department officials at which Iroquois "lobbyists" were said to have pressured the New York Education Department never occurred. Files (1992) contain a letter from John Kahionhes Fadden to Johansen, which says, in part: "For what it's worth on the debate issue...the idea for it was not the result of 'lobbying' by the Iroquois as some of the detractors have written. The idea for the guide was brought up at a meeting at SED. The meeting resulted from a letter-writing campaign directed toward inaccuracies in a specific field-test draft, Social Studies 7 & 8: United States and New York State History. During that January 8, 1987 meeting the concept of a curriculum guide was suggested by Donald H. Bragaw, chief, Bureau of Social Studies Education, and was supported by Ed Lalor, director, Division of Program Planning. The idea did not emanate from the Haudenosaunee 'lobbyists' who were there to address the draft mentioned above." Emphasis in original.]
Leo then writes: "The idea that the Founding Fathers borrowed from the Iroquois is a century-old myth. No good evidence exists to support it. [Here Leo quotes Starna's earlier letter to the New York Times without crediting him.] But it is now official teaching in New York State. [It wasn't. It was part of a curriculum under development.] To the surprise of very few, this decision shows that some school authorities, eager to avoid minority-group pressure and rage, are now willing to treat the curriculum as a prize in an ethnic spoils system."
Leo's essay very concisely sums up the argument of "influence thesis" opponents: The idea is "fiction" or "a myth," and is being imposed on innocent school children by a small group of somehow awesomely powerful, media-hungry Iroquois who want to muscle this falsehood into "mainstream" history. Like Will, and others, Leo gives no hint that a scholarly debate is going on here. To suggest that the idea is even debatable (and not pure fiction, "myth," or "the silliest idea I've ever heard") would undermine the assumptions that fuel the arguments of Leo, Starna, Will, Tooker, et al.
This article describes a panel on Native American democracy at the 1990 convention of the American Bar Association in Chicago. The August 4 panel included Oren Lyons (Onondaga) Kirke Kickingbird (Kickapoo) Grinde (Yamasee), Johansen, and Judge Charles Cloud (Cherokee). The ABA Journal was the daily newspaper of the convention, which attracted about 20,000 people, the largest assembly of a professional organization in the world.New York Post. "The Sobol-Jeffries Victory." [Editorial], May 14, 1990.
This is the gutterball version of Starna's earlier letter to the New York Times [see below]. This editorial takes issue with Commissioner Sobol's decision, with a supporting vote from the state board of regents, to implement the "Curriculum of Inclusion" in New York schools. The editorial includes four subheads in bold-faced type: "WIDE CONDEMNATION," "BIZARRE PRIORITIES," "WASTING OUR MONEY," and "SELF-ESTEEM PABLUM." On the subject of the Iroquois and the development of democracy, it says: "In one unit, students are taught that an obscure Indian tribe in upper New York state was in great part responsible for the ideas that underlie the United States Constitution. This, of course, is utter nonsense."(*) Pareles, Jon. "American Indian Music Helps a Culture Hold On." New York Times, December 4, 1990, p. C-15.
This is a feature on the Akwesasne Mohawk Singers, who were scheduled to perform the same evening at Weill Recital Hall. Pareles writes: "The songs and dances offer glimpses of nations far more venerable than the United States. The Iroquois Confederation...'was the first United Nations, united for peace,' said Mr. [Brad] Bonaparte. He added that the form of government of the United States was influenced by the Great Law of the Iroquois, whose system of delegates and representatives was studied by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson."Ringwald, Christopher. "Ancient Teachings Inspire His Life." Albany Times-Union, April 9, 1990.
As part of a series on the Iroquois, this interview with Tadadaho Leon Shenandoah takes up the influence issue: "Shenandoah repeated a belief common among Iroquois and some historians that the confederacy and its Great Law of Peace served as models for the U.S. Constitution. 'But they left out parts -- they did not bury their weapons, and they left out the religious,' he said. 'If they had included those, it would have been a different world.' He also faulted Western culture for its ceaseless striving. 'Everything in our way of life is giving thanks....The white man is never satisfied with creation, but wants to do better.'"(*) Schrader, Andrea. "Rights of Women Discussed." [Oswego] Palladium-Times, March 26, 1990.
This is a report on a lecture by Sally Roesch Wagner at the Upstate New York Women's History Organization conference at the State University of New York/Oswego. Wagner lectured on the ways in which Matilda Joslyn Gage and other early feminists were influenced by the social system of the Iroquois. "Iroquois women could own property and hold important political and religious positions in a time white women could only dream of such things," Schrader reports Wagner to have said.Shepard, Daniel. "Native American Women: Real Symbol of Freedom," University of Nebraska at Omaha Gateway, March 20, 1990, p. 4.
Report on presentation at UNO March 12 by Sally Roesch Wagner and Johansen. Wagner spoke on ways in which the Iroquois and other Native Americans shaped nineteenth century feminism; Johansen spoke on the Indian image in the artwork of the American Revolution, including the use of an American Indian woman as a national symbol in revolutionary propaganda.Starna, William A. "Whose History Will be Taught, and What is History Anyway?" [Letter to the editor] New York Times, March 7, 1990.
Starna is responding to an article in the Times ["Now the Regents Must Decide," Week in Review, Feb. 11, 1990] which quotes Diane Ravitch as saying that the New York curriculum is "perhaps the only one in the nation" which incorporates the idea that the Iroquois helped shape the Constitution, and that this role was included "after an Iroquois delegation met with the State Education Department." Starna alleges that "some of the native writers and their Iroquois allies" have threatened to restrict access to Indian communities for Starna and others who criticize the Haudenosaunee curriculum guide in an apparent attempt to end their careers as "experts" on the Iroquois. Starna provides no specific proof of such threats. "No good evidence exists" to support the "influence" thesis, he maintains.(*) Stout, J. Dean. "Finding Kindred Spirits is the Key." Lewiston [Idaho] Morning Tribune, July 7, 1990, p. 5-B.
Stout, of the United Methodist Church, is writing on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Stout says that within the last year he discovered that Benjamin Franklin "said they [the signers of the declaration] had searched the governments of ancient and contemporary Asian and European nations and found no form of government suitable. The pattern from which they found the three-department system they used was the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Indians....I discover my Indian friends have known this for years, but it was not in the history I studied in school."Wood, Nancy. "Clashing Views Over Sovereignty." Maclean's, September 10, 1990, p. 18.
In this cover story for the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean's, Nancy Wood looks at the issue of Native American sovereignty in Canada, a very big issue in that country because of the confrontation at Oka, Quebec, which was continuing as this edition of Maclean's went to press. Wood asserts that the Mohawks and other Iroquois have given much evidence of an ability to govern themselves: "Mohawk history is replete with evidence of a sophisticated and deeply rooted political system...that predated European democracies by centuries."
- Leaflet regarding "National American Indian Heritage Month" [November, 1990], citing resolutions passed by the United States Senate and House of Representatives, dated August 3, 1990. The resolution states, in part: "Whereas the people and the government of the United States should be reminded that certain concepts such as freedom of speech, the separation of powers in governments, and the balance of power within government, all of which were found in the political systems of various American Indian nations, influenced the formation of the Government of the United States of America[.]"
- "Native American Women: Images of Freedom," advertising flier for presentation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha by Sally Roesch Wagner and Johansen, March 12, 1990, prepared by Johansen.
- Undated (circa 1990) booklet: Greg Schaaf. "The Great Law of Peace and the Constitution of the United States of America." This booklet describes the Great Law of Peace, then places it side by side with the U.S. Constitution in an attempt to draw parallels in wording and other content. [See also: Erik Jensen (1991) and Schaaf (1989), under Jensen (1991)].
back to 6 Nations | many worlds | rat haus | Index | Search | tree