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Of the People, By the People, and For the People... Iroquois Style

A plaque at Ft. Niagara memorializes French explorer La Salle. It reads
"Ignorant savages." In almost every description given by the 17th and 18th century Europeans who came to America, the American Indians were thought of as less than sophisticated. "Uncivilized, " they were labeled by the British. "Heathens, " cried the Spanish. What was it that moved the Europeans to paint these unfortunate pictures of American Indians? Was it a woman's lack of "proper" European clothing that prompted these reports? Their lack of a written language? Their lack of a standard church? Their warriors' ability to hunt and fight with simple tools-like bow and arrow-rather than a gun? Their living life in harmony with nature?

I believe the blame lies with the "ignorant Europeans" instead. These European colonists had never known a lifestyle other than the one they were born into. So, when they arrived on the shores of America they encountered people that did not make sense in their European experience. With riches and land on their minds, the European explorers did not bother to understand these Native Americans. The explorers made snap judgments about the Indians, believing that their culture and way of life were inferior to the Europeans'.

When colonists or traders did take the time to learn about the native people they lived beside, they were usually amazed and impressed by what they learned.

The Iroquois Confederacy perhaps stunned the Europeans the most. Created hundreds of years before the U.S. constitution was written, five Northeastern Indian nations came together to form a united council. Although they had once been at war with each other, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca eventually allied themselves (adding Tuscarora in 1722) to protect one another from invasion by other tribes (and later European invasion). Iroquois tradition tells us that a Peacemaker came to the separate nations at Onondaga Lake (in present day Syracuse) with a message to be righteous and just: through logic, reasoning and spiritual means, he inspired the warriors to bury their weapons and planted atop a sacred Tree of Peace.

Thus, The Great Law of Peace called for a "common council," a diplomatic government made up of clan and village chiefs from each of the nations. Each group was given one vote when issues came before the council, and they had to reach consensus (everybody agrees) before taking any action.

Becky finds peace on the banks of Onondaga Lake
This method of self-government appeared fair and right to the founding fathers of United States who knew about it. Ben Franklin, surprised at the effective democracy he heard about among the Iroquois, wrote "It would be strange if ignorant savages could execute a union that persisted ages and appears indissoluble; yet like union is impractical for twelve colonies to whom it is more necessary and advantageous." Because the colonists were so impressed by the Iroquois system, there are some scholars and Indians who believe that the Iroquois Confederacy was a big inspiration to the Americans who penned the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

view of Onondaga land from the roadside
The Iroquois Confederacy found itself involved in struggle after struggle, as different European settlers came to take over their beautiful lands and their trade routes for British (Dutch or French) use. The Iroquois were major players in the French and Indian War, and fought for both sides during the American Revolution-check out my dispatch on Ft. Niagara. Although the European nations have stopped competing for American soil, it is now the United States that occupies what was once Iroquois land. Such land conflicts continue to this day as different tribes lay claim to ancestral lands taken from them by the U.S. government.

A statue of Christopher Columbus stands atop Native American chiefs in Syracuse, NY. The inscription reads: 'Cristoforo Colombo/Discoverer of America'
Scattered from east to west across the state and into southern Canada, the six-nation confederacy still exists today. Teddy and I crossed into present Iroquois Nation lands as we traveled past vibrant red, gold and orange autumn leaves through upperstate New York. Under international law "Iroquois reservations are not U.S. lands, and are not subject to federal, state or local laws; " they are seen as foreign nations within the U.S. and Canada, who exercise their own self government on their own national soil." This special condition results as a compromise of sorts in the controversy over American land ownership, which began as far back as 1492.

Ironically, I am writing this dispatch on Columbus Day. This day is set aside for people to celebrate the accidental European "discovery" of America, the start of its "civilization. " We need to remember however, that this "discovery" brought death, disease and enslavement to the people already living here. These "savage Indians" respected and cared for their land, with a belief in the spirituality of the nature that surrounded them. They created peace where there had been war, and formed a government where all participants had to agree on decisions. Meanwhile, the European colonists were at war with themselves: the British, the French, the Spanish and the Dutch were all killing each other over whose land was whose. Looking at the circumstances, I find myself wondering "who brought 'civilization' to whom? "


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Pontiac's War: They didn't recall this one!
Team - Dead before their time
Rebecca - Massive wall of falling water!
Making A Difference - Murder most foul and an innocent Indian