The Iroquois Wisdom of Freedom and Interdependence


Richard Moore

Date: Tue, 5 Jul 2005 07:56:34 -0700
To: •••@••.••• (undisclosed list)
From: Tom Atlee <•••@••.•••>
Subject: The Iroquois Wisdom of Freedom and Interdependence

- - - - -

By Charles C. Mann
New York Times
July 4, 2005

AMHERST, MASS. - Seeking to understand this nation's
democratic spirit, Alexis de Tocqueville journeyed to the
famous centers of American liberty (Boston, Philadelphia,
Washington), stoically enduring their "infernal"
accommodations, food and roads and chatting up almost everyone
he saw.

He even marched in a Fourth of July parade in Albany just
ahead of a big float that featured a flag-waving Goddess of
Liberty, a bust of Benjamin Franklin, and a printing press
that spewed out copies of the Declaration of Independence for
the cheering crowd. But for all his wit and intellect,
Tocqueville never realized that he came closest to his goal
just three days after the parade, when he stopped at the
"rather unhealthy but thickly peopled" area around Syracuse.

Tocqueville's fascination with the democratic spirit was
prescient. Expressed politically in Americans' insistence on
limited government and culturally in their long-standing
disdain for elites, that spirit has become one of this
country's great gifts to the world.

When rich London and Paris stockbrokers proudly retain their
working-class accents, when audiences show up at La Scala in
track suits and sneakers, when South Africans and Thais
complain that the police don't read suspects their rights the
way they do on "Starsky & Hutch," when anti-government
protesters in Beirut sing "We Shall Overcome" in Lebanese
accents - all these raspberries in the face of social and
legal authority have a distinctly American tone. Or, perhaps,
a distinctly Native American tone, for among its wellsprings
is American Indian culture, especially that of the Iroquois.

The Iroquois confederation, known to its members as the
Haudenosaunee, was probably the greatest indigenous polity
north of the Rio Grande in the two centuries before Columbus
and definitely the greatest in the two centuries after. A
political and military alliance formed by the Seneca, Cayuga,
Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and, after about 1720, the Tuscarora,
it dominated, at its height, an area from Kentucky to Lake
Ontario and Lake Champlain. Its capital was Onondaga, a
bustling small city of several thousand souls a few miles
south of where Tocqueville stopped in modern Syracuse.

The Iroquois confederation was governed by a constitution, the
Great Law of Peace, which established the league's Great
Council: 50 male royaneh (religious-political leaders), each
representing one of the female-led clans of the alliance's
nations. What was striking to the contemporary eye was that
the 117 codicils of the Great Law were concerned as much with
constraining the Great Council as with granting it authority.
"Their whole civil policy was averse to the concentration of
power in the hands of any single individual," explained Lewis
Henry Morgan, a pioneering ethnographer of the Iroquois.

The council's jurisdiction was limited to relations among the
nations and outside groups; internal affairs were the province
of the individual nations. Even in the council's narrow
domain, the Great Law insisted that every time the royaneh
confronted "an especially important matter or a great
emergency," they had to "submit the matter to the decision of
their people" in a kind of referendum open to both men and

In creating such checks on authority, the league was just the
most formal expression of a regionwide tradition. Although the
Indian sachems on the Eastern Seaboard were absolute monarchs
in theory, wrote the colonial leader Roger Williams, in
practice they did not make any decisions "unto which the
people are averse." These smaller groups did not have formal,
Iroquois-style constitutions, but their governments, too, were
predicated on the consent of the governed. Compared to the
despotisms that were the norm in Europe and Asia, the
societies encountered by British colonists were a libertarian

To some extent, this freedom reflected North American Indians'
relatively recent adoption of agriculture. Early farming
villages worldwide have always had less authoritarian
governments than their successors. But the Indians of the
Northeast made what the historian José António Brandão calls
"autonomous responsibility" a social ideal - the Iroquois
especially, but many others, too. Each Indian, the Jesuit
missionary Joseph-François Lafitau observed, viewing "others
as masters of their own actions and themselves, lets them
conduct themselves as they wish and judges only himself."

So vivid were these examples of democratic self-government
that some historians and activists have argued that the Great
Law of Peace directly inspired the American Constitution.
Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible. With its
grant of authority to the federal government to supersede
state law, its dependence on rule by the majority rather than
consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the
Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the
Great Law. But in a larger sense the claim is correct. The
framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would
become the United States, were pervaded by Indian images of

For two centuries after Plymouth Rock, the border between
natives and newcomers was porous, almost nonexistent. In a way
difficult to imagine now, Europeans and Indians mingled, the
historian Gary Nash has written, as "trading partners,
military allies, and marital consorts."

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, the aging John Adams recalled
the Massachusetts of his youth as a multiracial society.
"Aaron Pomham, the priest, and Moses Pomham, the King of the
Punkapaug and Neponsit Tribes, were frequent visitors at my
father's house," he wrote nostalgically. Growing up in Quincy,
Mass., the young Adams frequently visited a neighboring Indian
family, "where I never failed to be treated with
whortleberries, blackberries, strawberries or apples, plums,
peaches, etc." Benjamin Franklin was equally familiar with
Indian company; representing the Pennsylvania colony, he
negotiated with the Iroquois in 1754. A close friend was
Conrad Weiser, an adopted Mohawk who at the talks was the
Indians' unofficial host.

As many colonists observed, the limited Indian governments
reflected levels of personal autonomy unheard of in Europe.
"Every man is free," a frontiersman, Robert Rogers, told a
disbelieving British audience, referring to Indian villages.
In these places, he said, no person, white or Indian, sachem
or slave, has any right to deprive anyone else of his freedom.
The Iroquois, Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, held "such
absolute notions of liberty that they allow of no kind of
superiority of one over another, and banish all servitude from
their territories." (Colden, surveyor general of New York, was
another Mohawk adoptee.)

Not every European admired this democratic spirit. Indians
"think every one ought to be left to his own opinion, without
being thwarted," the Flemish missionary monk Louis Hennepin
wrote in 1683. "There is nothing so difficult to control as
the tribes of America," a fellow missionary unhappily
observed. "All these barbarians have the law of wild asses -
they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint;
they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit."

Indians, for their part, were horrified to encounter European
social classes, with those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy
compelled to defer to those on the upper. When the
17th-century French adventurer Louis-Armand de Lom d'Arce,
Baron de Lahontan, tried to convince the Huron, the Iroquois's
northern neighbors, of Europe's natural superiority, the
Indians scoffed.

Because Europeans had to kowtow to their social betters,
Lahontan later reported, "they brand us for slaves, and call
us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having."
Individual Indians, he wrote "value themselves above anything
that you can imagine, and this is the reason they always give
for it, that one's as much master as another, and since men
are all made of the same clay there should be no distinction
or superiority among them."

INFLUENCED by their proximity to Indians - by being around
living, breathing role models of human liberty - European
colonists adopted their insubordinate attitudes. Lahontan was
an example, despite his noble title; his account highlighted
Indian freedoms as an incitement toward rebellion. Both the
clergy and Louis XIV, the king whom Lahontan was goading,
tried to suppress these dangerous ideas by instructing French
officials to force a French education upon the Indians,
complete with lessons in deferring to their social betters.
The attempts, the historian Cornelius J. Jaenen reported, were
"everywhere unsuccessful."

In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous
villages into competitors for colonists' allegiance. Colonial
societies could not become too oppressive, because their
members - surrounded by examples of free life - always had the
option of voting with their feet.

It is likely that the first British villages in North America,
thousands of miles from the House of Lords, would have lost
some of the brutally graded social hierarchy that
characterized European life. But it is also clear that they
were infused by the democratic, informal brashness of American
Indian culture. That spirit alarmed and discomfited many
Europeans, aristocrat and peasant alike. Others found it a
deeply attractive vision of human possibility.

Historians have been reluctant to acknowledge this
contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide. Yet a plain
reading of Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Thomas Paine shows that
they took many of their illustrations of liberty from native
examples. So did the colonists who held their Boston Tea Party
dressed as "Mohawks." When others took up European
intellectuals' books and histories, images of Indian freedom
had an impact far removed in time and space from the
16th-century Northeast.

The pioneering suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda
Joslyn Gage, both Finger Lakes residents, were inspired by the
Great Law's extension of legal protections to women. "This
gentile constitution is wonderful!" Friedrich Engels exclaimed
(though he apparently didn't notice its emphasis on limited
state power).

Just like their long-ago confreres in Boston, protesters in
South Korea, China and Ukraine wore "Native American" makeup
and clothing in, respectively, the 1980's, 1990's, and the
first years of this century. Indeed, it is only a little
exaggeration to claim that everywhere liberty is cherished -
from Sweden to Soweto, from the streets of Manila to the docks
of Manhattan - people are descendants of the Iroquois League
and its neighbors.


Charles C. Mann is the author of the forthcoming "1491: New
Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus."



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