The Iroquois Confederacy
We also need to see that Indians in general, and the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) in particular, were main players in the drama that created American democracy. Most of our core Constitutional principles reflect similar concepts found in the Iroquois Confederacy’s Gayanashagowa (Great Binding Law).
Separation of powers and checks and balances are at the very core of our democratic process. We have a President (executive branch), a Congress (legislative branch) and a court system (judicial branch); each branch has clearly defined Constitutional powers as well as the power to check or limit the powers of the other two branches. An example of this checks and balances occurs when Presidents nominate Supreme Court Justices. The nominee has to be confirmed by a majority vote in the U.S. Senate. Thus, the legislative branch can check the power of the executive branch.
The Iroquois had a democratic separation of government powers in practice centuries before Europeans even came to the New World.
They had a three-tiered form of government with sachems (chiefs) serving as an executive branch, lawmaking power was divided between a two part legislature and the Royenah women had powers similar to a judicial branch. The Royenah women also selected the male sachems. Shared power between men and women centuries before our own 1920 19th Amendment granting women’s suffrage.
Federalism is another fundamental principle of American government outlined in our Constitution: power is shared between the federal and state governments. Only the federal government can coin and mint money and make treaties with foreign nations. State governments control education and establish marriage and divorce laws.
The Iroquois Confederacy was like a federal government and its five tribes (later six) were like our individual states.
Haudenosaunee extended family clans resembled our own county and local governments.
Each tribe had particular duties and responsibilities. As mentioned earlier, the Mohawks of our immediate area were the “keepers of the eastern door” and bore the brunt of earliest contact with Europeans. The Oneidas were the “people of the great stone” and were America’s first military allies at the battle of Oriskany. The Onondagas were the “keepers of the council fire” and lived on land where the great council of the Iroquois Confederacy met each summer. The Cayugas were the smallest of the five tribes and also sided with the British in the Revolutionary War. Finally, the Senecas were the “keepers of the western door.” Acting much like individual American states, each tribe had specific duties that were outlined in their Gayanashagowa. Just as our federal government exercises federal supremacy over the individual states, the Iroquois Confederacy as a body governed the behavior of the individual tribes and clans.
The Iroquois also allowed individual Indians and entire tribes to join their Confederacy. This occurred in the 1600s when the Tuscaroras were allowed to become the sixth Confederacy tribe. Similarly, our Constitution outlines procedures for both immigration proceedings for individuals and for the admission of new states to the Union. Readers wishing to further study the overlaps between the Iroquois Confederacy constitution and the United States Constitution should also examine judicial review, civilian control of the military and individual rights and liberties common to both documents.
The democratic principles of separation of powers with checks and balances and federalism were being practiced by the Iroquois generations before Europeans entertained such political concepts.
Europeans were still mired in the world of monarchical government with little recognition of individuals liberties. The Native Americans of our region were truly at the vanguard of democratic practices. They settled disputes between Indian tribes by sending experienced chiefs to conciliate and arbitrate disagreements. Thus, our region was both the birthplace of many mainstay democratic principles as practiced by the Iroquois Confederacy and “ground zero” in the fight for independence from England in the Revolutionary War. Our white ancestors fought for freedom and then established a form of government fashioned in many ways upon the centuries of old practices of the Haudenosaunee people. A number of our founding fathers were well acquainted with Iroquois democratic principles when drafting our Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.