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The Influence of the Great Law of Peace

On The United States Constitution:

An Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Perspective.

by

Kanatiyosh

Note:

This paper was written while Kanatiyosh, who is Onondaga/Mohawk, was in her 3rd year of law school at Arizona State University College of Law.

Kanatiyosh is from Akwesasne (land of the drumming partridge) also known as St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation located in New York and Canada.

I. INTRODUCTION

 

      Historians unafraid of telling the whole story are beginning to delve deep within the archives, instead of footnote stealing and making biased opinions. They are beginning to look at the actual documentation, and they are coming to the conclusion that American Indians have helped to shape democracy. It has been the practice as Vine Deloria states that:

The accomplishments of Indians and their actual place in the story of the United States has never been remotely touched by other historians. The major reason for this is that a omission  substantial number of practicing historians simply do not know the source documents with sufficient precision to make sense of them; consequently, they spend a good deal of their time stealing footnotes and ideas from each other. (1)

      However, today there is a growing number of historians who acknowledge that the native peoples especially the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, influenced the founding fathers. The Haudenosaunee influenced the founding fathers' perspective concerning democratic thought, and they helped to forge the idea of federalism that led to what has become the Constitution of the United States.

      In order to accept the premise that the Haudenosaunee had a profound influence on the founding fathers' thoughts on what would later become the United States Constitution, two important steps need to be taken. First, one needs to step back in time and examine what was influencing the founding fathers during their era. Secondly, one must relinquish ethnocentric prejudices of native peoples being "uncivilized" and in need of assimilation because of the stereotypical belief that they were "too simpleminded to engage in effective social and political organization." (2)

      In this paper, the Great Law of Peace (also known as the Iroquois Constitution) will be discussed through the perspective of a Haudenosaunee to show how the Confederacy functions. The influence that the Great Law of Peace had on the founding fathers and on the United States Constitution, as well as the interaction between the great Mohawk orators and the founding fathers, will be discussed. This paper will add an Haudenosaunee perspective, and will hopefully make suspect the judicial framework on which federal-Indian policy and Indian law is built, which in an ethnocentric way falsely stereotypes native peoples as savage, uncivilized, and in need of assimilation.

II. IROQUOIS CONSTITUTION

 

Since time immemorial, the Great Law of Peace was recorded through oral tradition and its messages and teachings were written into the symbols and pictographs of wampum belts. The Haudenosaunee used and still use wampum, a long cylinder shaped bead made from quahog clamshell (the purple beads) and Atlantic Whelk (the white beads). Wampum is used for recording the laws and other "official purposes as well as for religious ceremonies."(3) Jake Thomas, one of the traditional Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, is a noted elder who recalls the traditional teachings through oral memory using wampum belts as mnemonic devices. (Jake has since passed on since the original writing of this paper in 1998).

      When the Chiefs decide that the people need to be reminded of the Great Law of Peace, the Hiawatha Belt is taken to the Longhouse and a reading of the belt takes place. On August 12 through the 17, 1996 at the Kahonsesne (Longhouse) of the Mohawk Nation, Jake Thomas read the Hiawatha Belt. Through this reciting to the community and through the peacemaker's symbols, the people are reminded of the tenets of the Great Law. The following illustration of the Peacemaker's symbols by John Fadden are more than mere pictures, for they are symbols that represent the laws, duties, rights, and government structure of the Haudenosaunee peoples.

 

NOTES:

1. Vine Deloria, Jr., Forward to Donald A. Grinde, Jr., Bruce E. Johansen, EXEMPLAR OF LIBERTY: NATIVE AMERICA AND THE EVOLUTION OF DEMOCRACY, at x, xi (1995).

2. BRUCE JOHANSEN, FORGOTTEN FOUNDERS: HOW THE AMERICAN INDIAN SHAPED DEMOCRACY xiv (1982) [hereafter cited FORGOTTEN FOUNDERS].

3. TEHANETORENS, WAMPUM BELTS 3 (1993) hereafter [WAMPUM].

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last updated 6-23-99