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"It would be a strange thing . . . if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming such a Union and be able to execute it in such a manner that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impractical for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interest." Benjamin Franklin
This famous quotation has been presented for many years as proof that Native Americans, specifically the Iroquois Confederacy, have had a profound influence on the formation of the United States Constitution.
It is just one piece of evidence that appears in a new book, Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations and the U.S. Constitution, edited by Oren Lyons and John Mohawk. Lyons is an Onondaga faithkeeper, a professor of American Studies at SUNY-Buffalo, and a long-time spokesman for traditional Native Americans. Mohawk, a former editor for Akwesasne Notes, is also a member of the American Studies department at SUNY-Buffalo. With contributions by some of the premier scholars in American Indian Studies, Exiled is bound to become the definitive source for those arguing in favor of Native influence over the Founding Fathers. Thoroughly documented, it gives a clear and convincing case that there was a close and equilateral relationship between the leaders of the Six Nations, or Iroquois Confederacy, and the colonial governments.
Old Guard Iroquois scholars, composed largely of historians and anthropologists, have insisted that the influence of the Iroquois was minimal. In their opinion European influences such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were significantly greater. Oren Lyons attests in the opening chapter, "The American Indian in the Past" how the indigenous people of North and South America influenced and affected the culture and attitudes of the Europeans who traveled and settled in the so-called New World. After describing European society during the exploration of the Americas, Lyons says of Euro-American historians:
"Missing from their accounts is the story of how egalitarian American Indian societies stimulated the thinking of European philosophers of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that provided American colonists with some of the foundations for their rebellion. . ."
He then gives a brief account of the founding of the Confederacy by the Peacemaker and Hayanwatah (known incorrectly to most people as Hiawatha). In doing so, Lyons explores both the origins and the philosophical underpinnings of Iroquois democratic traditions.
In the next chapter, "Indians and Democracy: No One Ever Told Us" John Mohawk documents how and why the contributions of the Native people have been dismissed throughout history. He states:
"The fact that Europeans and their descendants adopted customs, traditions and even modes of thought from other cultures posed a serious dilemma in depicting history while trying to maintain the idea of a direct evolution from the ancient world to the modern."
Mowhawk discusses at length the famous debate at the Council of Indies in 1550 at Valladolid between Sepulveda and Bartolome de Las Casas. Attempting to discern whether Indians were humans to be converted to Christianity or property to be enslaved, the arguments presented at this debate are shown to be the origin of the attitudes of many present day historians and philosophers.
Robert Venables, a professor of American Indian Studies at Cornell, in "American Indian Influences on the America of the Founding Fathers" details from an historical perspective the cultural influence of Indian tribes on colonial-era America and how this had both a real and symbolic impact.
In the chapter, "Iroquois Political Theory and the Roots of American Democracy" Donald Grinde, an historian at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, enlarges on this theme by illustrating how Locke and Rousseau were themselves impacted by such works as Jesuit Relations, an account of the adventures of French missionaries, and New Voyages to North America, by the explorer Baron Lahontan. He then presents evidence of the pervasive and continuing influence Iroquoian democracy had on America during the eighteenth century.
The two chapters written by Howard Berman and Curtis Berkey could easily be a book by themselves. Berman, a law professor at California Western School of Law at San Diego, and Berkey, director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington D.C., have written the most detailed and convincing arguments for Indian nations having a sophisticated, functioning political process. They substantiate the enormous impact this process had on American history.
"Perspectives on American Indian Sovereignty and International Law 1600 to 1776," by Berman, documents that the European Nations that came to America treated with the Indian nations as they would have with any other foreign power. He also depicts a world where the power of the Indian nations was taken very seriously. Referring to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 Berman states:
"The Haudenosaunee continued to maintain independent treaty and commercial relations with the rival European states and a large network of Indian nations. . . With its geopolitical importance intact, the Confederacy was well positioned to use diplomatic skill to avoid European domination and expand influence among the Indian nations."
In "United States-Indian Relations: The Constitutional Basis" Berkey delves into early American policy regarding the Indian nations. Because the United States was a relatively weak country, one of its primary concerns was to avoid the collapse of its central government as a result of Indian warfare. This resulted in the federal government taking a suppliant position in negotiations.
One of the first treaties the new country ever made was with an Indian nation. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix, concluded between the U.S. and the Iroquois Confederacy in 1784 shows the relative positions of the two parties. Berkey writes:
"Congress' ideas about the dependency of Indian Nations also took a beating at Fort Stanwix. The Six Nations representatives insisted to the United States commissioners that they were 'free and independent' and under the influence of no other sovereign."
The final two chapters, "The Application of the Constitution to American Indians" by Vine Deloria, Jr., and "Congress, Plenary Power and the American Indian, 1870 to 1992" by Laurence Hauptman explore how the power has shifted in favor of the United States and the ways in which this shift came about.
Hauptman, a professor of history at SUNY-New Paltz, and the author of several books on the Iroquois, delineates how Congress took advantage of that shift in power and expanded its control over the Indian nations, usually to their detriment.
Deloria, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the most prominent American Indian intellectual of our time, outlines very logically and succinctly how the Constitution has been used to affect Native peoples and subject them to what actually amounts to illegal jurisdiction. In discussing the Indian Claims Commission, he writes:
"As a rule, the inferior tribunals of the judiciary have not protected Indian rights, but have seen their role as rewriting American history to protect the federal government."
This echoes the introduction where Lyons and Mohawk tell us: "Peoples . . . develop selective memories about the origin of elements of their culture. . ." This book attempts to remedy the collective amnesia that has gripped American society for too long, and to remind it precisely where some of its most basic values were derived. Those values of "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were borrowed from the American Indians; values which have been long denied the people who offered them.