Iroquois democracy

The following quotation is from a statement presented before a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearingĀ  (on Senate Resolution S. Con. 76) in 1987 to recognize the Iroquois origin of the U.S. Constitution, spoken by the Honorable Oren Lyons, speaker for the Onondaga Nation. Found in, “Putting Power in its Place: Create Community Control!” Edited by Christopher Plant & Judith Plant. New Society Publishers. Philadelphia, Pa and Gabriola Island, BC. 1992. (70-73)

Early history, prior to the coming of the white man to this continent, receives little attention in the history books. But it was in these early times that the development of democratic processes came about on this land.

Upon the continent of North America, prior to the landfall of the white man, a great league of peace was formed, the inspiration of a prophet called the Peacemaker. He was a spiritual being, fulfilling the mission of organizing warring nations into a confederation under the Great Law of Peace. The principles of the law are peace, equity, justice, and the power of the good minds.

With the help and support of a like-minded man called Aionwatha, whom some people now call Hiawatha, an Onondaga by birth and a Mohawk by adoption, he set about the great work of establishing a union of peace under the immutable natural laws of the universe. He came to our Iroquois lands in our darkest hour, when the good message of how to live had been cast aside and naked power ruled, fueled by vengeance and blood lust. A great war of attrition engulfed the lands, and women and children cowered in fear of their own men. The leaders were fierce and merciless. They were fighting in a blind rage. Nations, homes, and families were destroyed, and the people were scattered. It was a dismal world of dark disasters where there seemed to be no hope. It was raging proof of what inhumanity man is capable of when the laws and principles of life are thrown away.

The peacemaker came to our lands, bringing the message of peace, supported by Aionwatha. He began the great work of healing the twisted minds of men. This is a long history, too long to recount here. Suffice it to say it is a great epic that culminated on the shores of the lake called Onondaga where, after many years of hard work –some say perhaps even 100 years –he gathered the leaders, who had now become transformed into rational beings, into a Grand Council, and he began the instructions of how the Great Law of Peace would work.

The Peacemaker set up the families into clans, and then he set up the leaders of the clans. He established that the League of Peace would be matriarchal and that each clan would have a clanmother. Thus, he established in law the equal rights of women.

He raised the leaders of each clan –two men, one the principal leader and the second his partner. They worked together for the good of the people. He called these two men royane, or the good minds, the peacemakers, and they were to represent the clans in council. Thus, he established the principles of representation of people in government.

Henceforth, he said, these men will be chosen by the clan mother, freely using her insight and wisdom. Her choice must first be ratified by the consensus of the clan. If they agree, then her choice must be ratified by full consensus of the Chiefs’ Council of their nation. Then her choice must be ratified and given to over to the Council of Chiefs who then call the Grand Council of the Great League of Peace, and they will gather at the nation that is raising the leader, and they would work together in ceremony.

He made two houses in each nation. One he called the Long House and the other he called the Mud House. They would work together in ceremony and council establishing the inner source of vitality and dynamics necessary for community.

He made two houses in the Grand Council, one called the Younger Brothers, consisting of the Oneida and the Cayuga Nations and later enlarging to include the Tuscarora. The other was the Elder Brothers, consisting of the Mohawks with the title Keepers of the Eastern Door, the Onondaga, whom he made the Firekeepers, and the Senecas, who were the Keepers of the Western Door. Now, he made the house, and the rafters of the house were the laws that he laid down, and he called us the Haudenosaunee: the people of the Longhouse.

Now, the candidate for the clan title is brought before the Grand Council and will be judged on his merits, and they have the right to veto. If they agree, then he may take his place in the Grand Council. But before that, he is turned back to the people, and they are asked if they know a reason why this man should not be a leader and hold title. Thus, the process is full circle back to the people.

Thus, the peacemaker established the process of raising leaders for governance, and, by this process, a leader cannot be self-proclaimed. He is given his title and his duties, and his authority is derived from the people, and the people have the right to remove him for malfeasance of office.

He established the power of recall in the clanmother, and it is her duty to speak to him if she is receiving complaints from the people concerning his conduct. The clanmother shall speak to him three times, giving sufficient time between warnings for him to change his ways. She shall have a witness each time. The first will be her niece, in other words, a woman. The second shall be the partner of the chief in council or the principal leader, as the case may be. And the third and final warning comes with a man who holds no title, and he is coming for the chief’s wampum and for the chief’s emblem of authority, the antlers of a deer. Thus he established the power of recall vested in the people.

The leader must be free from any crime against a woman or a child. He cannot have killed anybody and cannot have blood on his hands. He must believe in the ways of the Longhouse. His heart must have great compassion for his people. He must withstand the accusations, slander, and insults of the people as he goes about his duties for the people. He has no authority but what the people give him in respect. He has no force of arms to demand the people obey his orders. He shall lead by example, and his family shall not influence his judgement. He carries his title for life or until he is relieved of it by bad conduct or ill health. He now belongs to the people.

At the first council, there were 50 original leaders, and their names became offices to be filled by each succeeding generation. So, it continues up to this very day. The Great Peacemaker had established a government of absolute democracy, the constitution of the great law intertwined with the spiritual law.

We then became a nation of laws. The People came of their own free will to participate in the decision-making of the national council and the Grand Council. Thus, the Peacemaker instilled in the nations the inherent rights of the individual with the process to protect and exercise these rights.

If for no other reason, this has relevance for re-interpreting history so as to include buried narratives.

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