Iroquois democracy

The following quotation is from a statement presented before a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing  (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.

A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government

Nakae Chomin wrote a wonderfully entertaining and insightful book in 1887  entitled, A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government.  Here is the opening.

Master Nankai loves drinking and discussing politics. When he drinks only one or two small bottles of sake, he is pleasantly intoxicated –his spirits are high and he feels as if he were flying through the universe. Everything he sees and hears delights him; it seems unthinkable that there should be suffering in the world.

When he has two or three more bottles, his spirits soar even higher, and ideas spring up, unrestrained. Although his body remains in his small room, his eyes scan the whole world. They instantly go back a thousand years, or else span the next thousand, charting the direction for the world’s course or giving instructions for public policy. At such times, he thinks to himself, “I am the compass for human society. It’s a great pity that the world’s nearsighted politicians haphazardly take control of the rudder and cause the ship to strike a rock or to be grounded in shallow water, thus bringing calamity upon themselves and others. (47)

. . .

After this opening, Master Nankai is greeted by two visitors. One is known as the Gentleman of Western Learning. He is a young Japanese man who has recently returned from studying in Western Europe, as many Japanese men did in the late 19th Century, including the author of this book who was a journalist and a member of Japan’s first parliament till resigning over reasons of conscience. The other visitor is an older conservative Japanese man. He provides balance to the idealistic notions of the Gentleman of Western Learning. Most of the quotes included here, which seem to me to be of relevance to our contemporary world –over a century after they were written,  are from the Gentleman of Western Learning.

If a small nation which is behind the others in its progress toward civilization were to stand up proudly on the edge of Asia, plunge into the realm of liberty and brotherhood, demolish fortresses, melt down canon, convert warships into merchant ships, turn soldiers into civilians, devote itself to mastering moral principles, study industrial techniques, and become a true student of philosophy; wouldn’t the European nations who take vain pride in their civilization feel ashamed? Suppose, however, these great nations are not only unashamed but also stubborn and villainous, and suppose they impudently invade our country, taking advantage of our disarmament. What could they do if we have not an inch of steel nor a single bullet about us, but greet them with civility? If you swing a sword to attack the air, nothing happens to the thin, free air no matter how sharp the sword may be. Why don’t we become like the air?

It’s like throwing an egg at a rock for a small and powerless nation dealing with a big and powerful one to exert a physical force that is less than one thousandth of its opponent’s. Since the opponent takes great pride in its civilization, it cannot be that he lacks the moral principles that are the essence of civilization. Why shouldn’t we, a small nation, use as our weapon the intangible moral principles our opponent aspires to but is unable to practice? If we adopt liberty as our army and navy, equality as our fortress, and fraternity as our sword and cannon, who in the world would dare attack us?

All who possess mind and body are equally human. What is the difference between the Europeans and the Asians, much less between the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians, or between the Indians, Chinese, and Ryukuans? Today we invariably refer to Great Britain, Russia, or Germany, but these are merely the names of the sovereigns’ properties. If, however, sovereignty rests with the people and there is no other ruler, a country’s name simply designates a certain part of the surface of the earth. Therefore, to say that one is a citizen of a certain country ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no border’s between oneself and others and there arises no hostility. Nations with a single master, however, are named after the master’s house. In such a nation, to say that one is of a certain nationality ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no borders between oneself and others. This slicing up of the various parts of the earth, causing divisions among its inhabitants, is the course of monarchy. Democracy! Democracy! Country A or B is merely a division made for the sake of convenience in naming various parts of the earth. These names were not meant to build walls among its inhabitant. Democracy creates a single, large, complete, circle embracing the entire earth by bringing together the wisdom and love of the people of the world.  (75)

. . .

The Gentleman continued. “Democracy is necessary for abolishing war, promoting peace, and making all the nations on earth one family. The theory that all nations should give up war and promote peace was first advanced by the Frenchman Abbe de Saint-Pierre in the eighteenth century. At that time, very few people agreed with his idea, and many said that it could not be put into practice. Some went so far as to ridicule him as a high-minded ideologue. Even Voltaire, a man of uncommon intelligence who was deeply interested in the progress of society, tried to appear clever by making some derisive remarks concerning Saint-Pierre’s theory. Only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wielding his mighty pen, completely agreed with the theory, and praised Saint-Pierre’s book as ‘indispensable’. Later, Kant built upon Saint-Pierre’s theory and wrote a book entitled Zun ewigen Frieden, which advocated the necessity of abolishing war and promoting friendly relations. According to Kant, ‘Even if we grant the contention that the desire for fame and love of victory cannot be removed from human beings and that the realization of peace is impossible in our actual world, as long as we value moral principles, we must make every effort to move forward toward that realm. This, and nothing else, is the responsibility of human beings.’ (82-83)

. . .

Today, in the nineteenth century, it is indeed an insane nation which takes pride in military power, makes aggression its national policy, and tries to own the earth, regardless of means, by usurping someone else’s land or by killing someone else’s people. (87)

. . .

Many of the strong nations on earth are cowherds. Fearing each other, they maintain troops and line up battleships and thus fall into danger. Why don’t the weak nations voluntarily and firmly dismiss their soldiers, dissolve their fleets, and choose peace?

Later in the discourse Master Nankai mildly rebukes Mr. Gentleman by saying that the time was not ripe for global democracy –at the end of the Nineteenth Century –but suggests that after another century the seeds that were sown then would be ready to bear fruit.

I tell you, Mr. Gentleman, ideas are seeds planted in the field of the mind. If you truly love democracy, talk about it, write about it, and sow its seeds in the minds of people. Then, in several hundred years, democracy might flourish all over the country. Today, the plants of the sovereign and the aristocrats are still rooted  in the public mind. Isn’t it wrong to try to gather a rich harvest of democracy immediately, simply because the seed of democracy has sprouted in your own brain?

“The public mind is a storehouse for the ideas of the past. All social undertakings are expressions of past ideas. Therefore, if we wish to build a new enterprise, we must first plant the necessary idea in the people’s minds, so it, too, can someday become an established idea –an idea of the past. Why? An action always bears fruit in the present, but an idea always has its roots in the past. Mr. Gentleman, please read your history. What has occurred in all nations is a result of the ideas of those nations. But ideas and actions do not align themselves in neat rows; they form a crooked line –and this the history of all nations.

. . .

An age is silk or paper, ideas are colors, and great projects are paintings. A society of a given period is a painting that has already been completed. Mr. Gentleman, is it not madness to paint a picture of the future on a piece of paper called the present with pigments which are not yet completely ground? If you make diligent efforts now to refine your ideas or grind your pigments, a hundred years later the colors will pour richly onto the palette of society. At that point, if someone paints a picture on the piece of silk or paper of his present, the radiant colors you have mixed in his past will dazzle the eyes of all spectators, who will admire and praise the painting as a masterpiece surpassing those of Rubens or Poussin.