For US Independence Day: Thanks, Haudenosaunee

This is a Haudenosaunee wampum belt. The Haudenosaunee (“Longhouse Builders,” aka the Six Nations of the Iroquois* Confederacy) used wampum (beads carved from the purple-and-white-striped shell of a quahog clam) for many purposes. Wampum belts weren’t for holding an individual’s trousers up, but for memorializing important agreements, metaphorically minimizing potentially uncomfortable exposure for whole groups, and often their descendants as well.

An elder of the Wisconsin Oneida nation, part of the Haudenosaunee, once told me that every traditional Haudenosaunee prayer is a prayer of gratitude. That’s impressive. Would you rather be in charge of people who say “Thank you” all the time, or people who say “Gimme”?

On this Fourth of July, I feel it’s appropriate to say thank you to the Haudenosaunee for providing a model of federalism for the Founding Fathers – an example of how separate sovereignties (like the newly independent colonies) could function as a nation without losing their separate identities and all of their autonomy.

Many American political and legal figures talk a lot today about returning to the Founding Fathers’ priorities and values. Their opponents often point out that many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, but nobody seems to say much about the treatment of the Native nations at that time.

Until shortly after the War of 1812, the Founding Fathers largely treated the Native nations as just that – separate nations with a right to be on the land they’d occupied for thousands of years. That’s why they made treaties, which are, by definition, agreements between sovereign nations.** When the American colonists were few and relatively weak, threatened by the much larger and better-equipped English army, they desperately needed Native allies for military aid, so they behaved very diplomatically indeed.

The Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, joined by the Tuscarora in 1772) are believed by some scholars to have the oldest living participatory democracy in the world. Their traditional Constitution, the “Great Binding Law,” a beautiful piece of literature in its own right (as also were the Brehon Laws of Celtic Ireland – imagine laws written so people would WANT to hear and remember them!), can be read at

While the colonial leaders were debating making a break for independence, the Continental Congress invited the leaders of the Six Nations to its meeting hall for an alliance ceremony, where the colonial delegates pledged their friendship “as long as the sun shines and water runs.” They asked that the colonies and the Six Nations act “as one people, and have but one heart.”***

Although everyone’s “Plan A” was for the Haudenosaunee and other Native nations to remain neutral during the Revolutionary War, America’s Revolutionary War eventually became the Haudenosaunee’s Civil War. Mohawk war leader Joseph Brant convinced factions from four of the Six Nations to support the British because the Crown’s Proclamation of 1763 prohibited further colonial settlements in the Native-occupied lands west of the Appalachians. The prohibition was intended to be temporary, and was motivated more by a desire to assert Crown control than by sympathy for the Natives, but it seemed like the best deal going at the time. The Oneida and Tuscarora refused to fight for the British and were eventually recruited to the American side, contributing not only warriors (some of whom fought British-backed Haudenosaunee at the Battle of Oriskany), but quartermasters as well; for example, the Oneidas who supplied Washington’s Valley Forge winter camp with grain.**** Since hitting enemy supply lines is a common war tactic, these quartermasters – many of them women – were definitely in harm’s way.

After the war, Brant and many of his followers accepted the Crown’s reward of a sizable land grant in Canada and got the heck out of Dodge. Washington had pursued a scorched-earth policy toward their settlements during the war, (despite repeated Oneida pleas to spare the villages of other Haudenosaunee nations) and things didn’t promise to get better afterward. This was the first major geographical fragmentation of the Haudenosaunee; wherever they went, they preserved their system of government and Great Binding Law.

The theory that the American Constitution and federalist structure were based on elements of the Haudenosaunee system is called the “Influence Thesis” in academic circles. It goes like this:

  1. The union of states in the Articles of Confederacy and the Constitution bears a much closer resemblance to the Haudenosaunee system than to any European government that existed at that time.
  2. Some of the language is too similar for mere coincidence to earlier Haudenosaunee historical documents. For instance, John Rutledge, head of the Constitutional Convention’s Committee of Detail, once opened a meeting with a quote attributed to a Haudenosaunee chief, circa 1520, which began, “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity and order . . .
  3. Besides Rutledge, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, among other participants in the Constitutional convention, have been reported as contemporaneously expressing admiration for the Haudenosaunee system. Franklin’s most famous relevant comment, “It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union . . . and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies,” doesn’t sound very respectful on its face, but some historians have interpreted it as a tactic for “shaming” the delegates into cooperating.
  4. Some of the European philosophers whose work inarguably influenced the Convention – Locke, Hobbes, More, and Rousseau – were aware of the Haudenosaunee system and apparently admired it.
  5. Some of the symbols on U.S. flags and seals, such as the Tree of Liberty and the bundle of arrows, are traceable to Haudenosaunee symbols of peace and of strength through unity.

However, there’s no big smoking gun (or peace-pipe) left lying around. The Constitution doesn’t have a note at the bottom that says “Portions copied with permission from the Haudenosaunee archives.” This opens the door to opponents who say any notion of Haudenosaunee influence on the Founding Fathers is so much revisionist hogwash.

At least part of the problem is something that happened 100 years later: Marx and Engels also wrote favorably about Haudenosaunee government. We don’t want to approve of the same things of which Communists approve, do we? One can tell that’s part of the problem because one of the most vocal opponents of the Influence Thesis, Dinesh D’Souza, calls the thesis “neo-Marxist ideology.” If you can see anything about communal property or dialectical materialism in the support for the influence thesis, please point it out, because I can’t find any.

Whatever one’s opinions of individual opponents of the thesis, who include Pat Buchanan, Robert Bork, and Rush Limbaugh , it’s true that Jefferson and others are also recorded as frequently exhorting all Natives to put aside their traditions and embrace the stay-put, one-family-one-farm mainstream-European pattern of land use – which tends to contraindicate any suggestion that he viewed Natives as any kind of role model. And some of the same incidental facts can work either for or against the thesis. For instance, images of Indians were used as symbols of individual freedom in broadsheets and other ephemeral mainstream literature of the time; some scholars even postulate that this symbolism was what drove the Boston Tea Party participants to dress as Indians (as opposed to the hope that the English would blame the property damage on actual Indians). In support of the thesis, one may argue that this meant admiration of Native culture was widespread. In opposition, one may argue that this meant few non-Natives had any clues about the complex and often very strict social structures in which Natives generally lived, and therefore knowledge of the Haudenosaunee government was probably not common among them either.

And nobody ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of mainstream Americans about cultures not their own. . . Still, the evidence does tend to pile up in favor of the Haudenosaunee system being AN influence on the constitution, whether or not it was the ONLY influence. So here’s to the “eminence grease” that eases the squeaky wheels of political evolution. Have a happy 4th!


*”Iroquois” is a Frenchification of either the Haudenosaunee catch-phrase “I speak the truth” or of the neighboring Huron pejorative epithet “snake,” depending on whom you ask.

**The unfair nature of some of the early land deals was largely due to misunderstanding of what was, in fact, being sold. Most Native legal systems had no equivalent of the English-style “fee simple title” (exclusive and total ownership of land in perpetuity); their land-use entitlements were more similar to easements and licenses – sometimes nonexclusive use, sometimes use for a limited time or of a limited type).

***”Proceedings . . . with the Six Nations, 1775,” Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-89, National Archives (M247, Roll 144, Item No. 134).

****Cara Richards, The Oneida People, (Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1974), pp. 53-54.

One thought on “For US Independence Day: Thanks, Haudenosaunee

  1. I found this through Googling Haudenosaunee Give Thanks and Greetings.

    I wanted to thank you for your blog post on gratitude.

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