Monday, November 23, 2020

The Iroquois Confederacy: The Original American Federalism

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that Chemung County is on Seneca land. The Seneca are one of the five original members of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy.  Haudenosaunee is the name they gave themselves which means “People of the Longhouse,” while Iroquois is a name given them by the French which has no clear etymology. The Confederacy is the oldest continuous democratic republic in the history of the world. They served as a model for the Founding Fathers when crafting the United States Constitution.


Although no one is sure of the exact dates of its founding, the Iroquois Confederacy is well over 500 years old and pre-dates the European conquest by generations. The time prior to the creation of the Confederacy is known as the Dark Times, when the five nations of the Iroquois were almost continuously at war. Along came a man known simply as the Peacemaker who helped to unite the warring nations along with his allies, the great Chief Hiawatha and Jigöhsahsë, the Mother of Nations. Together, they created an entirely new system of government with an oral constitution known as The Great Law.

Under The Great Law, the original five nations of the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) agreed to make collective decisions regarding war, diplomacy, and trade, all while each nation retained autonomy over their own region. The members of each clan of each tribe selected a chief to represent them at the regular meetings held in Onondaga territory near what is now Syracuse. The Haudenosaunee are matriarchal and the women of the clan retain the ultimate power to nominate or remove a chief from office. The representatives from the tribes were divided into two groups, the Elder Brothers (Mohawk and Seneca) and the Younger Brothers (Oneida and Cayuga) with the Onondaga serving as serving as a sort of negotiator between them. When the Tuscarora joined the Haudenosaunee as refugees in 1722, they joined the Younger Brothers. In order for any decision to be made or law to be passed, it first had to be approved by the Elder Brothers, then the Younger Brothers, before being confirmed by the Onondaga. If any parties disagreed on the decision, the proposal would not pass. Although I used the past tense, it should be noted that this is still exactly how the Haudenosaunee government works to this day.


Prior to the Revolution, the colonies really did not get on, despite all being offshoots of the same British government. Whenever the Haudenosaunee wanted to make a treaty or trade agreement with the colonials, they had to do it with each individual colony. At one such treaty meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744, Onondaga chief Canasatego decided to point out how silly this was saying:

"We heartily recommend Union and a good Agreement between you, our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another."


Canasatego’s words lit a fire in Benjamin Franklin’s brain. He cited the Confederacy as inspiration for his 1754 Albany Plan for a unified colonial government. The idea initially failed to gain traction, but he brought it up again in 1777 when the Articles of Confederation were drafted, and again in 1781 during the Constitutional Convention. In 1988, Congress passed a resolution specifically recognizing the contributions of the Haudenosaunee in the creation of the US Constitution. 

Haudenosaunee Flag


Some ideas in the US Constitution shares with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy include:

·         The centralized government handles issues of war, diplomacy, and trade while individual states retain autonomy over daily affairs

·         Political leaders are chosen by and from the people

·         Political leaders can only hold a single office at a time

·         There is a mechanism for the review and removal of corrupt, incompetent, or otherwise unpalatable leaders

·         A system of checks and balances prevents any one party from having unilateral control

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