The Forgotten Forefathers
Today we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". When President Lincoln spoke those words this nation's reality was far removed from it's ideals. In many ways, it still is.
What works in this country, what is the very foundation of this country's greatness, can be found in the influence our European founding father's received from this country's native people, specifically the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), also known as the Iroquois Confederacy. The Kaianerekowa Hotinonsionne -The Great Law of Peace of The Longhouse People was used as a model for the building of our nation. You're not apt to find that fact in too many American History textbooks. After all, how do you explain away our country's treatment of the very people so instrumental in framing our Constitution? Fortunately, more and more, as this country evolves, historians are beginning to acknowledge this fact.
Our Constitution's provisions for a representative democracy at federal and local levels, separate legislative branches that debate issues and reconcile disagreements, checks and balances to guard against excessive power, the establishment of a common defense, and many others, are all taken directly from the Iroquoian model.
The idea of separate states joined together to form a strong union is reflected in the following article from the Hotinonsione.
Five arrows shall be bound together very strong and shall represent one Nation each. As the five arrows are strongly bound, this shall symbolize the complete union of the nations. Thus are the Five Nations completely united and enfolded together, united into one head, one body, and one mind. They therefore shall labor, legislate, and council together for the interest of future generations.
I remember learning for the first time in an American History class in college (we used Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the US' as a textbook) how taken Benjamin Franklin was when the Iroquois demonstrated the way one arrow could easily be broken, but when five were bound together, how they were virtually indestructible.
Yet there are some provisions our founding fathers chose to omit. Those omissions, in my opinion, have kept this country from realizing its true greatness.
The most glaring omissions concern women and their place in society. At the birth of this nation, women were nonentities, treated as property by the white males of society who were the only ones privy to the rights and liberties our country espoused. In contrast, the Haudenosaunee were a matrilineal nation. Article 44 of their law reads, "The lineal descent of the people of the Five Nations shall run in the female line. Women shall be considered the progenitors of the Nation. They shall own the land, and the soil. Men and women shall follow the status of their mothers.“
Women were politically invisible in our country at that time, and for a majority of our history, but quite the contrary is true with the Iroquoian women.
The women heirs of the chieftainship titles of the League shall be called Oianer or Otiianer (Noble) for all time to come. (Article 45)
A bunch of certain shell (wampum) string each two spans in length shall be given to each of the female families in which the chieftain titles are vested. The right of bestowing the titles shall be hereditary in the family of females legally possessing the bunch of shell strings, and the strings shall be the token that the females of the family have the ownership to the chieftainship title for all time to come...(Article 17)
If any Chief was seen as not caring for the welfare of his people, he was given 3 opportunities to rectify his behavior. If he did not, his title was returned to the women of his clan.
"So you,............, disregard and set at naught the warnings of your women
relatives. You fling the warnings over your shoulder to cast them behind. Behold
the brightness of the Sun, and in the brightness of the Sun’s light, I depose you of
your title and remove the sacred emblem of your chieftainship title. I remove
from your brow the deer’s antlers which was the emblem of your position and
token of your nobility. I now depose you, and return the antlers to the women
whose heritage they are."
The women would then select another of their sons as a candidate and the chiefs would elect him. (from Article 19)
I invite you to read the articles in their entirety at this link, and reflect at the difference it would have made in our country's history had we followed them more closely.
One can only wonder how this article may have influenced our sense of equality between the sexes and perhaps even between black and white:
A bunch of wampum strings, three spans of the hand in length, the upper half of the bunch being white and lower half black, and formed from equal contributions of the men of the Five Nations, shall be the token that the men have combined themselves into one head, one body, and one thought, and it shall symbolized their ratification of the peace pact of the League, whereby the chiefs of the Five Nations have established the Great Peace. The white portion of the shell strings represent the women, and the black portion the men. The black portion, furthermore, is a token of power and authority vested in the men of the Five Nations.
It's interesting to note here also, how in a matriarchal society, power is shared among the men and women. Though women are very powerful in the Iroquois Nation, the power and authority of the men is clearly shown also. Contrast that with the subjugation and dominion over women present in our patriarchal societies.
You will note that there is no provision for a President of the entire nation. This alone prevents the abuse of power of one individual, what our current checks and balances are supposed to prevent. Our President's decision to invade Iraq, irregardless of the views of a majority of the country and the world, calls into question the current efficacy of those checks and balances. I wonder how this article would have played out in today's world:
If a war chief acts contrary to instructions, or against the provisions of the Laws of the Great Peace, doing so in the capacity of his office, he shall be deposed by his women relatives and by his men relatives. Either the women or the men alone or jointly may act in such a case. The women title holders shall then choose another candidate.
Perhaps the saddest omission from our government has been in the concept of relations. Iroquoian society and political life was traditionally based upon the family. In establishing a relationship with others, seeing them as brother was to relate to them as equals. When the Iroquois wished to show respect for a man, they would refer to him as "older brother", or "grandfather". Women, would be referred to as "sister", "older sister", "mother", "aunt" or "grandmother". The concept of seeing each other as family is sadly lacking in our country as a whole and only apparent if we consider the other 'our own kind'. What a difference this mindset would have made in our relationships with each other. How different the history of the world might have been.
While there is much in our history to look back on with sadness, some of what has plaqued our nation in the past (ie: slavery, women's rights...) has come a long way toward being healed and transformed. There is more to do, but we are a young country as countries go, and filled with the most loving, generous and compassionate people on earth. We have freedoms unheard of in much of the world, and the power to use those freedoms for the benefit of all. We come a long way toward our true greatness by acknowledging past errors, remembering the gifts of our forgotten forefathers, and by living according to their ideals of peace and liberty.
So, Happy Birthday, America. May you grow more loving and more prosperous this year. Where there is povery and homelessness, may all your children learn to share in your abundance. May your amber waves of grain feed all your hungry and may your children treat your magnificent beauty with respect and gratitude. May we take better care or you and each other, and may we never take your gifts for granted. May we grow into the loving family we were always meant to be, and may we extend that love to our family beyond our borders.