The Haudenosaunee Influence on the U. S. Constitution

Something I never really learned in school whenever I studied the United States government was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) influence on the U. S. Constitution. In fact, I don’t think I learned about this until I was a high school English teacher, teaching American literature. I am fairly certain the Prentice-Hall textbook I was using had excerpts from the Iroquois Constitution in it. And that was my first exposure to the notion that the U. S. Constitution wasn’t born fully formed from the heads of our Founding Fathers, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

The [Haudenosaunee] constitution, also commemorated on Wampum (beads fashioned from the shells of whelks and quahog clams), included more than a few familiar concepts: a restriction on holding dual offices, processes to remove leaders within the confederacy, a bicameral legislature with procedures in place for passing laws, a delineation of power to declare war, and a creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin were in regular contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, and Great Council leaders were invited to address the Continental Congress in 1776. (Wali)

You can read the Constitution here, along with commentary by Gerald Murphy, who remarks, “You will find it very difficult to keep in mind that it survives after some 500 or 600 years, and was originated by people that our ancestors mistakenly considered as ‘savages.'” PBS also has an article about how the Haudenosaunee Constitution influenced the U. S. Constitution.

We have even used the ideas of Native people against them. We really don’t learn enough about what our country’s founders thought about Native people or what their dealings with Native people were like.  Take, for example, the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which has become enshrined in our curricula for elementary school. I asked my students this year how many of them played the parts of Pilgrims and Indians in a school play. Most of them did. Most of them had learned the story that Native people helped the Pilgrims, and everyone was so friendly that they sat down for a meal together in commemoration of their gratitude.

I dressed up like an Indian for a play in fourth grade called How the West was Really Won. My grandmother made my costume, and I remember going barefoot because of my lack of education about Native people. The costume was made out some kind of felt, but it was meant to look like animal hide and had fringe meant to mimic Native dress (read: a White person’s notion of Native dress). In fact, it didn’t look too different from this outfit, which you can purchase for $19.99 from Party City.

Can someone please explain to me why it’s okay to dress up like this in 2020? This is so racist.

In the play, I had a solo in a song called “The Iron Horse,” and the lyrics were essentially about how the White man was coming to destroy the Native way of life. None of this was seen as problematic.

The United States has perpetrated a genocide against Native people. The erasure is compounded by the fact that we do not bother to teach the truth about Native people and Native history in our schools. I highly recommend Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land, which is available in a variety of formats linked on their website. Also, David Treuer’s book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (reviewed on my other blog) and Tommy Orange’s There ThereThere are so many amazing passages, but this metaphor for systemic racism stands out in light of the subject of this post.

This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agitator gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

I do not think the fact that people are toppling statues of Columbus at the same time as Confederate Monuments are coming down is happenstance or coincidence. Both are symbols of White supremacy and the erasure of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). It is our responsibility to uncover whose voices we are missing in our education and listen to those voices.

In one of the most stunning passages of Yaa Gyasi’s phenomenal novel Homegoing, her character Yaw, a teacher, says the following to his class:

So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©

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