How the Founding Fathers took a page from the Iroquois book
THE pines and hemlocks murmur in the breeze on Nashawtuc Hill as Slow Turtle and Medicine Story quietly walk side by side to Willard Common, a hilltop overlooking the village of Concord. In a clearing carpeted with brown pine needles, they join hands with a circle of about 50 American history buffs and international students, and Medicine Story offers a prayer in a near-forgotten native American language.
As he prays, open-eyed, Medicine Story motions to the heavens, the earth, the wildlife, the trees, and the circle.
Then Slow Turtle smiles and begins to speak about the Iroquois League - an Indian idea of confederation - as a foundation for the Constitution.
``Other forms of government have taken a page out of the book of the Iroquois nation,'' he says. Supreme medicine man of the Wampanoag nation, Slow Turtle is also executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs.
``You'll see a lot of commonalities'' with today's forms of government, he continues. ``They've all taken a page out of this [Iroquois] book. The bad part about it is they have left out the spirituality. They left the key out of their form of government.''
The small gathering feels the chill of the fall air as a cool wind brings a brightening of the clouds. The homeland of some participants is the hot heart of Africa. One is from a warm Caribbean island off of Colombia.
``For the first time people are beginning to realize the debt that the Constitution owes to the native people. There are a lot of new books suddenly coming out about that,'' says Medicine Story, medicine man of the Assonets as well as author and storyteller.``Thomas Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers of the country had studied various Indian nations - particularly the Hodinonhsioni [people of the long house], the six nations, and the [American Indian] great law of peace, which was the oldest United Nations in the world, a continuing peace that lasted for a thousand years.''
``The unity of those people was what really impressed Franklin and others,'' says Medicine Story, ``and they decided that the 13 Colonies should be unified, and [later] put together this Constitution. The main thing about the Constitution that went wrong in the eyes of the native people, who still value their unity and peace and so forth, is that it was not rooted in a spiritual concept of who they were in the universe.''
Medicine Story's eyes pan the cloudy sky and blowing branches as he speaks. ``[Native Americans] remind themselves of that [concept] continually so that their deliberations come from a very unified place, a place of deep spirituality. And you don't have the right and the left, the adversary principle operating there all the time.
``I have been with councils of chiefs of those people and found them to be the wisest deliberations I've ever seen in any group of human beings on this planet.''
In advocating unity of the American Colonies, Benjamin Franklin was well aware of the Indian confederation - although he did not always speak flatteringly of the Indians.
In 1750 he wrote, ``It would be a very strange Thing if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.''
And so it is not surprising that John Rutledge of South Carolina, chairman of the Committee of Detail in the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia - the committee that was to draft the Constitution - is said to have read to the committee the Iroquois agreement of 1520. It begins, ``We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity and order....''
The words themselves provide black-and-white proof that the ideals of the Iroquois League had direct influence upon the drafting of the Constitution. Yet by 1779 - after the American Colonies had joined together, but well before the signing of the Constitution - the morale of the Iroquois was largely destroyed by their defeat at Elmira, N.Y. In the Second Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784), the Iroquois League essentially came to an end.
According to Stuart Weeks, executive director of the Center for American Studies at Concord, which is sponsoring this ``council,'' ``The most important principles [of the Iroquois confederation] were the following:
``Leaders had to have the assent of the governed, who also put restraints on them.
``Leaders were to be the servants of the people, not rulers.
``Each nation governed itself but federated with others for strength.
``Women had the right to participate in government equally with men.''
A chickadee and a chipmunk sound shrill warnings as the group on Nashawtuc Hill startles them by standing up and beginning to depart.
Small Turtle and Medicine Story walk slowly down the hill, each conferring softly with an individual who is neither a non-native American nor a native American.
And rain threatens the day.