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August 19, 2010

Indigenous scholar gets to the root of American government

By Lailani Upham

Dr. Donald Grinde, Jr., professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York delivers a lecture on the Iroquois Confederacy, the Great Law of Peace, and their influence in shaping the U.S. Constitution at SKC last week. (Lailani Upham photo)
Dr. Donald Grinde, Jr., professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York delivers a lecture on the Iroquois Confederacy, the Great Law of Peace, and their influence in shaping the U.S. Constitution at SKC last week. (Lailani Upham photo)

PABLO — Who would believe that the U.S. Constitution was developed from the Iroquois Confederacy and not the British monarchy? Many scholars have continuously debated this concept since the beginning of American time - but Dr. Donald Grinde, Jr. is determined to prove them all wrong.

American Indian scholar Dr. Grinde delivered a lecture on the Iroquois Confederacy, the Great Law of Peace, and their influence in shaping the United States Constitution last Thursday at Salish Kootenai College.

Over 50 people were in attendance for the two-hour lecture at the Johnny Arlee and Victor Charlo Theatre.

Dr. Grinde is a professor and chair in the Department of American Studies at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. He has published numerous books on the Iroquois, Federal Indian Policy, and American Indian history.

Professor Grinde is of the Yamasee Indian decent. The Yamasee, a noted tribe of Muskhogean language, has a connection with early South Carolina history, yet occupied the east coast region and islands of south Georgia, extending into Florida.

Professor Grinde began his drive to research American democracy at a young age. Receiving a Ph.D. at the age of 23, he began examining the foundation of American democracy and government to find that it had many similarities to the Iroquois Confederacy. Dr. Grinde’s question to spark the lifelong research began with, “If American law is not like the British - then where does it come from?”

According to Grinde there are huge differences between European and American culture, and many of these differences are owed to the early settlers’ contact with Native Americans. Dr. Grinde life’s work has been documenting the huge contribution that the Iroquois confederacy made to form the U.S. government. Although his assertions regarding Native American influence to American government are hotly contested by many historians who have a more “Eurocentrist” bent, the understanding has been gradually seeping out to the American public that Native Americans gave, to all, much more than turkey and corn.

Grinde explained a brief synopsis of American history that many people fled England because they were critical of English society and its structure. The people came to America and found societies without kings and nobility - where everyone was free. There was little or no inequality with regards to wealth in Native societies and there was enough food to go around and everyone was taken care of.

Much of American history is dated back to the Puritans coming to this country and was seeking something other than monarchy.

Grinde explained the contact with the early Native tribes account for part of the “enlightened streak” and that Native people believe the environment you live in determines a lot about what you are, Grinde calls it “ecocentrism.”

The early Americans were living in less populated areas, and with societies that embraced ideas about individual freedom, particularly with regard to conscience and religion. These ideas kind of rubbed off over the generations, he pointed out.

His lecture included that when the Europeans came to North America fervent with their beliefs, with a bit of preserving positive aspects from their own European experience on the same note eliminating negative things. After a couple of generations, most of the early Americans had never been back to England, so whatever had been imported no longer existed in its entirety. Most had been adapted to the North American environment.

The early immigrants of North America had existed for several years with tribes along the eastern shore, known as the Iroquois confederacy. It was the League of the Haudenosaune, which is the Onondaga word for “People of the Long House.” The people of this confederacy occupied roughly what is now upper New York state, and consisted of five nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca.

Dr. Grinde explained that this confederacy was a kinship state that developed sometime in the fourteenth century, several hundred years before the coming of Europeans. It was dedicated to preserving peace and enhancing unity amongst these five nations. Yet, in the confederate model, it left a great deal of autonomy to the communities with regard to customs of marriage, kinship, culture, and other things.

The Iroquois had direct influence with the founding fathers and the influence of their democracy as a people yet it has been left out of the American Constitution, Grinde said. Over the years, Grinde’s work and passion has been to include the influence the Iroquois Confederacy democracy into American history and understanding.

As new European Americans were showing up in numbers and later trying to put together a country that was different from European governmental structures it was the Iroquois confederacy contribution that shaped what is the U.S. Constitution, Grinde said. “The earliest observation about native democracies, by John Locke and Rousseau and others, was basically that they had no kings and no nobility. That appealed, of course, to many immigrants to North America,” he said. They observed that resources were distributed according to need, not according to social class with the notion that everyone was free and equal.

Grinde’s point was that these observations were important aspects of developing a basic government for the people of North America.

The way the Iroquois managed their freedom and security was very different from the monarchy system in Europe, he explained. It was a federal system. The basic unit of government for the Iroquois was a clan. This clan was normally headed by an older woman, and the basic aspects of day-to-day existence was to be decided by this older woman. She usually had a council of other “grandmothers,” as they are often called and they were divided up by labor for agricultural production, childcare, cooking, and other such things. Also, they had veto power over going to war, and a number of other things.

The purpose was that the power of women would be balanced against the power of men. The challenge amongst the Iroquois was for both the women and the men to achieve unity and work together in balance and harmony.

Grinde explained that the women’s rights movement came out of this in some degree.

The formation of the U.S. relates to the legacy of the Iroquois through specific tenets that the U.S. adopted, such as the idea of unity of diverse states. The wide geographic area stretched for thousands of miles with a great religious diversity. The challenge was how would you pull all these people together without coercion.

The Iroquois Confederacy “armies” were designed for external protection rather than internal order and the unity rested on the goodwill and cooperation of the clans. It was assumed that cooperation would keep people together because it was to their advantage for defense.

Another major feature of the Confederacy came from the separation of powers. Grinde explained that on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, John Adams, pointed out that the best example of separation of powers was the Iroquois confederacy, because they had three distinct branches. He explained that in discussions he had read by political theorists about what makes American democracy unique, is the separation of powers - the three branches, separately self-governing and mutually counterbalancing.

The best example in Native government is the start of the Constitution of “we the people,” Grinde states. In the American Constitution, as in Native American constitutions, “the people” is the place from which sovereignty rises. It is basically from “the consent of the governed” that governmental power comes, according to Grinde. This is important, he explained, because it goes along with the separation of church and state. By putting the church in the government, can cause a problem that the church vests power into the leaders. In Native American societies, Grinde explains that religion is not a part of politics. At least, it didn’t vest power in individuals instead the power was breathed into leaders by the people.

According to Iroquois society, clan mothers could depose a chief at any time, simply by calling a meeting and having a discussion and a vote. Then the chief would no longer be in power, and they could appoint another chief.

Grinde’s other point is that England has no branches of government and that everything is vested in the crown.

Another point that Grinde shared is many people believe the American Constitution was derived from the British Constitution instead of Iroquois ideas and government. His question to them is, “Have you ever seen a copy of the British Constitution?” Why does he ask this? Because there is no copy of the British Constitution, there is no place to go and see it as a person can with the U.S. Constitution that sits locked away in Washington, DC. He also includes that the British Constitution is acts of Parliament for the last thousand years and there is no corpus of laws and articles and so on in the British Constitution.

Grinde shared that in his early years of research he went to look and take notes from the first draft of the U.S. Constitution. “There are guards that turn the page for you as you look down to read the writings. I stayed there for an entire day on my feet jotting down notes,” he said. The last person recorded to take a look at the first draft was in 1776, he said.

Although many scholars, historians and anthropologists oppose Professor Grinde’s research and findings, and the contribution that the Iroquois Confederacy had on the formation of American government; he still remains to have a scholar debate his work.

Professor Grinde has published over 10 books and 50 articles since the early 1970’s, and received publication commissions from the U.S. Congress and served on an advisory board of eight historians to plan the 200th anniversary of the Library of Congress. He has also given published testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. Professor Grinde specializes in Iroquois history and the history of Native American thought.

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