Indigenous scholar gets to
the root of American government
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.