Spirit of Ma'at: "Freedom & National Security" — Vol 2 May 2002

The Iroquois Confederacy

Our Forgotten National Heritage

with Dr. Donald Grinde, Jr.

by Carol Hiltner


The painting above, "Song of the Soul," is a limited edition by Native American Mark Silversmith. It is available for purchase at AllPosters.com.


There are vast differences between European and American culture. And, according to Dr. Donald Grinde, Jr., history professor at the University of Vermont, many of these differences are owed to the early settlers' contact with Native Americans.

In particular, Dr. Grinde has put a life's work into documenting the huge contribution that the Iroquois confederacy made to our form of government.

Although his assertions in this regard are hotly contested by those historians who have a more Eurocentrist bent, the understanding is gradually seeping out to the American public that the Native Americans gave, to all of us, much more than turkey and cranberries.

Carol: I was amazed, in reading your book,[*] to realize how much of our American history has been lost or recast. Even in the nineteenth century, people possessed understanding that has really been lost today.

Dr. Grinde: That is because after the turn of the century few people had contact with Indians — people only thought about them as existing in museums. And there was an enormous influx of immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who never had contact with Native Americans.

Also, that whole aspect of history was what I refer to as "submerged." It never really went away, but there just wasn't any attention being paid to it any more.

Carol: I had never thought about how much the early Colonists would have been living within the Native American civilization that was already here. Of course there would be interaction.

Dr. Grinde: And many people fled England because they were critical of English society and its structure. They came to America and they found societies without kings and nobility — where everyone was free. There was little or no inequality with regards to wealth. There was enough food to go around — everyone ate.

These were not just observations of Native American societies. They were quite frequently criticisms of European society that these European immigrants were leveling, because they were among the reasons why they left the European nations to come to America.

Carol: I actually trace my history back to the Mayflower, and ideas have come forward through the families. One of the things I've always wondered is where this rather enlightened streak in American history came from — because although the Puritans were seeking something other than monarchy, they also had a very rigid society.

Dr. Grinde: Contact with Native Americans accounts for part of that "enlightened streak." Native people believe that the environment you live in determines a lot about what you are — I call it "ecocentrism." Because the early Americans were living in less populated areas, and living with societies that were less autocratic and also had ideas about individual freedom — particularly with regard to conscience and religion — these ideas just kind of rubbed off over the generations.

Also, of course, it's important to understand that whenever Europeans like the Puritans came to North America fervent with their beliefs, they were just as fervent in preserving aspects of what they perceived as positive in their European experience as in eliminating the negative things. But within a couple of generations, most of the early Americans had not been back to England, so whatever had been imported no longer existed in its entirety. It had been adapted to the North American environment.

Carol: And so, generations and generations down the road, we have again forgotten how it was then. What was the Iroquois federation, and how did it impact the Colonists?

Dr. Grinde: The Iroquois confederacy was the League of the Haudenosaunee — 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.

This confederacy was a kinship state that we think 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.

Carol: Like property ownership?

Dr. Grinde: Property ownership was done collectively, through the clan. The clans were run by women. They saw the earth is feminine, and the plants as feminine, so agriculture was the purview of women. The clans owned plots of land to grow agricultural produce to feed the members of their clans.

Carol: When the new European Americans were showing up in numbers and later when we were trying to put together a country that was different from European governmental structures, what was it that the Iroquois confederacy contributed?

Dr. Grinde: 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. Also, they observed that resources were distributed according to need, not according to social class.

These observations, plus the notion that everyone was free and equal, were important aspects of this critique of European society that was developing in North America.

Carol: How did the Iroquois manage their freedom and security in a way that was different from the monarchy system in Europe?

Dr. Grinde: It was a federal system. The basic unit of government was a hearth, or otiianer — the Haudenosaunee word for clan. This clan was usually headed by an older woman. The basic aspects of day-to-day existence were decided by this older woman.

She usually had a council of other "grandmothers," as they are often called. They divided up labor for agricultural production, child care, 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.

Carol: How did they manage misbehaviors?

Dr. Grinde: European society is a guilt-oriented society — in other words, there is a list of rules and dos and don'ts, typified by the Ten Commandments. Bad behavior brings punishment.

Most native societies, on the other hand, are shame-oriented. Bad behavior brings disgrace, not only to self but to the clan. So children are raised up knowing that certain behaviors reflect well upon the clan and upon the image of the group overall in society. So the impetus to create social norms and enforce them is to sustain the honor of your family.

It is more of an Asian orientation than it is European. It is the group that makes the decision about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

Carol: What is the legacy of the Iroquois as it relates to the formation of the United States? What are some of the specific tenets that the United States did adopt?

Dr. Grinde: One of the big things leading up to the American Revolution was the idea of unity of diverse states. Most American revolutionaries understood that it was a difficult task to unify across what they called a wide geographic expanse, from Massachusetts to Georgia, a thousand miles or more. This was much larger than any European nation except Russia, at that time.

Across that geographic expanse, there were a variety of people. Even though they all ostensibly spoke English, there were Catholics in Maryland, Puritans in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania — and much more. There was great religious diversity.

And then there were ethnic groups — Germans going into Pennsylvania, and various other ethnic groups from the British Isles — Welsh, Scots, Scotch-Irish.

How do you pull all that together without coercion, without the iron fist of a monarchy? Many people were fascinated by how the Iroquois achieved that unity without an army having to enforce it, without a coercive government.

Carol: Are you saying that the Iroquois "armies" were for external protection rather than internal order?

Dr. Grinde: Yes, they were for defense against outside invaders. The whole unity rested upon the goodwill and cooperation of the clans. It was assumed that cooperation would keep people together because it was to their advantage for defense.

Carol: Were there other major features?

Dr. Grinde: Yes, there was separation of powers. John Adams, on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, pointed out that the best example of separation of powers was the Iroquois confederacy, because they had three distinct branches. In many discussions I have read by political theorists about what makes American democracy unique, they say that it is the separation of powers — the three branches, separately autonomous and mutually counterbalancing.

In England, there are no branches of government. Everything is theoretically vested in the crown. Then, out of the crown come various sub-levels like the legislature and the judicial, but they are all subject to the crown.

Carol: That's quite a difference!

Dr. Grinde: Often people have told me that they can't believe that the American Constitution was derived from Iroquois ideas and government. They believe it comes from the British Constitution. I say, "Have you ever seen a copy of the British Constitution?"

The point is, there is no copy of the British Constitution! There is no place you can go and see it as you can our Constitution in Washington, DC. The British Constitution is the sum total of the acts of Parliament for the last thousand years. There is no corpus of laws and articles and so on in the British Constitution.

Carol: Forgive my ignorance on this, but what about the Magna Carta?

Dr. Grinde: The Magna Carta was a writ issued by the king of England to his nobility, granting them certain rights. Those rights were coerced out of him by the nobility, and it did grant some rights to them — but it didn't have an awful lot to say about the common people.

Carol: And it was still coercion...

Dr. Grinde: Yes. In exchange for less onerous taxes and some consent over taxation, the nobility had to give up certain things to the crown. It was a coercive, negotiated settlement about a little redistribution of the power.

Carol: Any other big pieces contributed by the Iroquois?

Dr. Grinde: Well, besides unity and the separation of powers, there was the notion of liberty, that people are free within social norms to do what they want to do: individual freedom. That concept of freedom translated into the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech, religion, assembly.

Elements of this are in the British system, but they can be compromised in time of war. For instance, Margaret Thatcher eliminated the free press during the invasion of the Falkland Islands. That would be comparable to George W. Bush's eliminating the free press when we invaded Afghanistan.

Even when there is no direct threat, if the prime minister thinks there is or wishes there were, and wishes for the press to go away — then that can be declared. That's part of the reason for specifically declaring, in writing, in the Constitution and in the Bill of Rights, that certain things are protected. That is an important feature.

Carol: From what you have written, it looks like a lot of the Bill of Rights comes almost verbatim out of the Iroquois system.

Dr. Grinde: Yes, the idea is freedom of expression, and having few or no penalties for that.

In the clan society, you are required to get up in the morning and do what we could consider "going to work," whether it's hoeing the fields, chopping wood, or whatever your share is to contribute to the material comfort of the people you live with. After that is done, so long as it doesn't cause harm or is not condemned by society, you are basically free to do what you want.

That's a different kind of freedom than a bunch of dos and don'ts — and everything not on the list is forbidden. It's a flipping of that. The primary thing you have to do is the work that supports the physical comfort of the society. Once you're done with that, you can pretty much do what you want to do as long as it doesn't harm anyone.

Carol: Well, that's how I've tried to raise my kids [laughing]. Is there anything else?

Dr. Grinde: In terms of what the Americans of the times saw in, say, the Tammany Society. . .

Carol: Could you explain what the Tammany Society is, please?

Dr. Grinde: The Tammany Society was organized in the early eighteenth century in Philadelphia.

Initially, the common people in Philadelphia were able to fish in the rivers around Philadelphia in the spring for free in order to get food. Then the elites of Philadelphia tried to stop that, so the common people organized the Tammany Society, named after a local Delaware chief who helped in the founding of Pennsylvania. They asserted that they had the right to fish and otherwise had access to the natural environment, and that the state had no right to prohibit it.

The idea in the Tammany Society was that the common people had basic rights which must be defended when the elites tried to eliminate them. Their motto was: "This we shall defend with our lives." Jefferson reiterated this when he said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

That's part of what the Tammany Society was about — that if the common people are to keep their rights, they must continually assert them and maintain them. Otherwise, they will lose them by default. I think that that is an integral part of American society even today.

Carol: Certainly. Is there more?

Dr. Grinde: There was the notion of vesting sovereignty in the people. In England, you hear, "I, Elizabeth Regina, by the power vested in me by the Lord Almighty. . ." That's where English sovereignty comes from — God vests a power on earth through the monarch, and the monarch then exerts that sovereignty over the people.

The first phrase of the U.S. Constitution says, "We, the People."

In the American Constitution, as in Native American constitutions, "the people" is the place from which sovereignty issues forth. It is from "the consent of the governed" that governmental power comes. This is important, because it goes along with the separation of church and state.

If you put the church in the government, then you get into the problem that the church vests power into the leaders. In Native American societies, religion is not a part of politics — at least, it doesn't vest power in individuals. Power is breathed into leaders by the people, and those leaders then exist on that support. When that support no longer exists, then their power ceases to exist.

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

Carol: So, are those the most important concepts from the Native Americans that made their way into our government?

Dr. Grinde: Yes, those are the large concepts, but many other things issued forth from those ideas. For example, in federalism, you try to delegate authority to where the government is closest to the people. That's the way the Iroquois confederacy was set up.

The older women were closest to the basics of life, from childbearing to eating and sleeping. Men supported that, but the day-to-day operation was about women. The chiefs would say that their women had so much power because they could bear children, and the men could not do that.

The original purpose of the U.S. federal government was for defense, and that was the same in the Iroquois confederacy. Marriage, divorce, local economy — that was all down there with the clan mothers and the villages, because they were the ones who knew the most about that kind of thing.

Carol: The women's movement harks back to the Iroquois also, is that so?

Dr. Grinde: Yes, that's right. The women's movement started in western New York. Indeed, my friend Sally Roesch Wagner has done a great deal of research, and points out that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Jocelyn Gage, Susan B. Anthony — many of the early theorists of the women's movement — had a great deal of contact with Iroquois women.

The power of the Iroquois women was based in economics, since they controlled the fields and the agricultural production. Their power flowed from that, and that is an important part of how the Iroquois defined democracy: in order to be equal, one had to have a stake in society.

Europeans, looking at that firsthand, saw how it operated — that everyone had some money/property/wealth or access to it, which made it difficult for people to force their will on others.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton describes how, as a young girl on an Iroquois reservation — she was twelve or thirteen — she saw a man come up, and the mother of her Indian playmate went outside and talked to this man for a half hour or more. Then he handed her some money, they went to the barn and took a horse out, and he rode off on the horse.

Stanton asked the mother what had happened, and the woman said, "Well, I sold the man one of my horses. We negotiated the price, and then he gave me the money, and then he left with the horse."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, "What will your husband say when he gets home?"

The woman said, "Well, it was my horse, and I can do with it as I please."

For a young Euro-American woman, it was quite a revelation that this was possible, that a woman could behave in this way, holding property and disposing of it without the approval of a husband or father.

Carol: What you are describing — that that system could actually be an integrated part of a functioning society — is also rather revelatory to me, a contemporary Euro-American woman. It sounds Utopian.

Dr. Grinde: It's not without its drawbacks. People looking in from outside assume certain things, but in studying the dynamics of Iroquois culture, I have seen instances where Iroquois men complained that women were pushing them into war quite frequently.

Carol: That's interesting. Why?

Dr. Grinde: For a variety of reasons.

Children might have been abducted by neighboring societies, and Iroquois law required that they be regained or replaced, either through natural increase or through abducting someone from another society. Abducting a child from another society usually led to war and conflict.

Likewise, if husbands and sons went to war and were killed, then their deaths had to be avenged. Think of it — your husband or your son goes off to war and is killed, and the men come back and say, "Well, we punished them, but we didn't defeat them. But we don't think it's a good idea to go back and attack them again."

Yet there is a whole raft of widows and mothers who are grieving and saying, "Our husbands', brothers', and sons' deaths must be avenged."

Carol: But wait. Wasn't the purpose of the confederacy to stop that sort of thing?

Dr. Grinde: Yes, and it did stop that sort of thing between the five nations. We are talking about war with tribes that were outside the confederacy.

Another aspect was that because the power of women was vested in childbearing, when women got past childbearing age they would enter into "politics." They become clan mothers, but they also can become warriors. Quite often, middle-aged, postmenopausal women went with war parties to make sure that the men were doing a good job at their vengeance, exacting adequate reprisal for damages done to the clan.

There are records where the chiefs talk about taking captives back and handing them over to the women to be tortured. Remember, these would be women whose husbands and sons had perhaps been killed just in the past week. The men would say, "This guy is from that village." And the women would torture him for days.

Outside observers asked the men, "Why do you do give the man up to torture? You don't do the torture. The women are more interested in it than you are. You just give them the person and then leave."

One chief is quoted as saying, "I do that so they will grow tired of war."

At some level, we all understand this. I remember my mother living all of World War II without my father. And then the issue of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan came up.

People have to remember that in the spring of 1945, if you said to the American people, "If we don't drop the bomb on Japan, it's going to mean another half million American men dead. If we do drop the bomb, it's going to be lots of Japanese people dead, but not the American men dead."

Guess what men and women at home in America, as proved by their support of Truman's decision, decided was the best thing to do? They decided not to run the risk of losing their husbands and brothers. That's the way war is for people — men and women.

Carol: My last major question is how we got to where we are now with Native Americans, from what seemed to be a very mutually supportive situation back in Colonial times.

Dr. Grinde: Well, of course there was the notion of conquest. With conquest and military domination, the next step is frequently genocide or at least removal of small pockets of remaining native populations.

By the late eighteenth century, there were only a little over two hundred thousand Native Americans within the United States.

Carol: Down from an estimated how many?

Dr. Grinde: The most conservative number is six million in 1492. Still others say fifteen to twenty million.

I maintain that part of the reason for the submersion of this story is genocide and ethnocide. You can't justify the whole conquest and subjugation and destruction of Indian populations if there are things of value in the people you are destroying.

The whole idea of genocide is that the people you are destroying are of no value at all, and their culture is of no value.

Carol: So what do you see as our recourse at this point — mutually, between us and the Native Americans?

Dr. Grinde: I believe it is important to let native people restore their societies and communities and governments, and to respect treaties and the sovereignty of Native American nations. This will not bring people back, but it will allow native societies to exist and blossom again, I believe.

Carol: Has enough of the culture been sustained? Have we been able to keep, for instance, the oral histories?

Dr. Grinde: It varies from one nation to another. After genocide, you get ethnocide. By the late nineteenth century, the emphasis was no longer on the physical destruction of the bodies of Native American people. Instead, through education, the emphasis was upon ethnocide: to destroy the mind and culture of Native Americans, both as an operating community and as individuals.

And different societies experienced that ethnocide at different levels. But the important thing is that all of those societies be allowed to maintain themselves and to nurture their society and to create it or recreate it in a way that's appropriate for them.

Carol: I am curious how you got started in this direction.

Dr. Grinde: Well, I am a Native American from Georgia, a Yamasee Indian. When I went to graduate school in American history, I was interested in the history of Native Americans. At that time, my adviser told me, "Well, you can't get a job doing that. Why do you want to do that?"

I said, "I am a Native American."

And he said, "I thought we killed all of them."

I said, "No, not all Indians are dead."

He was a Western historian — of the American West — so we worked something out for me to do. When I got out and looked for a job, people were interested in my teaching Native American history, so I started doing that some thirty years ago. I was one of the first.

Very soon, I realized I had to start writing. I had to write material that represented the Native American viewpoint a little better than it had been done, writing that contained a better understanding of what the native people were about.

Carol: It is so valuable to me to hear your viewpoint. I have wondered how and why Americans were different from Europeans, so it is useful for me to hear how integrated the Native American and immigrant societies were in Colonial times.

Dr. Grinde: One of the things about the so-called transplantation of European society is this: Think of being in Ohio in 1840 as a third or fourth generation white American of English origin. Not even your grandparents, or great-grandparents probably, have been to England. In the 1840s, you would be saying, "We're American. Not English."

Is that American-ness simply a transplantation of England to the soil of North America? Is that the only difference between being English and American? Obviously not. And where is the process of change? What are the contributors to that?

In the past, some people have said, "Well, it's just the frontier. Independent Europeans, Anglo-Saxons, move to the frontier. They fight with Indians, they build log cabins, and somehow, in that process, they create another society that's very different from English society."

But these thoughts give us no insight into where these other ideas come from. Did they simply come out of the air that people breathed in Pennsylvania or North Carolina?

On the eve of the Revolution, there were reports by English people touring the frontier that the white people were like Indians. They dressed like Indians, in buckskin. Reports in the South said that ministers were upset because at the end of a long hot day and hard work in a village on the frontier, everyone would just strip and go into the river and bathe, without any shame.

Carol: Oh, horrors.

Dr. Grinde: It would never be done in England. Of course, at that time, people weren't taking baths at all. Where does a basic thing like taking baths come from? It's not something that Europeans did on a regular basis until the nineteenth century. Many thought that taking a bath would kill you. But by the 1700s, Americans were taking baths all the time.

Historical descriptions say that early Americans got this new bathing habit from the Indians. People would asked them why they were doing this. "We don't do this in Europe."

And the answer would be, "Well, the Indians do it, and it feels good, and it gets you clean."

Another difference is that, like Native American societies, America is very child-centered. Europe is not. That is another very different attitude.

Carol: You know, I live out here in Seattle, which is still relatively the Wild West, so I am more familiar with the Native American culture than many who study it but live in the East. Native American cultures are much more a part of our society in the Northwest than I believe they are on the East Coast.

Dr. Grinde: Yes, that's why I have spent a lot of time in the West. I taught at the University of Utah, also at UCLA for a while, and at UC Riverside. For a while, they were more interested in what I was doing than they were in the East. But now, I have been able to get back to the East Coast, and that's what I prefer, because my research is here.

Carol: Is there anything else that you would like to include in this interview?

Dr. Grinde: One of the reasons that my work is somewhat controversial is that I'm one of the few scholars who maintains that democracy is not a completely European phenomenon.

My opponents argue that the Democracy Club is exclusively a white phenomenon, and that we are trying to get nonwhite people now to embrace this idea.

However, I did have someone in the government come to me several years ago and say, "We are very interested in your work. Now that the Berlin wall is down, you are one of the few people who says there are non-European roots for democracy in America. When we go to Africa or to Asia to talk about the benefits of democracy, we think it might be interesting that this is not an all-white phenomenon."

So politics change. And then the receptivity to ideas changes as well.

Dr. Grinde is coauthor, with Bruce Johansen, of Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy.* The entire book may be read online at www.ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/EoL. Dr. Grinde's email address is dgrinde@zoo.uvm.edu.




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