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The Iroquoian Influence on our Democracy

By Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

The Dawn Country is the second book in the People of the Longhouse quartet, and is about the formation of the League of the Iroquois—the Haudenosaunee—around six hundred years ago.  This is a pivotal time in American prehistory—a time of warfare—but the violence was the catalyst for a peace movement that would change the course of world history.  The three principal figures involved in this story were: Dekanawida, Hiyawento, and Jigonsaseh.

Probably all novels begin with a question.  The question that started this novel was pretty simple:  How on earth did they do it?  The world was collapsing around their ears.  The violence displayed in the archaeological record is numbing (please see the non-fiction foreword in People of the Longhouse).  So, how did three people manage to end a war and establish the Great Law of Peace, the Kayanerenhkowa?

We know from Iroquoian oral history that the critical sequence of events began with the murder of Hiyawento’s family by the evil cannibal sorcerer, Atotarho.  To heal Hiyawento’s grief, the Peacemaker, Dekanawida, performed the first Condolence Ritual.  This ritual would influence American politics for centuries.

For example, at the Albany Congress of 1754, the acting governor of New York, James de Lancey, began his speech with the Haudenosaunee condolence ritual: “I wipe away your tears, and take sorrow from your hearts, that you may open your minds and speak freely.”  De Lancey then presented a string of wampum beads to lift the spirits of the bereaved nation.  The Condolence Ritual was meant to ease pain and confusion, particularly over the loss of loved ones.  In this case, the grief that needed to be assuaged was over the theft of Iroquoian lands by New Yorkers.  The fraudulent taking of lands had become so common that in 1753 the Iroquoian sachem, Tiyanoga, told de Lancey, “the Covenant Chain is broken between you and us. So brother you are not to expect to hear of me any more, and Brother we desire to hear no more of you.”  This announcement was one of the principal reasons for the Albany Congress.

From a historical perspective, then, grief was the problem.  It resulted in “blood feuds” that led to warfare, and resulted in a never-ending cycle of violence.  This was the task before Dekanawida, Hiyawento and Jigonsaseh.  They had to console five grieving nations and meld them into One Mind of Consensus that warfare was not the way for any of their peoples.

The fact that they did it is, perhaps, a sacred moment in time.

It is certainly a moment that shaped the foundational principals of America.  The Iroquoian constitution refused to put power in the hands of any single individual, like a king or queen, lest that power be abused.  It proposed a system of government that championed tolerance, respected the diversity of peoples, their religious, economic, and political ideals, their dreams.  Good government, the Iroquois believed, provided for referendum and recall, and assured the common good by guaranteeing that each person’s voice would be heard.  All of these concepts, so different from authoritarian European governments, would fascinate and heavily influence men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, especially when were crafting the constitution of the United States of America.

If you would like to know more about this, we recommend Bruce Johansen’s book, Forgotten Founders. Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois, and the Rationale for the American Revolution.


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  1. Paul Howard
    March 1, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Just a complaint.

    The idea that the Iroquoian constitution had anything to do with the US Constitution is a myth.

    I don’t think that myth should be included in an ad for this book.

    • March 2, 2011 at 4:08 am

      Or it’s not a myth. Read here for a good discussion of the issue: http://www.campton.sau48.k12.nh.us/iroqconf.htm

      Perhaps this review is a little too heavily on the pro side, but then again, the book isn’t about how the Iroquois Confederacy influenced anyone, but rather how it came to be, so it’s not really that much of an issue.

  1. March 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm
  2. March 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm
  3. March 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm
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