Lessons from the Iroquois
In our mediation efforts, some of us focus on public policy problems. The issues may involve energy, environment, infrastructure, public investments, community planning or public health. Or they may range across federal-state-city relationships, public-private partnerships, or policy dilemmas related to growth.
Once we are in the realm of “public policy,” we are inevitably poking our noses into questions of intergenerational equity and “governance” and how authentic collaboration can be achieved or improved. Governance is a big word. It encompasses all of the rules, norms, and power channels used by a business, a family, or a government to stay organized and solve problems.
The American version of democracy rests on a set of fundamental concepts developed when the colonies separated from England in the 1700s. The new and breathtakingly bold social contracts governing equality, freedom, and the mechanics of self-government were fiercely debated and then spelled out in foundational documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. They weren’t, however, the first such democratic arrangement in North America. In fact, there is a recurring suspicion that the thinking of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and other early American leaders was influenced by a three-century-old democratic alliance known as the Iroquois Confederation.
At its zenith, the Iroquois Confederation, or League of the Iroquois, consisted of six Indian nations: the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, Cayugas, and Tuscaroras. The territory of the Confederation ran from Lake Champlain to the Genesee River, and south from the Adirondacks to the territory of the Conestoga people.
The League came into being in the mid-1500s after a series of wars with the Huron and Algonquians and lasted through the American Revolution. It was governed by an oral constitution called the Great Binding Law, which exercised an agreed-upon authority over affairs between member tribes. The goal was “one heart, one mind, one law.”
Both legend and history say that the Confederation was founded by the real Hiawatha and his close friend and ally Dekanawidah. Unlike the cartoon pictures described by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Disney, the real Hiawatha was a great statesman and peacemaker. Together, he and Dekanawidah helped organize the League in the face of two threats.
One was the external predation of the Mohicans and other Algonquian tribes. The other was the internal danger posed by a despotic and often murderous Onondaga chief named Atorarho. Hiawatha’s and Dekanawidah’s early organizing efforts were slow to take root but succeeded when Atorarho was both pressured and flattered into helping lead the new alliance. Hiawatha’s and Dekanawidah’s persuasions were especially clever.
Structurally, representation to the council was uneven, with some tribes like the Onondagas having more delegates than others. The great equalizing rule, however, was unanimity. Each tribe retained its own sovereignty and could present any matter it wished for discussion. If at least one other tribe wished to hear the matter, the Council was obliged to hear it. Matters were then deliberated in a prescribed sequence with each member of the council having the right of veto.
As a practical matter, Atorarho had no more real power than anyone else. Disputed matters were discussed, compromised, postponed, or dropped. The collective will of the group was then expressed by the leading chief. If consensus was not reached, each tribe was free to act as it saw fit so long as it did no harm to another member of the Confederation.
Many rituals attended the Council’s deliberations, with different tribes serving as the carriers of different customs central to the whole. Though power was decentralized, some tribes were considered “Older Brothers,” which conferred early speaking rights, a kind of “first among equals” tradition when it came to meetings. The Onondagas became the “Faith Keepers” and holders of the council fire. Meetings were conducted in a Long House. Before the practical matters at hand were taken up, a condolence ceremony would be held to grieve for members of the Council who had died since the previous meeting.
This was followed by a roll call, in which the names of the great founding chiefs of the first Council were remembered. Most native peoples around the world preserve their longest memories in just such a way. They chant their genealogies and stories to understand how all are intricately related and to call to mind the enabling myths of their origins.
In those roll calls, and to this day, Hiawatha and Dekanawidah are remembered by the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora nations as great and wise leaders. The Confederacy they helped create is revered as “The Great Peace.”