Long ago (the Iroquois place the date at 1140AD), before the white man ever stepped foot on the North American continent (at least as we know of it today), there was a Native American confederation that was established for the purpose of bringing peace to the land they called Turtle Island (the known world at that time), and to abolish war forever. That confederation was and still is called the Iroquois confederation or the League of the Five/Six Nations.
The confederation was composed of five— and eventually six — Nations who were related by custom, language and blood. These Nations were the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondagas, the Cayuga and the Seneca. In the early eighteenth century (sometimes around 1722) the Tuscaroras joined the confederation, making the league six instead of five nations.
What is called the Great Peace of the Iroquois came about because of two men, the Peacemaker and Hiawatha (the real Hiawatha, not the Hiawatha of Longfellow’s poem). The Peacemaker does have a name in the history of this legend, but his name is generally not spoken, thus my reference to him as the Peacemaker. Each of these men had a vision of ending war and the fear associated with war, and bringing peace and unity to a people that would not only make the people strong, but would allow the people to live their lives in freedom.
The Council of the Great Peace was an extraordinary government, unparalleled in European culture. It made each man, woman and child free of government rule. and provided strong provisions to ensure that the chiefs remained responsible to the people. So strict and astute were these laws that if any chief began to serve his own needs, instead of those of the people, the offending chief was at once removed by the elder women of the tribe. That such men lived the rest of their lives in disgrace was evident.
Within the council a majority could not force the minority to their will. All had to agree before any law or action came into being, thus debate and oratory were highly valued. The Great Peace was a government truly of, by and for the people, and it influenced Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. When it came time to set up our own government and constitution, Benjamin Franklin studied the Iroquois confederation in detail. This is a fact that I didn’t learn in school, and in case you didn’t either, I thought I would bring the information to your attention.
There truly was a spirit of freedom and independence that filled Native America long before the white man “discovered” America. This was so much the case, that it was unwittingly written into James Fenimore Cooper’s books. In his prose, one can lay witness to a taste of this spirit. In fact, if one were to watch Michael Mann’s most recent rendition of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992), and listen to our hero, Nathaniel, one can hear him state that he is not SUBJECT to much at all. Such was the attitude prevalent throughout Native America. It was a country of free men and free women, and no “subjects” were to be found.
It was this concept of freedom and independence that met and influenced the first European settlers. Indeed, the European people who came to the shores of America had not been indoctrinated in the idea of freedom of thought. Instead, the Europeans came to America to escape oppression, and a government that considered people little more than chattel; the right to have an individual thought was almost nonexistent. Instead the “Divine Right of Kings,” where the King owned everything and everyone, ruled England and Europe.
Although the doctrines of Greece influenced our Founding Fathers, not even in Greece was the concept of equality and the idea of being beholden to none better embraced than in Native America. This was particularly so amongst the Iroquois, who gave our founding country so much.
The roots of freedom as we here in America have come to know it, grow deep in Native America.
In 1774, Iroquois Chief Canassatego issued some advice to the newly forming country of America. It was at a meeting in Lancaster that he said, “Our wise forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire such Strength and Power. Therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.”
I’ll leave you with this for today. In Britain in 1776, it was said, “The daring passion of the American is liberty and that in its fullest extent; nor is it the original natives only to whom this passion is confined: our colonists sent thither seem to have imbibed the same principles.”
SENECA SURRENDER is a book about the Seneca. It’s a book of passion, of unending love, of revenge, but it is also a book about the Iroquois Confederacy and their own idea of how the world should be free.
So the question that I’m posing for you today is, what is your concept of freedom? Are we as free today as we were, say in 1834? 1850’s? 1900? Come on in and let’s chat.