David E. Sahr
Courses in American government and history often begin with a summary of the contributions of classical and modern European philosophers. An alternative approach would be to examine the types of government that existed on this continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Many Native American tribes had sophisticated, popularly based, and well developed methods of organizing their societies. According to one author:
At a time when Europeans labored under authoritarian, hierarchical governments, most [American Indian] tribes possessed democratic and responsive governments. Many tribes practiced universal suffrage and incorporated provisions for recall, referendums, and other political processes, thought later to have been developed by American and European political theorists.1
The extent to which the framers of the U.S. Constitution borrowed ideas and concepts from Native American societies is a subject of much contention. It is known that Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson all visited the Iroquois and were knowledgeable about their governmental structure. Franklin was so impressed with the organization of the League of the Iroquois as to question why the colonists would not want to imitate it:
It would be a very strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted for ages, and appears indissolvable; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous.2
It is widely suggested that Franklin drew upon his knowledge of American Indian governments in proposing the Albany Plan of Union and helping to write the U.S. Constitution.3 Moreover, certain features of these governments-making the leader of the nation distinct from the person who leads warriors into battle, permitting unlimited debate in a legislative body, involving women in the political process, providing for the impeachment and removal of weak leaders, and the concept of federalism itself-could easily have been borrowed by the European colonists. While some persuasive arguments in favor of this idea have been made,4 there remains substantial disagreement about any direct link between Native American tribal governments and the formation of the U.S. government.
The focus of this article is not to try to resolve this complex question. Rather, it is to provide some concrete examples of well-structured American Indian governments and to suggest ways of exploring them in the classroom. After all, it is beyond dispute that the first "American" governments were those of the Native Americans. What is fascinating is just how well ordered, democratic, inclusive, and effective those governments were. What follows is an examination of key aspects of political organization among the Iroquois, the Muscogees (Creeks), the Lakota (Sioux), and the Pueblos.
The League of the Iroquois
In the body of literature describing Native American governments and societal structures, more material exists about the League of the Iroquois than any other nation. What follows is only a brief summary of some of the ways in which the League was significant.
The League of the Iroquois was formed sometime between 1000 and 1500 AD. While the actual founding date is not known, a Dutch explorer in 1616 talked to one tribal member who could recollect the names of 130 men who had been the chairman of the League-an office held for life.5 The League was a confederacy of five Native American tribes in what is today upstate New York: the Cayuga, the Seneca, the Onondaga, the Mohawk and the Oneida. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, later joined the League.
These tribes had been in a state of intermittent war until Deganwidah of the Mohawks proposed a confederacy. He apparently had a commanding presence and, along with the skilled Onondaga orator Hiawatha, convinced the tribes of the benefits of a unified league. They put down their weapons and formed what came to be known as the Gayanesshagowa, or Great Law of Peace. This peace continues to exist among these tribes today, and can be described as the longest lasting treaty in North America.6
The five tribes in the League came to be known as Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse. The Gayanesshagowa was the chief law of the League. It called for the creation of a "Council of Fifty," which was essentially a parliament with decision-making power composed of 50 representatives from the five tribes. The Onondagas were the moderators and chaired the Council. They held 14 seats, the Cayugas, 10, the Mohawks and Senecas, 9 each, and the Oneidas, 8. The Council met annually to discuss any issues that concerned two or more tribes (issues involving only one tribe were not brought before it). Because all laws had to be passed unanimously, any one tribe could block passage and thus-without possessing equal representation-exert equal power.7
The recognition of female power was not foreign to the League. In Iroquois society, each family was headed by a woman. Families were defined as a woman, her husband, their children, and their descendants. A clan was usually composed of several families, and a tribe was made up of three or more clans. Clans were headed by a matron who was usually the eldest or most respected female.8 Although women could not serve on the Council of Fifty, in some clans the matron nominated who would be the sachem, or tribal leader. She did this only after consulting other mothers in the clan to choose someone deemed as honest, generous, reliable, and with a sense of the spiritual. These mothers could also remove leaders who were found guilty of misconduct.9
As an indication of the power and influence of the League of the Iroquois, consider that at its height the League's authority extended from Maine to North Carolina, and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Its reign lasted more than 300 years. Moreover, the Iroquois were clever in playing alliances against each other, and gaining power through their diplomatic relationships. For example, the League first positioned itself with the Dutch and against the French. When the Dutch pulled out of North America, the Iroquois allied with the British. Had the Iroquois chosen to befriend the French instead of the British, they might have tilted the balance of power-helping the French evict the British-and North America would be French speaking today.10
From this remarkable Native American federation came numerous ideas about governance. Debate and discussion were integral to the passage of Iroquois laws. In fact, some believe that the U.S. Congress-in its custom of allowing speakers to complete their thoughts without interruption-follows the example of the Iroquois League; the British Parliament, on the other hand, permits frequent interruptions of the speaker.11
The Iroquois also followed the practice of admitting new tribal members on an equal footing with older members. While they defeated and demolished some tribes in battle, they allowed others to join the League as equal members with full rights. Knowledge of this practice may have influenced the United States policy of admitting new states to the union not as colonies but as equal members.12
Such commonly-accepted Iroquois ideas as universal participation in government, and holding leaders accountable to the people and removable from office for cause, later became fundamental to the U.S. government. Moreover, the fact that a sachem could not be the one to lead his troops into battle13 resembles the civilian/military distinction in American government.
But the most fascinating parallel between the Iroquois League and the U.S. government involves the concept of federalism. An acceptable balance of federalism-combining regional self-government with a central government that rules on issues affecting the whole nation-is what has held the United States together for more than 200 years. The recent breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are two examples of what can occur when a proper blend of federalism is not reached. The Iroquois provide an excellent example of federalism used to meet the needs of both the member tribes and the league as a whole.14 The Iroquois confederacy was truly a fascinating "league of nations," and arguably the first sophisticated government in North America.
The Muscogee Nation
The Muscogee, or Creek, Nation was a league of many tribes in what became the southeastern United States. By 1500, they had formed a strong confederacy of more than 20,000 people. Every summer, a Great Council met to make decisions on wars, treaties, and the admission of new members to the confederacy. The Great Council was composed of the leaders of each talwa, or village, the most important level of government in Muscogee society. There were about 100 talwas in the Muscogee Confederacy.15
The Great Council respected the right of each talwa to organize itself, and did not make laws governing villages. Each talwa had its own council to make laws, and its own judiciary to deal with law breakers. Each talwa also had several leaders. The micco, or civil chief, received ambassadors, negotiated treaties, dispensed food from the public granaries, and established feast days to celebrate hunts. The war chiefs led the armies in battle. And the este vcakvlke, or beloved old men, were advisors to the village.16
The clan system of the Muscogees was matriarchal. Newborns became members of the mother's clan and talwa. When a bride and groom were married, the groom went to live with the bride's family. The law required that individuals marry outside their own clan; this served to unify disparate clans by marriage and bring many together in one talwa.17
The Muscogees had a well-developed judicial system. In cases of theft, murder, and other crimes, a clan's honor depended on finding the facts and resolving the dispute fairly. The punishment for any infraction depended not only on the crime, but on the character of the defendant. If someone stole an item, it had to be repaid with twice its value. In the event of a murder, whether premeditated or accidental, judges might select from a number of possible punishments.
Capital punishment was one option, especially for a killer not well regarded by the community. Other options included requiring the murderer to join the clan of the deceased as if to replace that person's work value, or forcing the murderer to bring food and other goods to the victim's family. Once carried out, sentences absolved those convicted of crime, who were considered fully restored to the community.18
Above all else, the Muscogees valued harmony. When an issue arose where compromise was impossible, the dissenters were encouraged to move and establish their own community. They did so not out of shame or anger, but from a feeling of this being best for all to preserve harmony.19
Although the same volume of information does not exist about the Muscogees as about the Iroquois, they provide another example of a successful and well-structured society. Clearly, efforts were made to accommodate the local villages, but an overarching government existed as well to organize the confederacy. The Muscogee focus on justice is noteworthy and contrasts sharply with the League of the Iroquois, which left little evidence of a similar concern. The Muscogees recognized a need for justice as well as the importance of tailoring the punishment to suit the circumstances of the crime.
The most significant aspect of the Muscogee Confederacy was its stress on the community over the individual. In modern American society, where such great value is placed on individual rights, it may be hard for students to conceptualize a society where the good of the whole always took precedence. To some, this implies communism, and it is interesting to have students discuss the merits of a society with greater communal responsibility than the United States exhibits today.
The Lakota Nation
The Lakota constituted the western branch of a group of related tribes designated the "Sioux" by European Americans. Unlike the Iroquois and Muscogees, who had permanent settlements, the Lakota were a nomadic people. The tiyospaye, a group of about thirty families with kinship ties, formed the basis of Lakota society. Each tiyospaye was led by a headman, chosen for his demonstration of such qualities as valor, charity, good judgment, and spiritual powers emanating from dreams.20
An integral aspect of Lakota society was the fraternal organization of boys and men. These fraternities served as a basis of socialization and communal cohesion for a tribe constantly in motion. Two of the more important fraternities were the akicitas and the nacas. The akicatas were made up of the most skilled young men in each tiyospaye. These potential leaders of the Lakota were being groomed for the future and could join the fraternity only by invitation.
The nacas, or civil societies, attracted the older men of the tribe. One of these nacas, the Naca Ominicia, was paramount. It functioned as a tribal council, and its duties included setting the time and place of tribal hunts as well as declaring war on neighboring tribes. The Naca Ominicia was further broken down into an executive committee which, like the executive branch in our government today, enforced decisions made by the whole body. Each summer, the nacas of each tribe of the Lakota would meet to decide broad issues affecting all parts of the nation, ratify or veto decisions made by the nacas over the past year, and consult on issues of national security.21
Like the Muscogee and the Iroquois, the Lakota did not hold one leader to be supreme.22 To be sure, there was a leader, but he had limited powers and a limited tenure. However, as white settlers began to pervade Lakota territory, this pattern began to change. The settlers assumed that the Lakota had one paramount chief, since that is how their own society was organized. Moreover, they preferred to negotiate with one chief for simplicity's sake, it being easier to bargain with one than with many.
There were a few white observers who understood the limited power of Lakota chiefs. For instance, Francis Parkman wrote in 1846: "Each village has a chief, who is honored and obeyed only so far as his personal qualities may command respect and fear. . . .[T]he usages of his people have provided no means for enforcing his authority."23 But this understanding of Lakota culture seems to be more the exception than the rule.
(As an aside: when the Lakota and other tribes were forced into reservations it is no wonder that their chiefs-whom U.S. authorities assumed had complete control over their people-could not keep order and provide guidance in such a strange environment. For so long, the destiny of the tribe had been associated with nomadic behavior; with the life of the nation now wholly altered, a chief with limited power was simply unable to motivate and lead his nation.)
In spite of their nomadic lifestyle, the Lakota had a well-organized system of government much like the tribes discussed previously. Decisions were made on a consensus basis, with the headman leading the discussion rather than imposing his will. A system of federalism was in place to represent the various tiyospayes, so that while great autonomy existed for local decisions, there was also room for broader rules that governed the entire nation.
The Pueblos-the modern Hopi and Zuni among them-are descendants of the Mogollan and Anasazi Indians, and belong to a cultural group that has inhabited the southwestern region of the United States for over 10,000 years. Pueblo is the Spanish word for village; the Spanish called these American Indians the "Pueblos" because their houses were organized in a way similar to villages in Spain.
Central to understanding the Pueblos is their religious system. Pueblo society was (and is) a theocracy in the truest sense of the word, with no separation of religion from government. As one author states:
Religious beliefs and practices were an integral part of all political and social behavior. . . .Religion was not categorized or institutionalized but represented a whole system of beliefs that found expression throughout all of nature. . . . Pueblo beliefs were, and still are, based on the idea that there is a spiritual force within all of nature. Nature and God are one. Humankind's task is to maintain a harmonious relationship with nature.24
The leader of Pueblo society was referred to as the cacique. In many pueblos, this was a position held for life. However, as with the Lakota, this leader was not supreme, but ruled by consensus. The cacique gave formal approval to ideas that were already gaining acceptance in the larger community. The village provided the cacique with food and the necessities of life so that he could concentrate on ethical, community, and spiritual concerns.
The cacique had several assistants, including military advisers, to take care of day-to-day matters and leave him free to guide overall communal policy. Together, the cacique and his staff monitored irrigation, planting and harvesting, and the care of livestock. They also helped to resolve disputes, prepared for the defense of the tribe, and devised suitable foreign policy in dealing with other sovereign nations. In addition, a council of Pueblo leaders assisted the cacique in making and enforcing laws. Like the Iroquois, debate over issues ensued until unanimous agreement was achieved.25
The Pueblos make an interesting contrast with the Iroquois, the Muscogees, and the Lakota. While Pueblo society shared some political structures with each of these tribes, it was distinguished from all the others by its theocratic nature. While all American Indian tribes looked upon spirituality as an integral part of life, the Pueblo took this one step further. Their focus on religion and avoidance of any separation between "church and state" made their governmental structure unique.
This article has presented four examples of well structured and advanced governments on the North American continent prior to European contact. There are other Native American nations equally fascinating in terms of their political organization; the Yakima, the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Delaware, and the Apache, for example, would all make good subjects for further research. What may be of greater interest, however, is to study Indian nations who lived or live in proximity to your community.
One crucial point that may counter stereotypes involves the nature of leadership in Native American governments. The impression created by many novels and Hollywood movies is that chiefs were supreme dictators. In reality, most ruled by consensus, trying to persuade the various factions within their tribes to follow their policies. It is true that the chief's was the first-and perhaps the strongest-voice in a tribe, but it was certainly not the only voice. At a time when Europe was still ruled by kings and queens wielding ultimate power-and the idea of "popular sovereignty," or authority derived from the people, was not yet born-Native American tribes had already incorporated it into their political organization.
Attributes of leaders included bravery, good judgment, fairness, charisma, generosity, and skill at important activities.26 Clearly, these constituted an essential part of a tribe's value system. It is also worth noting that leaders were not usually chosen by heredity, unless the son (most tribal leaders were male) proved his worth based on his own abilities.27
An essential quality in any chief was articulateness. If a chief could not convince his tribe to follow his commands, then he had no power at all. Only through reason and oral persuasion could the rest of the tribe be brought along with the views of the chief. According to Father Le Jeune, who observed the Algonquians in 1634:
They have reproached me a hundred times because we fear our captains, while they laugh at and make sport of theirs. All the authority of their chief is in his tongue's end; for he is powerful in so far as he is eloquent.28
The role of discussion in Native American decision making is underlined by the derivation of the word caucus, which comes not from Latin but from Algonquian. In a caucus, the idea is for all to speak, and for the strongest views to come to the surface. Native Americans recognized the importance of prolonged discussion for achieving consensus. It is no coincidence that this method of communication should begin with American Indian tribes, who valued expressiveness and debate not only among their chiefs, but from all their leaders.29
Other features of early Native American governments included sharing powers between localities and the whole tribe (federalism), including women as well as men in the decision-making process, and forming policy based on the good of the nation as a whole in preference to individual rights. Introducing these concepts into the curriculum can make for more complete discussions of American government and history.
Native American Governments
The following are some activities and topics of discussion for students to address.
As a class, try to arrive at a decision based on concensus. This could be a simple decision, such as whether to hold class outside today, or it could involve a complex public issue, such as whether handguns should be banned in the U.S. How will you organize the class to try to reach a concensus? What obstacles do you anticipate having to overcome? What will you do to settle areas of disagreement? Now, try it!
At one time, Native Americans were viewed almost universally as savages by European Americans. Contrarily, some people today view traditional American Indian lifestyles as idyllic and without any flaws. Develop a framework to examine the political organization of various Native American tribes. You might consider such aspects as:
What features of American Indian governments do you find positive and negative? Why? Your framework will be enriched the more you learn about the different nations.
Identify aspects of the U.S. political system that either (a) might have been borrowed from, or (b) inadvertently imitate American Indian governments. Some examples are caucuses, impeachment, and the concept of federalism. Identify aspects of the U.S. government that are definitely not derived from Native American cultures.
The U.S. government holds the separation of church and state among its fundamental principles. This means, among other things, that no religious test can be required of a person seeking office, no state religion may be supported, and people are allowed to practice any religion they choose. What view might different Native American societies have taken of this? Why do we make so much effort to separate government from religion?
How do you think early Native Americans would be likely to evaluate the United States government today? (Obviously they would not all think alike.) What would they admire about our modern form of government? What practices would they not want to adopt? Support your answers with reasoning that you think best reflects the perspectives of early Native Americans.
Compare and contrast the importance of oral persuasion among Native American chiefs and current political leaders. For which group do you consider good speaking skills to be more important? Why?
Discuss the merits of having a nation governed by multiple leaders, each with a certain area of specialization, as among the Muscogees. In what ways is the U.S. government characterized by specialization? Do you think dividing the executive power among co-equal leaders would be more beneficial or more problematical to a modern nation such as ours?
1 Sharon O'Brien, American Indian Tribal Governments (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), xvi. The single best source of information on this topic.
2 Ernest L. Schusky, ed., Political Organization of Native North Americans (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), 29.
3 Donald A. Grinde, Jr., "Iroquoian Political Concepts and the Genesis of American Government," Indian Roots of American Democracy, ed. Jose Barreiro (Ithaca, NY: Akwekon Press, 1992), 47-66.
4 Barreiro, Indian Roots of American Democracy.
5 Trail of Peace-Boughton Hill (pamphlet). New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
6 O'Brien, 17-18.
7 Ibid., 19.
8 Ira Peck, "The People of the Longhouse,"
Junior Scholastic (21 October 1988): 13.
9 O'Brien, 20.
10 Ibid., 45.
11 Weatherford, 140-141.
12 Ibid., 139.
13 O'Brien, 20.
14 Weatherford, 137.
15 O'Brien, 20-21.
16 Ibid., 22.
17 Ibid., 21.
18 Ibid., 22.
19 Ibid., 23.
20 Ibid., 23-24.
21 Ibid., 24-26.
22 Keith Jewitt, Vice Tribal Chairman and Chief Operating Officer, Lakota Nation, Eagle Butte, S.D., Interview with author (August 4 , 1994).
23 Thomas Biolsi, Organizing the Lakota: The Political Economy of the New Deal on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservation. (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1992) 35-36.
24 O'Brien, 27.
25 Ibid., 29.
26 James L. Haley, Apaches: A History and Culture Portrait (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday & Co., 1981), 155.
27 Ibid., 156.
28 Schusky, 44.
29 Weatherford, 145.
Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
.Josephy, Alvin M. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Mohawk, John. War Against the Seneca: The French Expedition of 1687. New York: Ganondagan State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, 1986.
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln, NE.: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
Weatherford, Jack. Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America. New York: Ballantine Books Publishers, 1991.
"Americas Great Indian Nations" (Questar Video, Inc.). This 65-minute video summarizes the achievements and dilemmas faced by the Iroquois, Seminoles, Shawnee, Navajo, Cheyenne and Lakota nations.
David Sahr is an instructor of government and politics at the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC.