American Indians: The original democrats
Many people think that our democratic tradition evolved
primarily from the Greeks and the English. But those political
cultures, steeped in slavery, aristocracy, and property-power,
provided only a counterpoint to the real source of our federal
democracy - the American Indians. In the following selections
from his book Indian Givers: How the Indians of
the Americas Transformed the World (Crown Publishers,
NY, 1988), Jack Weatherford looks into the historic record to
correct the mythology we have been raised with. -- Tom Atlee
The most consistent theme in the descriptions penned about the
New World was amazement at the Indians' personal liberty, in particular
their freedom from rulers and from social classes based on ownership
of property. For the first time the French and the British became
aware of the possibility of living in social harmony and prosperity
without the rule of a king.
As the first reports of this new place filtered into Europe,
they provoked much philosophical and political writing. Sir Thomas
More incorporated into his 1516 book Utopia those characteristics
then being reported by the first travelers to America.... More's
work was translated into all the major European languages....
Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, Baron de Lahontan, wrote several
short books on the Huron Indians of Canada based on his stay with
them from 1683 to 1694 [during which he] found an orderly society,
but one lacking a formal government that compelled such order....
Soon thereafter, Lahontan became an international celebrity feted
in all the liberal circles. The playwright Delisle de la Drevetiere
adapted these ideas to the stage in a play about an American Indian's
visit to Paris... Arlequin Sauvage,.... which had a major
impact on a young man named Jean Jacques Rousseau.... and eventually
led to the publication of his best-known work, Discourse on
the Origins of Inequality, in 1754....
During this era the thinkers of Europe forged the ideas that
became known as the European Enlightenment, and much of its light
came from the torch of Indian liberty....
When the American Revolution started, [Thomas] Paine served as
secretary to the commissioners sent to negotiate with the Iroquois....
[He] sought to learn their language and throughout the remainder
of his political and writing career he used the Indians as models
of how society might be organized.
- pp. 122-125
Reportedly, the first person to propose a union of all the colonies
and to propose a federal model for it was the Iroquois chief Canassatego,
speaking at an Indian-British assembly in Pennsylvania in July
1744.... He suggested that they do as his people had done and
form a union like the League of the Iroquois....
Benjamin Franklin...[was] Indian commissioner...during the 1750s
and became intimately familiar with the intracacies of Indian
political culture and in particular with the League of the Iroquois.....
Speaking to the Albany Congress in 1754, Franklin called on the
delegates of the various English colonies to unite and emulate
the Iroquois League.... This model of several sovereign units
united into one government presented precisely the solution to
the problem confronting the writers of the United Sates Constitution.
Today we call this a "federal" system in which each
state retains power over internal affiars and the national government
regulates affairs common to all....
The Americans followed the Iroquois precedent[s] of always providing
for ways to remove leaders when necessary .....admitting new states
as members rather than keeping them as colonies....allowing only
one person to speak at a time in political meetings....
One of the most important political institutions borrowed from
the Indians was the caucus....The word comes from the Algonquian
languages..... The caucus became a mainstay of American democracy
both in the Congress and in political and community groups all
over the country.
- pp. 135-145
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