Politicians wave the flag and march soldiers to war without any true understanding or respect for the actual history and purpose of democracy. Humans have always had heated debates about how to address the challenges of the day and choose the best direction to guide society. Councils of Iroquois Natives put a lot of thought into the art of discourse and collective decision-making almost 300 years before America declared her independence in 1776. The Iroquois Confederacy was based on The Great Law of Peace. Many of these original, indigenous teachings were adopted and incorporated into The United States Constitution and later into the United Nations. Now is a good time to consider The Great Law of Peace in light of the pressing issues of our day.
The Iroquoian system, expressed through its constitution, “The Great Law of Peace,” rested on assumptions foreign to the monarchies of Europe: it regarded leaders as servants of the people, rather than their masters, and made provisions for the leaders’ impeachment for errant behavior. The Iroquois’ law and custom upheld freedom of expression in political and religious matters, and it forbade the unauthorized entry of homes. It provided for political participation by women and the relatively equitable distribution of wealth.”
– Bruce Johansen, Forgotten Founders
The extension of liberty and political participation to women, who nominated the male leaders, was also an important part of The Great Law of Peace since the 1400s. Meanwhile, during the same century that The Great Law of Peace was founded by The Haudenosaunnee (Iroquois) in what is now the Northeastern United States, Christopher Columbus was arriving as an immigrant to The New World. Today Columbus Day is now called “Indigenous people’s Day” to acknowledge the many thousands of natives who were in America before it was “discovered.”
Pope Nicholas the fifth issued a Papal Bull which gave Christian explorers the “right” to claim lands not inhabited by Christians for exploitation and “discovery.” It was also stated that “Pagans” could be converted, enslaved or killed while the land and spoils would belong to Catholic Monarchs in Europe. Many people today claim that America was founded on “Christian Values” though history shows that the conditions of “discovery” by Columbus and Conquistadors were far from the principles of love and forgiveness taught by Christ according to the New Testament.
Currently America spends 10 times more on military and war than on healthcare, housing, and education. It is also one of the worlds biggest manufacturers and exporters of weapons to countries around the world. This isn’t just an American problem, it is a global issue since foreign policies are influenced by lobbyists hired by weapons manufacturers. We hear people complain of tax-dollars going towards healthcare, housing, and education as if it is socialism but we never hear of war as a socialist plot or an entitlement… Regardless of how far we have drifted from the founding principles of democracy we must turn our eyes to the noble promise of liberty and peace. What can we do to return to the roots?
Article 24 of The Great Law of Peace stated: The chiefs of the League of Five Nations shall be mentors of the people for all time. …they shall be proof against anger, offensive action, and criticism. Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will, and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the League. With endless patience, they shall carry out their duty. Their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodging in their minds and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation.”
– Akwesasne Notes, 1977
It is clear to see why Ben Franklin and the Founding Fathers of the United States had such a deep respect for these indigenous teachings as they actually mirrored Christian teachings. What would the world be like today if foreign policy was created with this kind of respect, honor, and statesmanship? What if foreign policy prioritized a respect for the land and the people?
In the Indian character resided a fierce individuality that rejected subjugation, together with a communalism that put the welfare of the whole family, tribe, or nation above that of individuals. America is the land of the individual and it should stay that way, but not at the expense of the whole family, tribe, nation, or planet.
– Bruce Johansen, Forgotten Founders
We are part of a global community. We see the effects of failed policies causing grave suffering for people everywhere. Our polluted air and water flow across nation borders unrestrained. Corrupt banking practices have shaken the foundation of the world’s economy and we see increasing polarization. Can we re-vision our planet with respect for the past while simultaneously incorporating these teachings and principles for our future?
The true ideals of liberty also include a responsibility to the greater community (locally, nationally, and internationally). Social, environmental, and economic responsibility and compassion are expressions of ethical values regardless of any particular religion, or nation-state.
This Indigenous Wisdom is still strong in the Americas. It is time to remember and practice it. This heals our past, our future, and plants seeds for healthy generations to come. Let the compost of history allow the Great Law of Peace to flourish.
You can learn more about this important history by reading Grace Li Xiu Woo.
There is a growing movement of people everywhere dedicated to creating peace from the inside and bringing it out into the world. Sometimes we are called to return to the roots, now is that time. May we learn to embrace that our diverse histories flow like many streams into one ocean.
PHOTOS BY ALFONSO BOVINI