The Other Founding Fathers (and Mothers)

The seeds of American democracy were planted by the land’s true natives.

A thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago, or in time unfathomable, democracy arose on American soil. It was not 1776.

Across Great Lakes, from a place called Huronia, a prophet arrived to a war-torn land, blood-soaked, cannibal-infested, self-absorbed, greed-blinded. This man, Peacemaker, performed miracles defying death. He converted a twisted snake-headed sorcerer into the wisest benevolent leader, and a war-mongering woman into a peace activist named Jigonsahseh.

Peacemaker changed the world not by physical force, but through the Good Mind, instated in legal theological code called the Great Law of Peace, preserved in oral tradition and documented in wampum belts, woven shell beads. Uniting five warring nations into one indomitable confederacy, he organized fifty chiefs in a council mediated by consensus, appointed by matriarchs, clanmothers.

Satisfied with his work, Peacemaker departed in a stone canoe.

Where? Where is this mythic land?

New York State.

The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, now comprise six nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, and Seneca. Their traditional government persists. Their central chief, Tadodaho, carries the transformed snake-haired sorcerer’s legacy, and their clanmothers hold the line of Jigonsahseh, Mother of Nations.

Apparently mundane locations — Cohoes Falls, Syracuse, Victor — are sites of the hero’s journey. Akin to Bethlehem or Lhasa, they are filled with mythos and power, places for sacred pilgrimage.

America’s founding fathers knew the Haudenosaunee well — variously as enemies, allies, trading partners, power brokers.

Benjamin Franklin published an Onondaga chief’s counseling words to colonists at the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster. Canasatego advised,

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 much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another.

In 1776, the Haudenosaunee, along with Native Americans across the continent, were in a world of drastic, dangerous change. By that time, missionaries, epidemics, European imperial contests, and colonial land thirst had already affected indigenous societies for more than 200 years. Some peoples didn’t make it. We know that up to 90 percent of populations in certain areas succumbed to unfamiliar diseases. Others, like the Haudenosaunee, mobilized new resources, took advantage of colonial alliances, and expanded their influence to reach from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Christianity was alternatively disruptive and redemptive, as shown in the case of a new saint. A hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, a young Mohawk girl survived smallpox and became an ardent Catholic adherent. Upon her death in 1680, her disease-scarred face miraculously morphed smooth and luminous. She was called Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lilly of the Mohawks. Pope Benedict XVI canonized her in 2012.

Religious divisions contributed to increasing fracture among the Haudenosaunee, and it was the American Revolution that nearly destroyed the ancient confederation.

Some Iroquois nations fought for the Americans, others for the British — and factions within each of these weakened their power, as Canasatego had warned decades earlier.

The most devastating event to the Haudenosaunee during the American Revolution happened in 1779. An American scorched-earth campaign against the pro-British faction, the Clinton-Sullivan Expedition, obliterated villages, burned vast corn stores, and took many families’ lives. It brought near annihilation, yet survivors hid in gorges, eking out life day by day, eventually confined to reservations. Free movement ended, hunting declined, and long dark days lay ahead.

The Quakers activated in the post-war era, taking responsibility to inculcate Haudenosaunee, especially the Seneca, in their ways of life. European-based farming techniques, houses, family organization all further encroached.

In these uncertain, degraded times, another prophet emerged. Handsome Lake, a Seneca and half brother to the great war chief, Cornplanter, alcoholic and despairing, experienced a powerful vision in 1799. The Good Word, the Gaiwiio, came to him, revealing a way to live by the Great Law under new, repressive conditions.

Like the Great Law of Peace, the Handsome Lake teachings are also widely practiced among Haudenosaunee peoples today.

And 2014? The world is still complicated, evolving, globalizing. The Haudenosaunee are still insisting on their sovereignty, debating indigenous and Christian theologies, living as nations within a nation.

Americans should remember our other founding fathers — and mothers – and continue to value their contributions and cherish our shared legacy. We all could use more of the Good Mind.

Gabrielle Tayac
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  • Martin Hughes

    How certain are we of the authenticity of the Great Law text? Where are the oldest wampum strings and have they been carefully compared?