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America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part Six
The Haudenosaunee: America's First Democracy
The oldest democracy in North America was created by five Indian nations in what is today New York State. Those five nations, consisting of the Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Mohawk and Seneca nations, became known as the Iroquois Indians.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy came into existence hundreds of years earlier. A Huron Indian appeared, known as the Peace Maker. He devised laws and principles to live by known as The Great Law. In fact, the first wampum belt was produced to symbolize The Great Law.
“In all your acts self-interest shall be cast away. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present, but also the coming generations, the unborn of the future nation.”
The Five Nations would be independent, but joined together as one. The Great Laws were a set of moral teachings and a plan for a democratic union built around the social structures of the nations. Each nation was made up of clans that lived together in longhouses, which were owned by the women of the clans. The longhouses were up to 200 feet in length and held as many as twelve families with private areas and shared fires.
From this clan structure they built a representative democracy. The women of each clan would appoint one man as clan chief. In this way leadership would rise through trust rather than conquest.
The clan chiefs of each of the five nations gathered at the capital of Onondaga to form The Grand Council. They envisioned all five nations as sheltered by a giant longhouse stretching 250 miles. The longhouse’s central aisle was the Haudenosaunee Trail, the principle line of communication between the members of the league. The eastern door of the domain was guarded by the Mohawk and the Seneca watched the door to the west. In the center were the Onondaga, known as the keepers of the fire. The democratic confederacy envisioned by the Peace Maker preserved peace for centuries.
In 1754 Benjamin Franklin attended a conference with the Haudenosaunee in Albany, NY and was inspired. Soon after he would propose a similar union among the colonies.
In 1776, the Haudenosaunee were strategically located between both sides in the American Revolution and were seen as a key to victory. Both the British and Americans met with representatives of the Grand Council but the Haudenosaunee declared their neutrality in the conflict. Representatives of the Council did visit Philadelphia and officially recognized the American government.
During the summer of 1776 a Mohawk named Joseph Brant, whose family sided with the British, argued that an alliance with the British was the way to avoid being overrun by the Americans. Brant called a meeting in the Summer of 1777 to argue the British case. A Seneca man, Corn Planter, challenged Brant. He wanted no part of a war that wasn’t his to fight. The next day the Mohawk and Seneca broke with the Grand Council and agreed to fight with the British. Corn Planter resigned himself to their will and supported them.
The Oneida, because they had been influenced by American missionaries, sided with the Americans. On August 6, 1777, Oneida fighting men and their American allies clashed at Oriskany Creek with the British troops and their Mohawk and Seneca allies. Hundreds died in the battle. Mohawks and Senecas along with their British allies continued to wreak havoc on the Americans.
In his wisdom, George Washington sent an army against the Haudenosaunee capitol at Onondaga, the one nation still clinging to neutrality. After Washington’s army ravaged the city the Onondaga plunged into the war on the side of the British. In August, 1779 Washington sent General John Sullivan into Haudenosaunee country with 5,000 men. The army destroyed the homes, cattle, crops and fruit trees.
In retaliation, Joseph Brant attacked the Oneida and Tuscarora, who had sided with the Americans. In the long run, all of the five nations were ravaged. It was fall and crops couldn’t be replaced. It was the worst winter in memory, and many Indians died.
In 1783 the British surrendered at the Treaty of Paris. The sovereignty of the Indian nations was completely ignored in the treaty and the British surrendered all lands west of the Appalachians, including Indian land. The United States received all territory that it had claimed south of the Great Lakes -- east of the Mississippi, north of Florida. That was Indian country. In post-war treaties, the US government seized vast Haudenosaunee lands, including those belonging to their allies, the Oneida, whose women had helped save the lives of George Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge.
In 1790 the natives forced concessions from the United States at the Treaty of Canadaigua, New York, allowing them to keep their core homelands. (Some say Treaty of New York, 1790, Canadaigua in 1794. Check.) The Haudenosaunee still exist today and can travel around the world on their own passports.
Previously this writer did two articles on Tecumseh. Since Hubpages won't let me repost them, before moving on, please read these articles. A link in Part Two will take you back to the next chapter of this series on America, A Nation Blessed by God?