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IV. Comparison And Contrast Of The Great Law Of Peace And The

United States Constitution.

      The Haudenosaunee's were present on the eve of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and many of their ideas were spoken during this Convention. These ideas found their way into what would become the United States Constitution.  The Haudenosaunee Influence can be seen in the similarities of ideas found within the Constitution of the United States.

      When one examines the similarities between the Great Law of Peace (Iroquois Constitution) and the United States Constitution, one should keep in mind that their is a language and world view difference. The languages of the Haudenosaunee are pictorial and a language of caricature, in that one describes things and ideas by their appearance and habit. (24) For example, the Haudenosaunee have no word that means rabbit, per se; instead the Haudenosaunee word is tahontaneken, which means ears close together. The language describes the way the rabbit, in this case, looks and presents a holistic illustration of the object or concept described which the English language cannot capture. Thus, one should realize that what has been written in the English language about the Great Law of Peace is a good place to start but to fully understand the Great Law of Peace one needs to consult the respected traditional elders of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Furthermore, one should keep in mind while examining the influence, that the Haudenosaunee have no separate concept for philosophy, religion, and government, for they are all one within the Great Law.


1. Preamble OF The U.S. Constitution and The Great Law

      Perhaps the best place to begin this comparison is to examine the Preamble of the United States Constitution6 and the first three Wampums of the Great Law. Wampums 1, 2, and 3 state:

      I [the Peacemaker], Hiawatha, and the Sachems have planted a tree of Peace[.] ... Under the shade of this great tree we have prepared seats for you[.] ... Should any nation or individual outside the Sachems adopt the great Law upon learning them or by tracing their roots to the Great Tree ... they will be made welcome to take shelter under the branches of this tree. ... Five bound arrows symbolize our complete union. ... We have tied ourselves together in one head, body, one spirit and one soul to settle all matters as one. We shall work, counsel and confirm together for the future of coming generations. (25)

      In comparison, the Preamble of the United States Constitution states:

      WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America. (26)

      In comparing the two, the preamble stresses unity and providing liberty for posterity, which is similar to the Wampums of the Great Law that also mandates unity and provides for the future generations. (27) In the Great Law, the Haudenosaunee use the symbol of five bound arrows to describe their unity and the strength of the Five Nations. Interestingly, the Great Seal of the United States of America, designed by Charles Thomson in 1782, had an eagle clutching in its claw a bundle of thirteen arrows. (28) Thomson originally proposed the use of five or six arrows, which was like the Five Nations bound arrows; however, Congress preferred thirteen. While the language is not exact, the symbolism and ideas are similar enough to see the influence.


2. Number of Representatives and Senators compared to Great Law.

      The Great Law's representatives are the Chiefs, Clan Mothers, Faithkeepers, and Pine Tree Chiefs. (29) Although the U.S. Constitution has a set number of representatives and senators based on a different set of rules, a general influence of the Haudenosaunee can be seen. For example, the Grand Council is composed of the Chiefs of each nation, but when they meet in Grand Council, these same chiefs then divide into three sections, the Elder Brothers, Younger brothers and the Onondaga, which is similar to the decision-making process of the U.S. Constitution's two-house congress.

      The Great Law provides that the Haudenosaunee should have 50 Chiefs or Rotiianison (men of good), which is the number of chiefs who first accepted the Great Law. These chiefs are chosen for life terms and must be married and have children. (30) There is no age requirement. Whereas, the U.S. Constitution provides that the a representative should be 21 years of age, and "[t]he Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand"18 citizens of each state.

      The Great Law, like the U.S. Constitution allows for impeachment of those in office not doing their duty. While, the senators for the U.S. "have the sole Power to try all Impeachments ... no person shall be convicted without concurrence of two thirds of the Members present." (31) The Great Law provides that the women have the sole power to "dehorn" (impeach) a Chief. If a Chief acts improperly, or if during a deliberation the Clan Mothers see that the Chief is not acting of the good mind or he is stalling consensus because of his own selfish reasons, then the Clan Mothers will call him outside. (32) Once outside, the chief will be talked to and warned that he is not acting with the best interests of the people in mind. If he persists to act wrongly, the Clan Mothers will have his antlers, which show his authority as a chief, removed from his kastoweh (hat); thus dehorning (impeaching) him.


3. Executive Power and Women

      The U.S. Constitution provides that the executive power is vested in the President, who shall hold his term for four years, must be elected into office, and shall be thirty-five years of age or older. (33) The Great Law provides for an executive-like power within the Grand Council in that the Onondaga Chief Hononwiretonh, who has gotten his seat through the Clan mothers has the final say as to whether a matter is either confirmed or denied.

      Women amongst the Haudenosaunee are considered equals, and they are important to maintaining balance and harmony. Unfortunately, the founding forefathers of the U.S. Constitution did not embrace the Haudenosaunee's respect for women, for it was not until the year 1920 when the 19th Amendment was made into law allowing women to vote. (34)

      The Great Law provides that women, the clan mothers, shall pick the chiefs. Women were given this duty and responsibility by the Peacemaker, for women were the first to accept the Great Law of Peace, and they are the ones to give birth, raise, and care for the children. Therefore, women are more sensitive to the maternal needs of the children and the people. (35)

      Although the Women are empowered to choose the Chief, the current chiefs must sanction their choice, which allows for checks and balances; therefore, the Haudenosaunee avoid concentrations of power by making sure there is consensus and not just a majority acceptance.

      The aforementioned are just a few of the many comparisons between the United States Constitution and the Great Law of Peace. When one looks at the Great Law of Peace in its entirety and the U.S. Constitution in its entirety, one is able to see evidence that the Haudenosaunee did have an influence on the founding fathers. The Great Law provided a foundation on which the founding fathers could build, for the Great law provided "the type of central government that would later be suggested by Benjamin Franklin to the colonies as an institution worthy of emulation." (36) The Great Law is a consensual constitution that "enunciate[s] such democratic ideas and doctrines as initiative, recall, referendum, and equal suffrage."(37)



      Ideas are strange in that they are hard to trace.  Artifacts, like, pottery and projectiles, can be radiocarbon dated and their relative age identified; but how does one date or trace back ideas? This paper has attempted to unravel and lend a guiding hand in ascertaining the Haudenosaunee’s perspective of the Great Law of Peace and the influence it had on the founding fathers on what would become the Constitution of the United States. However, perhaps the most profound aspect of this paper is not that the founding fathers were influenced by the Great Law, but, that it questions the basic tenets of Federal-Indian law and policy. In acknowledging that the Haudenosaunee had a complex centralized government, the Great Law of Peace, that was emulated by the founding fathers and existed before the first Europeans arrived, makes the U.S. judicial framework concerning Indians and federal-Indian policy in need of being reexamined and remedied. No longer can the native peoples be seen as uncivilized and in need of assimilation. An idea that the colonizers falsely used for hundred of years to legitimize the taking of Indian lands, and the taking of culture through missionaries and the numerous policies to assimilate the native people of Turtle Island.




25. TRADITIONAL TEACHINGS, supra note 8 at 31.

26. U.S. CONST. pmbl.

27. See generally, JAKE SWAMP, THE GREAT LAW OF PEACE AND THE CONSTUTION OF THE UNTIED STATES OF AMERICA 9 (1986)(comparing the United States Constitution, including the preamble, with the Great Law of Peace).

28. EXEMPLAR OF LIBERTY, supra note 1 at 246-47.

29. Faithkeepers can be male or female and are chosen because of their special knowledge and ability to pass on the traditional teachings to others. Pine Tree Chiefs are appointed because of their special concern and care for the people. The Pine Tree chiefs cannot be removed or impeached but if they do something wrong they are not to be listened to by anyone.

30. Tom Porter, Traditions of the Constitution of the Six Nations, in PATHWAYS TO SELF-DETERMINATION 37 (Boldt & Long ed., 1984).

31. U.S. Const. art. III Section 3, cl. 1 (amended 1913).

32. See Porter, supra note 98 at 37.

33. U.S. Const. art. II Section 1.

34. U.S. Const. amend. XIX; see EXEMPLAR OF LIBERTY, supra note 1 at 222-26.

35. See Porter, supra note 98 at 38-39.


37. Id. at 82.





last updated 6-23-99