More than 600 years before the United States existed, America’s original inhabitants were already practicing a form of democracy that Ben Franklin and other founders would later borrow from.

Much of the framework of the U.S. Constitution came from the way 12th century Indigenous people governed, a fact the U.S. Senate did not  acknowledge until 1988.

American history books credit Greece, Rome, and philosophers of the Enlightenment Age, but the Native American influence—from the legendary Hiawatha to the Haudenosaunee people—on American Democracy has largely been ignored.

This month is Native American Heritage Month, and next week marks the 400th anniversary of America’s first Thanksgiving. In commemoration, Atlanta Civic Circle takes a look at some of the contributions of America’s first citizens—and architects—of our Democracy.

“The only examples of democracy you had were here [in America],” Oklahoma City attorney and author Kirke Kickingbird told Atlanta Civic Circle. “You had monarchies in Europe which had a top-down rule. Europeans were used to authority. The democracy they saw practiced was an Indian tribal government just across the border from the colonies in the Indian communities.”

Kirke Kickingbird

Kickingbird, a member of the Kiowa Tribe, and his wife, Lynn, are the authors of the 1987 book Indians and the United States Constitution: A Forgotten Legacy. Kickingbird has practiced federal Indian law since 1969. In 1996, he became the first Native American elected to the American Bar Association’s Board of Governors. Twenty years later, he became the first Native American to chair the ABA’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

While white settlers were fighting during the American Revolution for the right to govern themselves, thousands of Native Americans were already living under a system of government that embodied much of what the founders crafted during the Philadelphia gathering in 1776. 

Many of the founders saw firsthand the democratic process used by Native Americans, Kickingbird said. Cherokee chiefs often had dinner at the Williamsburg, Va. home of President Thomas Jefferson’s father, and President George Washington grew up watching Native American government at work, Kickingbird noted. Ben Franklin urged the founders to follow the Iroquois way.

The Iroquois Way—America’s true democratic roots—dates back to 1142 when The Iroquois Great Law of Peace was created. It established a democracy among the once-warring tribes of the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and Mohawk, which became known as the Iroquois Confederacy. The Tuscarora joined the Confederacy later.

Their constitution was written on a Wampum belt. Here are several elements from the U.S. constitution that were inspired by the Confederacy’s governing style:

  • Limiting members from holding more than one office (Article 1, Section 6, Clause 2)
  • Detailing processes to remove leaders (Article 2, Section 4)
  • Designating two branches of legislature with procedures for passing laws (Article 1, Section 1)
  • Outlining who has the power to declare war (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11)
  • Creating a balance of power between the Confederacy and the individual tribes (The different  duties of the three branches of government: legislative (Congress), executive (president) and judicial (Supreme Court) balance and separate the powers of government. 

Years later, Onondaga leader Canassatego urged the 13 colonies to unite just as the Iroquois had. Ben Franklin printed the speech.

“We heartily recommend Union and a good agreement between you, our Brethren,” Canassatego implored. “Never disagree, but preserve a strict friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger. 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 fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another.”

Canassatego urged unity among the 13 colonies saying that many arrows can’t be easily broken as one. That metaphor later inspired the bundle of 13 arrows held by an eagle in the Great Seal of the United  States.

Ironically, despite the Native American influence on America’s democracy, they were among the last Americans given the right to vote.

The Snyder Act of 1924 enabled Native Americans born in the United States full citizenship. The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, granted all U.S citizens the right to vote but it was the Snyder Act that enabled Native Americans to vote.

Want to know more about Native American influence on American Democracy? Check out the four-part PBS series on Native Americans or The History Channel’s work

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