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The Indian Model of Liberty

Columnist Steven Newcomb writes that American Indians, who had a role in conceiving of the U.S. Constitution and American ideas about civil liberty, ought to take an active role in these times when civil liberties are threatened by the U.S. government.

In 1988, the United States Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 331, expressly acknowledging that the Haudenosaunee had some degree of influence on the formation of the Constitution of the United States. The model of the Haudenosaunee (‘Builders of the Longhouse’) had influence on the events that led to the work in Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to create a centralized government structure as a way of transitioning away from the Articles of Confederation.

The concept of a confederation, or an alliance between many different nations, was adopted by the men of influence, British colonists, who had gradually come to think of themselves as “Americans,” and as therefore distinct from their British counterparts across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Delaware were also organized in a free and independent Confederacy. It was the free existence or liberty of Indian nations that resulted in the Indian treaties. Our North American Indian ancestors served as a model of liberty by demonstrating to the British colonists what it meant to be truly free, and this model became a value that many of the founders of the United States such as Benjamin Franklin greatly admired. No people on earth were more free than our ancestors.

The men who created the United States Constitution had mastered world history. They well understood the Greek and Roman models of empire, and in developing the framework for their own American Empire, there were elements of these systems that they wanted to emulate. However, a number of influential revolutionaries deeply mistrusted the prospect of a centralized U.S. system. They strongly advocated for a Bill of Rights as a means of carving out a sphere of personal liberty which the dominance of ‘government’ was not to violate. Free expression, free press, free assembly, the free exercise of religion, and so forth were predicated on the value of liberty, albeit ‘civil liberties,’ and thus ‘free’ under the reign of the civis.

As the eminent attorney Felix Cohen once stated, “the Indian pattern of self-government undermined the patterns which the colonists first brought to this country, patterns of feudalism, landlordism and serfdom, economic monopoly and special privilege, patterns of religious intolerance and nationalism and the divine right of kings. It was not only Franklin and Jefferson who went to school with Indian teachers, like the Iroquois statesman Canasatego, to learn the ways of federal union and democracy. ... To Vitoria, Grotius, Locke, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, Indian liberty and self-government provided a new polestar in political thinking.”

For those of us who are Haudenosauneee, Delaware, Shawnee, and so forth, the contribution that our ancestors made to the political tradition of liberty and independence, is no small thing. It is a contribution to the world that tends to go unrecognized, unnoticed, and uncelebrated. Nonetheless, now that the value of liberty, and the idea of being able to live free of governmental (‘dominational’) tyranny is being rapidly destroyed in the name of fighting ‘terrorism’, who better to be a voice for the value of liberty than those of us whose ancestors fought and died to maintain our original free and independent existence as distinct nations and peoples?

Such great Indian leaders as Pontiac, Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Captain Jack, and Geronimo are associated with the struggle, against overwhelming odds, to remain free of and from domination. Given our collective American Indian tradition of liberty prior to the invasion of the colonizers, Indian Country ought to be a powerful voice for the value of liberty, the value of being able to live free of and from domination and dehumanization.

During the past decade since 9/11, the very liberties found in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution have been rapidly undermined, perhaps even destroyed through legislation such as the Patriot Act and other draconian bills enacted by the U.S. Congress. Now it has gotten so bad that the U.S. government through the Obama administration claims, in the name of upholding the ‘rule of law,’ the right to assassinate U.S. citizens without a trial or the due process of law.

Unfortunately, for the most part, Indian country as a collective voice has said nothing as civil liberties in the United States have been undermined. We ought to be speaking up in honor of those Indian men and women who lived and fought the Invasion of our lands and traditional territories an effort to maintain a free and independent way of life and thereby created a model of liberty that has served to benefit the world and that is very much needed in these dark times.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.