Ask a non-Indian historian where American democracy was born and you'll
likely get answers ranging from Philadelphia to Williamsburg, or perhaps
from Boston to the Mayflower. Ask Oren Lyons and he'll direct you to the
shores of Onondaga Lake, not far from present-day Syracuse.
"Columbus and the conquistadors didn't bring democracy; neither did the
Mayflower," Lyons said. "Democracy was here in America. Freedom, democracy,
women's rights, suffrage and peace were all here."
The Haudenosaunee (also called "Iroquois" or "Six Nations") revere a
prophetic figure called the Peacemaker, who gathered their ancestors
together on the shores of Onondaga Lake centuries ago to halt decades of
warfare between them and create the world's first democratic government.
This Great Law of Peace bound the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and
Seneca nations (and later the Tuscarora) into a powerful and prosperous
confederacy that dominated what is now upstate New York until they were
overrun by non-Indian settlers after the American Revolution.
Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, spoke on Sept. 16 at McNaughton
Hall on the Syracuse University campus. His topic - how the founding
fathers of the United States were influenced by the traditional
Haudenosaunee methods of governance in their framing of a new form of
government for the American colonies during the 1780s.
"Today's event came about as an effort to understand the Haudenosaunee role
in the formation of the U.S. Constitution," said Robert Odawi Porter,
Seneca. Porter is director of the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance and
Citizenship at the Syracuse University College of Law, which invited Lyons
to speak in commemoration of U.S. Constitution Day.
During the colonial era, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which stretched
across much of what is now western, central and northern New York, exerted
great influence over and among other Indian tribes throughout the region.
Likewise, colonial governments treated the Haudenosaunee with considerable
"The Six Nations were involved in all land-based meetings in the Northeast
during colonial times," Lyons said. "We set the protocol and showed the
Europeans how to have a meeting - no interruptions, listen to each other,
define the issues, one speaker at a time."
During this era, Lyons observed, the term "Americans" actually meant
"Indians." Most European residents of the colonial governments considered
themselves subjects of the British Crown.
Lyons cited a 1744 meeting in Lancaster, Penn. involving four colonial
governors and the leaders of the six Haudenosaunee nations. At that
gathering, according to Lyons, an Onondaga chief told the governors that
their colonies "would never amount to much" if they did not unite as the
Haudenosaunee had done. Historian Cadwallader Colden's notes of the meeting
were later sent to Philadelphia, where a printer named Benjamin Franklin
Ten years later, Franklin initiated the Albany Plan of Union, a proposal to
create a royally appointed President-General and a 48-member Grand Council,
elected by colonial legislators, to provide for unified colonial
governance. Mohawk Chief Hendrick met with the colonists to advise them on
Haudenosaunee ways. The plan never came to fruition, but contained many
elements that would later reappear in the U.S. Constitution.
(For more information on the Albany Plan of Union, visit
www.constitution.org/bcp/albany.htm or www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/amerdoc/
The U.S. Constitution turned 200 years old in 1988. Efforts by Lyons and
others to obtain federal acknowledgement and recognition of Haudenosaunee
influence over early American leaders like Franklin and George Washington,
led first to talks with Sen. Daniel Inoye, D-Hawaii.
During the second session of the 100th Congress in early October 1988, both
the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed resolutions that:
"acknowledge [d] the contribution made by the Iroquois Confederacy and
other Indian nations to the formation and development of the United States"
and "reaffirm [ed] the constitutionally recognized government-to-government
relationship with Indian tribes."
The resolution, H. Con. Res. 331, also reaffirmed the federal government's
trust responsibility and obligation to tribal governments and acknowledged
the need to uphold treaties with Indian tribes.
"The Six Nations were fundamental to the whole democracy idea," Lyons said.
The speaker briefly turned his attention to the land rights litigation
filed by the Onondaga Nation last March. The action seeks recognition of
Indian title to roughly 2.3 million acres of land stretching from
Pennsylvania to Ontario, centered on Syracuse. The litigation also seeks a
strong Indian role in efforts to clean up Onondaga Lake - one of the most
polluted bodies of water in the United States (see "Onondaga seek voice in
lake cleanup," Vol. 25, Iss. 11).
"We want to make central New York a clean place - to collectively show the
way," Lyons said.
Lyons made a point of thanking Nancy Cantor, the university's chancellor,
and David Smith, vice president of Enrollment Management, for their recent
"Haudenosaunee Promise." This innovative scholarship program, announced on
Aug. 19, offers free tuition, room and board at Syracuse University to
students of Haudenosaunee ancestry who qualify for admission to the school.
"They [Cantor and Smith] showed us great respect," Lyons said, himself a
1959 Syracuse graduate and All-America goalkeeper on the university's
lacrosse team. "They met with our council and opened the doors of education
to the Haudenosaunee people. We thought it would be a courtesy visit - we
were surprised by the offer."