Published: November 1, 2016

Democracy and the Iroquois Constitution

Alaka Wali, Curator of North American Anthropology, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

Alert

Illustration of a long house with wood beams

We are a nation built on the ideals of many, and Native North American contributions to our collective culture and society are immeasurable. The founders who wrote our U.S. Constitution, based on their democratic ideals, were influenced in part by Native American way of government.

The Iroquois Constitution, also known as the Great Law of Peace, is a great oral narrative that documents the formation of a League of Six Nations: Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, and later on, the Tuscarora nations. The date of origin is contested, but it was well before the arrival of European settlers to America.

The constitution, also commemorated on Wampum (beads fashioned from the shells of whelks and quahog clams), included more than a few familiar concepts:

  • A restriction on holding dual offices
  • Processes to remove leaders within the confederacy
  • A bicameral legislature with procedures in place for passing laws
  • A delineation of power to declare war
  • A creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions.
A purple and white beaded wampum belt.

Replica of the Hiawatha wampum belt, which represents the formation of the League of Six Nations. Formerly in the collection of Senator Daniel K. Inouye and donated to the National Museum of the American Indian by Senator Inouye's widow Irene Hirano Inouye (1948-2020) in 2013.

National Museum of the American Indian

Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin were in regular contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, and Great Council leaders were invited to address the Continental Congress in 1776.

The six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee)—People of the Long House—thrive today. At the Field, we are proud to hold in trust a collection of over 200 artifacts labeled as Iroquois, dating from the 1900s to the present day, and another about 200 from the separate nations that comprise the confederacy.  

Wampum belts, woven with beads made from shells, are used to record history and commemorate important events. In the future Native North America Hall at the Field, opening in November of 2021, you'll be able to see a display about wampum and learn more about their uses and significance.

And, remember to participate in democracy by voting. When you do, bear in mind the legacy of the Iroquois Constitution.


Alaka Wali
Curator of North American Anthropology, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

Alaka Wali is a curator of North American Anthropology in the Science and Education Division.  She was the founding director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change from 1995- 2010.  She currently curates the sizeable North American collection which includes a contemporary urban collection.  She also works closely with colleagues in the Science Action Center.