Democracy and the Iroquois Constitution

Illustration of a long house with wood beams

Illustration of an Iroquois Long House. Image via Wikimedia Commons user Aaron Waldron. 

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, and a creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions. 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 (ho dee noe sho nee—People of the Long House) thrive today. Here at The Field Museum, 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.  


Brightly colored beaded purse depicting a bird and flowers
From The Field Museum collections. Cat. #337637.  Exceptionally beaded purse, Iroquois (maker unknown). Gift of Ted and LouAnn Van Zelst, 2003.