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.
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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 officesProcesses to remove leaders within the confederacyA bicameral legislature with procedures in place for passing lawsA delineation of power to declare warA creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions.
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 anddonated to the National Museum of the American Indian by Senator Inouye"s widow Irene Hirano Inouye (1948-2020) in 2013.
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 commemorateimportant events. In the future Native North America Hall at the Field, you"ll be able to see a displayaboutwampum 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.
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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.