26/05/2006 11 min #1046

The Iroquois Wisdom of Freedom and Interdependence (vraiment remarquable)

Le 22 mai 06 à 08:34, Laurence a écrit :


By Charles C. Mann

New York Times

July 4, 2005


AMHERST, MASS. - Seeking to understand this nation's

democratic spirit, Alexis de Tocqueville journeyed to the

famous centers of American liberty (Boston, Philadelphia,

Washington), stoically enduring their "infernal"

accommodations, food and roads and chatting up almost everyone

he saw.

He even marched in a Fourth of July parade in Albany just

ahead of a big float that featured a flag-waving Goddess of

Liberty, a bust of Benjamin Franklin, and a printing press

that spewed out copies of the Declaration of Independence for

the cheering crowd. But for all his wit and intellect,

Tocqueville never realized that he came closest to his goal

just three days after the parade, when he stopped at the

"rather unhealthy but thickly peopled" area around Syracuse.

Tocqueville's fascination with the democratic spirit was

prescient. Expressed politically in Americans' insistence on

limited government and culturally in their long-standing

disdain for elites, that spirit has become one of this

country's great gifts to the world.

When rich London and Paris stockbrokers proudly retain their

working-class accents, when audiences show up at La Scala in

track suits and sneakers, when South Africans and Thais

complain that the police don't read suspects their rights the

way they do on "Starsky & Hutch," when anti-government

protesters in Beirut sing "We Shall Overcome" in Lebanese

accents - all these raspberries in the face of social and

legal authority have a distinctly American tone. Or, perhaps,

a distinctly Native American tone, for among its wellsprings

is American Indian culture, especially that of the Iroquois.

The Iroquois confederation, known to its members as the

Haudenosaunee, was probably the greatest indigenous polity

north of the Rio Grande in the two centuries before Columbus

and definitely the greatest in the two centuries after. A

political and military alliance formed by the Seneca, Cayuga,

Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and, after about 1720, the Tuscarora,

it dominated, at its height, an area from Kentucky to Lake

Ontario and Lake Champlain. Its capital was Onondaga, a

bustling small city of several thousand souls a few miles

south of where Tocqueville stopped in modern Syracuse.

The Iroquois confederation was governed by a constitution, the

Great Law of Peace, which established the league's Great

Council: 50 male royaneh (religious-political leaders), each

representing one of the female-led clans of the alliance's

nations. What was striking to the contemporary eye was that

the 117 codicils of the Great Law were concerned as much with

constraining the Great Council as with granting it authority.

"Their whole civil policy was averse to the concentration of

power in the hands of any single individual," explained Lewis

Henry Morgan, a pioneering ethnographer of the Iroquois.

The council's jurisdiction was limited to relations among the

nations and outside groups; internal affairs were the province

of the individual nations. Even in the council's narrow

domain, the Great Law insisted that every time the royaneh

confronted "an especially important matter or a great

emergency," they had to "submit the matter to the decision of

their people" in a kind of referendum open to both men and


In creating such checks on authority, the league was just the

most formal expression of a regionwide tradition. Although the

Indian sachems on the Eastern Seaboard were absolute monarchs

in theory, wrote the colonial leader Roger Williams, in

practice they did not make any decisions "unto which the

people are averse." These smaller groups did not have formal,

Iroquois-style constitutions, but their governments, too, were

predicated on the consent of the governed. Compared to the

despotisms that were the norm in Europe and Asia, the

societies encountered by British colonists were a libertarian


To some extent, this freedom reflected North American Indians'

relatively recent adoption of agriculture. Early farming

villages worldwide have always had less authoritarian

governments than their successors. But the Indians of the

Northeast made what the historian José António Brandão calls

"autonomous responsibility" a social ideal - the Iroquois

especially, but many others, too. Each Indian, the Jesuit

missionary Joseph-François Lafitau observed, viewing "others

as masters of their own actions and themselves, lets them

conduct themselves as they wish and judges only himself."

So vivid were these examples of democratic self-government

that some historians and activists have argued that the Great

Law of Peace directly inspired the American Constitution.

Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible. With its

grant of authority to the federal government to supersede

state law, its dependence on rule by the majority rather than

consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the

Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the

Great Law. But in a larger sense the claim is correct. The

framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would

become the United States, were pervaded by Indian images of


For two centuries after Plymouth Rock, the border between

natives and newcomers was porous, almost nonexistent. In a way

difficult to imagine now, Europeans and Indians mingled, the

historian Gary Nash has written, as "trading partners,

military allies, and marital consorts."

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, the aging John Adams recalled

the Massachusetts of his youth as a multiracial society.

"Aaron Pomham, the priest, and Moses Pomham, the King of the

Punkapaug and Neponsit Tribes, were frequent visitors at my

father's house," he wrote nostalgically. Growing up in Quincy,

Mass., the young Adams frequently visited a neighboring Indian

family, "where I never failed to be treated with

whortleberries, blackberries, strawberries or apples, plums,

peaches, etc." Benjamin Franklin was equally familiar with

Indian company; representing the Pennsylvania colony, he

negotiated with the Iroquois in 1754. A close friend was

Conrad Weiser, an adopted Mohawk who at the talks was the

Indians' unofficial host.

As many colonists observed, the limited Indian governments

reflected levels of personal autonomy unheard of in Europe.

"Every man is free," a frontiersman, Robert Rogers, told a

disbelieving British audience, referring to Indian villages.

In these places, he said, no person, white or Indian, sachem

or slave, has any right to deprive anyone else of his freedom.

The Iroquois, Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, held "such

absolute notions of liberty that they allow of no kind of

superiority of one over another, and banish all servitude from

their territories." (Colden, surveyor general of New York, was

another Mohawk adoptee.)

Not every European admired this democratic spirit. Indians

"think every one ought to be left to his own opinion, without

being thwarted," the Flemish missionary monk Louis Hennepin

wrote in 1683. "There is nothing so difficult to control as

the tribes of America," a fellow missionary unhappily

observed. "All these barbarians have the law of wild asses - they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint;

they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit."

Indians, for their part, were horrified to encounter European

social classes, with those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy

compelled to defer to those on the upper. When the

17th-century French adventurer Louis-Armand de Lom d'Arce,

Baron de Lahontan, tried to convince the Huron, the Iroquois's

northern neighbors, of Europe's natural superiority, the

Indians scoffed.

Because Europeans had to kowtow to their social betters,

Lahontan later reported, "they brand us for slaves, and call

us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having."

Individual Indians, he wrote "value themselves above anything

that you can imagine, and this is the reason they always give

for it, that one's as much master as another, and since men

are all made of the same clay there should be no distinction

or superiority among them."

INFLUENCED by their proximity to Indians - by being around

living, breathing role models of human liberty - European

colonists adopted their insubordinate attitudes. Lahontan was

an example, despite his noble title; his account highlighted

Indian freedoms as an incitement toward rebellion. Both the

clergy and Louis XIV, the king whom Lahontan was goading,

tried to suppress these dangerous ideas by instructing French

officials to force a French education upon the Indians,

complete with lessons in deferring to their social betters.

The attempts, the historian Cornelius J. Jaenen reported, were

"everywhere unsuccessful."

In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous

villages into competitors for colonists' allegiance. Colonial

societies could not become too oppressive, because their

members - surrounded by examples of free life - always had the

option of voting with their feet.

It is likely that the first British villages in North America,

thousands of miles from the House of Lords, would have lost

some of the brutally graded social hierarchy that

characterized European life. But it is also clear that they

were infused by the democratic, informal brashness of American

Indian culture. That spirit alarmed and discomfited many

Europeans, aristocrat and peasant alike. Others found it a

deeply attractive vision of human possibility.

Historians have been reluctant to acknowledge this

contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide. Yet a plain

reading of Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Thomas Paine shows that

they took many of their illustrations of liberty from native

examples. So did the colonists who held their Boston Tea Party

dressed as "Mohawks." When others took up European

intellectuals' books and histories, images of Indian freedom

had an impact far removed in time and space from the

16th-century Northeast.

The pioneering suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda

Joslyn Gage, both Finger Lakes residents, were inspired by the

Great Law's extension of legal protections to women. "This

gentile constitution is wonderful!" Friedrich Engels exclaimed

(though he apparently didn't notice its emphasis on limited

state power).

Just like their long-ago confreres in Boston, protesters in

South Korea, China and Ukraine wore "Native American" makeup

and clothing in, respectively, the 1980's, 1990's, and the

first years of this century. Indeed, it is only a little

exaggeration to claim that everywhere liberty is cherished - from Sweden to Soweto, from the streets of Manila to the docks

of Manhattan - people are descendants of the Iroquois League

and its neighbors.


Charles C. Mann is the author of the forthcoming "1491: New

Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus."



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