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Foundations of American Democracy

Long before Columbus “discovered” America, a federal constitution had been adopted by Indian nations based on democratic principles of initiative, recall, referendum and equal suffrage. These nations formed the Iroquois Confederacy of Five Nations around 1570, with the Tuscarora of the Carolinas joining in 1712.

The English saw Indians as “Kings” and “Princesses” because they knew only monarchy. Most Indian tribes were not monarchies at all, but operated under a democratic “federal” system, with local clans, communities and bands coming together for “Grand Councils” as needs required.

The Iroquois Confederacy served as the most prominent example for the colonists and the founding fathers. When the Virginia colonial governor met with the Six Nations at Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744, the Iroquois Chief, Conasatego, gave this age advice.
“Our Wise forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations. This has. . .given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. . . . And by your observing the same Methods our Wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire such Strength and Power.”

Benjamin Franklin nurtured this advice and shared it when Colonial representatives came together at Albany to forge a plan of union amidst confusion, competing interests and goals. “It would be a strange thing”, he said, “if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union. . .and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies to whom it is more necessary. . . .”

In 1754, these delegates accepted the concept of Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union uniting all of the American colonies. There was to be a President General appointed by the Crown and a “Grand Council” appointed by the colonial assemblies. The seeds of American style Democracy were sown.

The Military Factor
Perhaps the most popular view of Indians is that of the “savage warrior.” Indians were indeed effective and skilled soldiers. Both English and France engaged in diplomacy to make Indians their allies in their fight to control North America.

Indian soldiers were a vital link in America’s path to freedom and the founding of the U. S. Constitution. The Stockbridge Munsee Minutemen are a good example. These fearless warriors taught the colonists “guerilla” tactics and aided the colonies in their war against the British in the Revolution. Other tribes, including the Oneida, Tuscarora, and the Delaware, aided the colonial effort to throw off European monarchy and adopt American democracy.

A Fundamental Respect for the Indians.
The Founding Fathers, particularly Washington, Jay, Franklin and Jefferson, had a sincere respect for the Indians—their power and political institutions. They recognized that without the help of the Indians, their vision of a new democratic nation would not become a reality. Clear evidence of this respect, as well as the stature of Indian governments, is the offer of statehood to the tribes.

“And it is further agreed…should it…be found conducive for..both parties to invite any other tribes who have been friends to the interest of the United States, to join the present confederation, and to form a state whereof the Delaware nation shall be the head, and have a representation in Congress….” [Article VI, Treaty with the Delaware, 1778.]

And in the Treaty of Hopewell, 1795, with the Cherokee, the importance of Indian relations was given clear status.

“that the Indians may have full confidence in the justice of the United States. . .they shall have the right to send a deputy of their choice. . .to Congress.”

As Congress was preparing to establish the Constitutional Convention in February 1787, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay gave the following instructions:

“The United States are fixed in their determination that justice and public faith shall be the basis of all their transactions with the Indians. They will reject every advantage obtained at the expense of these important national principles."

To protect these “important national principles” the delegates of the Constitutional Convention placed Indian Affairs under the control of the Federal Government through he Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 6). The government-to-government relationship between Indian Nations and the United States was left to specific development by the Treaty Clause (Article 6) and is carried out by national legislation.

By 1787, American Indians had established their importance in the early history of the United States and the formation of its Constitution. Over two hundred years later the United States Constitution has established its importance to American Indians by providing protection of Indian lands, treaty rights, and the tribal right of self-government. While the government-to-government relationship has not always been smooth, Indian rights as “important national principles” live today under the United States Constitution as the Founding Fathers envisioned.

by Kirke Kickingbird and Lynn Shelby Kickingbird, in Indians and the U.S. Constitution: A Forgotten Legacy
©Institute for the Development of Indian Law, 1987

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