Native American Political Systems
and the Evolution of Democracy:
An Annotated Bibliography
Bruce E. Johansen
Professor of Communication and
Native American Studies
University of Nebraska at Omaha
1975 - 1986Books, Scholarly, and Specialty Journals
__________. "Iroquois Irony." Akwesasne Notes, Early Summer, 1981, p. 28.
In Montreal, during a meeting between Native Americans and Marxists, one of the non-Indian Marxists asked Mohawk Nation Council subchief Tom Porter to stop emphasizing religious matters. Porter then told the Marxist of the Iroquois Great Law and its influence on the United States' founders, as well as Marx and Engels. "Therefore, sire, you understand that it's not Marx's great-grandson who will come and dictate the way to manage our business," Porter is reported to have said. [Reprinted from The Atlantean Era, Feb. 27, 1980.]Austin, Alberta. "Ne'Ho Niyo' De:No': That's What it Was Like. Lackawanna, N.Y.: Rebco Enterprises, 1986.
This is one of two volumes compiled by the Seneca Nation Curriculum Development Project during the 1980s, which records the memories of Iroquois elders. Most are Seneca, but all the other nations are represented. One of the accounts (pp. 174-183) is from Leon Shenondoah (or Shenandoah; spellings vary), Tadodaho (speaker) of the Haudenosaunee central council at Onondaga. On the subject of constitutional influence (pp. 177-178), he says: "When the United States copied our form of government in the 1750s, they left out spirituality. This is what I learned as a child....Our religion is within the government and our government is within our religion. It is entwined. If the government goes off to one side...the religion will then pull you back in line...[One] counteracts the other....But when the United States joined the 13 colonies and copied our form of government, they held their meetings in one house, and their church (their beliefs) in another house....It's not under the same roof like we do."Bagley, Carol and Jo Ann Ruckman, "Iroquois Contributions to Modern Democracy and Communism." American Indian Culture & Research Journal, 7:2(1983), pp. 53-72.
Boyte, Harry C. "The Politics of Community: The New Populism." The Nation, Vol. 240 (January 12, 1985), p. 12.
Boyte is describing a renewed sense of community activism in America, and recalling historical precedents, among them: "Thomas Jefferson thought that the Iroquois' primary reliance on the moral force of community opinion rather than laws to control social problems furnished the model of democratic self-government."(*) Brotherston, Gordon. "The Prairie and Cooper's Invention of the West," in James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays, Robert Clark, ed. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985, pp. 162-186.
On page 169, Brotherston writes: "Just as the epithet 'fiendish' attaches to the Iroquois Confederacy which had in fact 'provided a wall of safety for the English colonies during 150 years of national adolescence,' and whose constitution served as a model for the United States itself, so from the start the Sioux are billed as 'demons," 'devils,' 'reptiles,' and monstrously treacherous, although they had actually protected United States soldiers during their first incursions west of the Missouri-Mississippi." The quotation is from Paul Wallace, "Cooper's Indians," New York History 35(1954), p. 425.Burton, Bruce. "The American Indian's Contribution to Government." Anthropological Journal of Canada 18:1(1980), pp. 26-28.
This article was reprinted in Masinaigan: A Chronicle of The Lake Superior Ojibway, July, 1987.Burton, Bruce. "A Film on the Founding of the Five Nations Confederacy." International Journal of Instructional Media 7:2(1979-1980), pp. 109-113.
This article advances the idea of such a film, given the importance of the Confederacy's influence on American democracy. After 1980, at least a half-dozen such films have been proposed, but (as of early 1993), none has been produced.Burton, Bruce A. Hail! Nene Karenna, The Hymn: A Novel on the Founding of the Five Nations, 1550-1590. Rochester, N.Y.: Security Dupont Press, 1981.
Historical fiction detailing the founding of the Iroqois Confederacy, and its importance in shaping early notions of democracy.Burton, Bruce A. "Natural Righteousness: Iroquois Women and the United States Constitution." Turtle Quarterly, n.d., pp. 27-29.
Burton, Bruce. "Iroquois Confederate Law and the Origins of the U.S. Constitution." Northeast Indian Quarterly 3:3(Fall, 1986), pp. 4-9.
(*) Campbell, Janet and David. "Cherokee Participation in the Political Impact of the North American Indian." Journal of Cherokee Studies 6:2(Fall, 1981), pp. 92-105.
This article notes the linguistic connection of the Iroquois and the Cherokees, and traces Iroquoian influence on the founding of democracy in the new United States, citing Franklin's letter to James Parker (1751), Franklin's Articles of Confederation, and the bundle of arrows and eagle on the United States Great Seal.(*) Chase, James S. [Review of Johansen, Forgotten Founders (1982)]. History: Reviews of New Books 11:8(July, 1983), p. 181.
Chase, of the University of Arkansas, finds Forgotten Founders to be "graceful, appealing, and elegantly turned out." He says that Johansen is persuasive in arguing that Benjamin Franklin was familiar with, and admired the political structure of the Iroquois Confederacy. The book is less convincing, Chase writes, in establishing "the Iroquois as the principal source of Franklin's ideas." Chase suggests that this book "will inspire a more rigorous exegesis of this fascinating subject."(*) Deloria, Vine, Jr. and Clifford Lytle. American Indians, American Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.
This legal history develops the idea of Iroquois influence on United States political development on page 82: "It is interesting to note that the first written constitution in North America appeared before Columbus....The Gayaneshagowa, or Great Binding Law of the Five Nations, was a written constitution created by the Iroquois [which] enunciated such democratic ideas and doctrines as initiative, recall, referendum, and equal suffrage. It provided the type of central government that would later be suggested by Benjamin Franklin to the colonies as an institution worthy of emulation....[T]the Iroquois Constitution provided a written preview of some of the governmental values later adopted by the whites in America..." Felix Cohen is cited as a source.(*) Graymont, Barbara. [Review of Johansen, Forgotten Founders (1982)]. New York History 64:3(1983), pp. 325-327.
Graymont finds Forgotten Founders to be "gracefully written and attractively printed" (p. 325), but also too far-reaching in its assertions of Iroquois precedent for American democracy. While Graymont does not think Forgotten Founders has "proved...conclusively" that the Iroquois were "the model" (her phrase) for American federalism, she says that the book raises "other interesting questions that should be pursued in more depth" (p. 325). She is interested particularly in "what influence the examples of American Indian societies had on the thinking of the philosophes and their concepts of natural rights and natural law."Grinde, Donald A., Jr. The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1977.
This is the first detailed development of the "Influence" idea.Hamilton, Charles, ed. The Cry of the Thunderbird: The American Indian's Own Story. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
Introductory material to Chief Elias Johnson (Tuscarora), "Origin of the Five Nations," (p. 118) briefly describes how and why the Iroquois League was organized, observing: "So effective was this wilderness democracy that Benjamin Franklin recommended that the United States model its government after the League of the Iroquois."(*) Jacobs, Wilbur. Dispossessing the American Indian: Indians and Whites on the Colonial Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
Pages 168-170: "Academics still argue about whether the Indian confederations of colonial times had a tangible influence upon the fathers of the Constitution. The case for the Indians is not so far-fetched as one might think. Franklin, an admirer of the Iroquois League, had good reason to know its virtues for he had been an Indian commissioner at treaties, and...[i]t is known that other framers of the Constitution had a knowledge of Indian confederation systems and the ideals of Indian democracy. Moreover, these statesmen were avid readers of the French philosophes whose writings were partly influenced by descriptions of North American Indians set forth in the writings of the French Jesuit missionaries. The noble savage idea, hammered into the writings of Michel de Montaigne and later French writers, including Rousseau, was embellished with the ideas of natural rights, the equality of man, and with the democratic tribal traditions of North American Indians."Johansen and Roberto Maestas. Wasi'chu: the Continuing Indian Wars. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.
Pages 34-37 contain a short description of the Great Law of Peace, and note Benjamin Franklin's reliance on it in the Albany Plan of Union, as well as Frederich Engels' description of Iroquois society and governance in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.Johansen. Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois and the Rationale for the American Revolution. Ipswich, Mass.: Gambit, 1982.
[Files contain reviews of Forgotten Founders from Choice (March, 1983), University of Nebraska at Omaha Gateway (January 21, 1983 and June 24, 1983), University of Washington Daily (July 21, 1982), The Atlantic (February, 1983), The Los Angeles Times (December 21, 1982), University of Washington Alumnus (Winter, 1982), New Age (November, 1982), Publishers Weekly (February 5, 1982), Booklist (May 15, 1982), The Boston Globe (November 25, 1982), The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (December 5, 1982), In These Times (May 4, 1983), The Seattle Times (May 30, 1982), The Milwaukee Sentinel (March 4, 1983), The Omaha World-Herald (August 14, 1983) and The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, n.d.]Johansen. "The Forgotten Founders..." Four Winds: the International Forum of Native American Art, Literature and History [Austin, Texas], Spring, 1982, pp. 8-14.
Excerpts from Forgotten FoundersJohansen. "Mohawks, Axes & Taxes: Images of the American Revolution." History Today [London, England]. April, 1985, pp. 10-18.
Excerpts from work in Exemplar of Liberty , chapter of the same name.(*) Kincaid, J. "Toward the Third Century of American Federalism: New Dynamics and New Perspectives." American Studies International 22:1 (1984), n.p.
Forgotten Founders is cited.Lowes, Warren. Indian Giver: A Legacy of North American Native Peoples. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus Books, 1986.
This book includes a chapter titled "The Influence of Folk Democracy," outlining Iroquois contributions to the development of democracy. Lowes cites Brandon  and Grinde, The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation . This book has been associated with Jack Weatherford's Indian Givers  as an object of plagiarism by Ward Churchill, Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America .(*) Lucas, Phil. "Images of Indians." Four Winds: The International Forum for Native American Art, Literature, and History. Autumn, 1980, pp. 68-77.
In this survey of Native American images in film, Lucas discusses Native American contributions to American culture, among them "concepts of personal liberty and our democratic form of government itself." Lucas quotes to this effect from Felix Cohen's 1952 article in The American Scholar.Matthiessen, Peter. Indian Country. New York: Viking, 1979.
On page 6, Matthiessen contrasts Francis Parkman's description of the Iroquois' "homicidal fury" ("man, wolf and devil all in one") with the Iroquois' "parliamentary system, so admired by Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers, [which] was incorporated into his [Parkman's] country's constitution."Steiner, Stan. The Vanishing White Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
On pages 149-151, Steiner briefly recounts Cannassatego's advice that the colonists unite on an Iroquois model (1744), and Benjamin Franklin's use of Iroquois precedents in his Albany Plan of Union (1754). "The most obvious origin of the 'American Way' has been largely ignored -- the native land and the native people themselves." (p. 149). Steiner also mentions the use of a Mohawk disguise at the Boston Tea Party, and George Washington's adaptation of Native American modes of warfare.(*) Suter, Coral and Marshall Croddy. "To Promote the General Welfare: the Purpose of Law. Law in Social Studies Series." Los Angeles, CA: Constitutional Rights Foundation, 1985.
This is a booklet designed for secondary-school students that attempts to infuse the study of law into history curricula. In Unit 1, "Law in a New World," students compare the consensual process used by the Iroquois with decisionmaking during the Salem witch trials.(*) Todd, Lewis Paul and Merle Curti. Triumph of the American Nation. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
This American history textbook is reported by Innerst (1988) to have said that "The example of the Iroquois Confederation had an influence on Benjamin Franklin and his efforts to promote an intercolonial union." The book makes that statement on page 50. On pp. 74-76, it briefly describes the Iroquois Confederacy's origins and organization.Wallace, Amy. The Prodigy. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1986.
This is a biography of William James Sidis [See Johansen, 1989]. On page 202, Wallace notes that none of the present-day scholars who have explored Native Americans' democratic traditions have heard of Sidis' earlier, unpublished work. "An excellent work, complete with footnotes [that is not true] and an extensive bibliography, is Bruce E. Johansen's Forgotten Founders, published in 1982 by Gambit publishers." Ironically, Sidis' unpublished ms. was found in Ipswich, Mass., home of Gambit, although Johansen nor Lovell Thompson, owner of Gambit, knew of it when Forgotten Founders was published there.(*) Williams, Robert A., Jr. "The Algebra of Federal Indian Law: The Hard Trail of Decolonizing and Americanizing the White Man's Indian Jurisprudence." Wisconsin Law Review (March, 1986), p. 219.
Williams supports his case for Native American self-governance by describing the Iroquois confederacy and its historic influence on the formation of the United States. He cites Canasatego's advice to colonial representatives in 1744, and Benjamin Franklin's 1751 letter to his printing partner James Parker, as well as Thomas Jefferson on Indian governance. He also cites Felix Cohen's 1952 essay in The American Scholar. Williams, a member of the Lumbee tribe, was a visiting professor of law at the University of Arizona when this article was published.(*) Vecsey, Christopher. "The Story and Structure of the Iroquois Confederacy." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 54:1(1986), pp. 79-106.
In this outline of the Iroquois Confederacy's history and structure, Vecsey notes on p. 95 that "The Iroquois are probably influenced by U.S. and Canadian written laws, as these laws are possibly influenced by Iroquois concepts." Forgotten Founders (1982, 1987) is cited.
Newspaper and Trade Magazine articles
Bickford, Walter. "Significance of the Oneida Indian Nation Land Claim Suit." [letter to the editor] Boston Globe, April 15, 1985.
Bickford, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Recreational Vehicles, is replying to Allen Van Gestel's March 18 opinion piece in the Boston Globe that argues against a land claim of the Oneida Nation. Bickford's letter concludes with a summary of Iroquois contributions to American thought. "It was as ambassadors in the 1740s to the Iroquois League that Franklin, and later Jefferson, learned of 'self-evident truths,' 'inalienable rights,' 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' and that 'all men are created equal.' .... European thinkers appear to have received much inspiration from America's true founding fathers, or 'forgotten founders,' the Indians," Bickford writes.Cook, James. "The American Indian Through Five Centuries." Forbes, November 9, 1981, p. 118.
"The six Iroquois nations were among the most politically sophisticated peoples in the world, forming the famed Iroquois Confederation...that provided a model in its system of checks and balances for the U.S. Constitution."Gibson, Arrell. The American Indian: Prehistory to the Present, Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1980.
Page 581: "Felix Cohen, late international authority on Indian law and polity, has stated that 'American democracy, freedom and tolerance are more American than European and have deep aboriginal roots in our land.' The Indian example of self-determination and local sovereignty 'undoubtedly played a strong role in helping to give the colonists new sets of values that contributed to turning them from Europeans into freedom-loving Americans. And it is out of a rich democratic tradition that the distinctive political ideas of American life emerged...' The Native American contribution to the ideology of revolution in the United States, France, and Spain's New World colonies was profound."Johansen. "The Indian's Past May be His Future." Seattle Times, May 9, 1976, pp. A-1, E-1.
Sidebar, headlined "Bicentennial? It Isn't Their Birthday Party," (on p. E-1) mentions Franklin's interest in Iroquois politics, and the Albany conference of 1754. Johansen first became acquainted with the idea of native influence on democracy from Sally Fixico, a Cherokee, who was then a student at Evergreen State College, Olympia, as he researched this newspaper series.Pierce, Cris. "Oldest Constitution in the World" [Letter to the editor] Los Angeles Times, December 14, 1985, part 2, p. 2.
Files also contain a short item (no author listed), dated August 14, 1975, from an unidentified newspaper, headlined "Essay on Indian Culture by Nancy Duffy is Recognized." U.S. Congressman William F. Walsh is said to have read into The Congressional Record an essay by Nancy Duffy "of WHEN-TV," whose "delightful brief essay...acknowledges [that] Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson...recognized a form of democracy among the Iroquois, 'whose Five Nation League of Peace precipitated our own Constitution.'"
Pierce says that his roots go back to the Oneida Nation of New York. Since childhood, he has been told that the Iroquois Confederacy "played a major role in shaping the ideas of the United States' founders."
- Letter, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to Lovell Thompson, Gambit Publishers, endorsing Forgotten Founders, July 14, 1982. This letter is of interest in light of Schlesinger's remarks in Disuniting of America . Other letters from people who provided book blurbs for Forgotten Founders also are included in the files.
- Copy of script, "Night of the First Americans," performed March 4, 1982 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. The script was written by Choctaw filmmaker Phil Lucas and included performances by a number of well-known Indian and non-Indian actors and artists, including Lorne Greene, Will Sampson, Jonathan Winters, Vincent Price, Paul Ortega, Ironeyes Cody, Martin Sheen, Dennis Weaver, Loretta Lynn, Dick Cavett, Hoyt Axton, Will Rogers, Jr., Kevin Locke, and Wayne Newton. The performance contained a substantial segment outlining the Iroquois role in the formulation of U.S. democracy. Lucas referenced working drafts of Johansen, Forgotten Founders  for this material. Lucas and Johansen, both in Seattle at the time, were working together on the theme.
- Sound recording, Donald A. Grinde, Jr., "The Iroquois and the Origins of American Democracy," California State University at Sacramento Center for Instructional Media. This is an audio recording of a lecture given by Grinde in the university's visiting scholars' program, April 2, 1982.
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