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Native American Political Systems
and the Evolution of Democracy

Letters to the Editor

March 24, 1997

Daniel Henninger. deputy editor, editorial page
Wall Street Journal
200 Liberty Street
New York, N.Y. 10281

[Published April 10, 1997]

Dear Mr. Henninger:

Like many critics of the idea that the Iroquois had a formative role in the development of American democracy, Mary Lefkowitz ("Out of Many, More Than One," March 24) overstates the idea in order to discredit it. If she can find a sizable number of teachers who believe that "the U.S. Constitution owes more to the 18th-century Iroquois than it does to the ancient Greeks," I would like to meet them.

I have researched this idea for more than two decades with my co-author Donald A. Grinde, Jr. of the University of Vermont, and published four books on the subject, about which Professor Lefkowitz seems not to have a clue. We do not advocate that anyone ignore the Enlightenment, the Greeks, or the rest of our European heritage. We are adding an Iroquois role to the picture. This is not an either-or argument, as Lefkowitz seems to believe. John Adams, for example, described all these precedents in his Defence of the Constitutions, which was used as a handbook on the floor of the Constitutional Convention. The founders of the United States looked at all the examples that were available to them. Because of the circumstances of diplomacy in the mid-eighteenth century, several of the founders (most notably Benjamin Franklin) were very familiar with the Iroquois and other Native American confederacies.

A complete description of the evidence for an Iroquois role is beyond the scope of a letter to the editor, but is available in our book Exemplar of Liberty (University of California, 1991). Lefkowitz may wish to examine a speech by the Iroquois sachem Cannasatego, in 1744, in which he advises the colonists to form a union like that of the Iroquois. She also should note Franklin's publication of Cannasatego's admonition on his own press, his advocacy of an Iroquois-style government in 1751, and his application of this idea in his Albany Plan of 1754. Lefkowitz might be enlightened by the fact that Iroquois leaders were invited to witness debates over the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia during 1776, when they gave John Hancock an Onondaga name, as well as the use of an Indian woman (by no less than Paul Revere) as a national symbol for the patriots at the time that they dressed as Mohawks to dump tea in Boston Harbor.

A little homework would have done wonders for Professor Lefkowitz' credibility in print. Our history is not as simple as she seems to think, and nor is the case that is being made for Iroquois influence on the evolution of democracy. We can have our Greeks, and our Iroquois, too.

Best wishes,

Prof. Bruce E. Johansen
Robert T. Reilly Chair of Communication
                and Native American Studies
University of Nebraska at Omaha
Telephone [Direct line]   402-554-4851
Fax:   [402] 554-3836

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