Turtle EyeLand
The Unity of Biology and Ecology with Spirit 
The Tree of Peace
The Great Law of Peace

New World Roots of American Democracy
by David Yarrow
© September 1987

September 17th, 1987, America celebrated the 200th birthday of the United States Constitution, a brilliant jewel of human liberty and reason, fashioned by the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution to prescribe the structure of their new American government.

Throughout the year, countless ceremonies, reenactments, rallies, contests, TV shows, articles and conferences have marked this bicentennial of American government. The televised Senate Iran-Contra hearings and the battle over Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court have sharply highlighted our national remembrance -- and the importance -- of the governmental roots of our freedom.

Yet, one vital perspective has been missing from the pageantry: for the true historical origins of freedom and democracy in the New World -- and indeed, in modern civilization itself -- lie nearly forgotten on the pages of time, where they were written centuries before the days of King George and the Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution.

Perhaps, amidst the revelry, we will take this opportunity to turn back these pages, to rediscover and possibly fulfill our debt to one of the great social wonders of history: The Great Law of Peace.

New World Democracy

As a government, America was a bold new experiment, based on -- what were at their inception -- radical ideas in European political philosophy. These ideas were given practical expression in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. For Europeans, these historic documents represented a great leap forward towards realizing the ideal of "liberty and justice for all."

To the poor, often starving and indentured refugees from European feudal society, the vast, unexplored North American continent was the far dark shore of hope, an escape from the continued numbness of poverty, suffering and misery. These newcomers saw the New World as a shining symbol of freedom, fortune and the possibility of a happy future. But the New World was not only a symbol. In truth it was the birthplace and homeland of liberty and democracy -- for the arts of peace had taken root on Turtle Island many hundreds of years before.

This September at Cornell University, a special conference entitled The Iroquois Great Law of Peace and the U.S. Constitution, 200 scholars examined a lost and forgotten origin of the U.S. Constitution. Convened by the North American Indian Studies Program, this gathering reviewed historical and scholarly evidence that the oldest democracy on Earth isn't the U.S.A., but rather the Six Nation Confederacy of the Iroquois.

The Iroquois Confederacy existed centuries before the U.S. Constitution was written. Historians, anthropologists and traditional chiefs addressed the proposal the U.S. Constitution was based on the Iroquois Great Law of Peace rather than on Greek democracy, as is commonly believed and taught.

Conference speaker Bruce Barton, Chair of English at Castleton College, has written a novel on the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy. Barton summed up the evidence to support that proposal: "Modern democracy was first established here, and is not the evolutionary result of European political theories. The modern age of democracy had its origin in the vast recesses of this continent, and from here it spread throughout the world. American democracy owes its distinctive character of debate and compromise to the principles and structure of American Indian civil government."

On September 17th, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), fresh from chairing summer hearings on constitutional breaches he termed "worse than Watergate," introduced a Senate Resolution to formally recognize the contribution of the Iroquois Great Law of Peace to the U.S. Constitution. Congressional hearings on the subject will begin in November.

The First United Nations

The first Europeans in the New World northeast encountered strong, well organized communities of the Iroquois League. This powerful alliance of five nations controlled a vast sweep from the St. Lawrence south into Pennsylvania and west to Illinois. They controlled both Hudson-Mohawk and St. Lawrence valleys, and controlled access to the Great Lakes. This strategic position on passages into North America gave them control of trade routes, and destined them to play a major role in North American history.

However, the greatest Iroquois role was neither military nor economic, but government. At that time, the Iroquois League was the oldest, most highly evolved participatory democracy on Earth. Although known for military prowess, Iroquois power was not founded on the force of arms, but rather on the arts of peace and reason. A profound understanding of the principles of peace and human freedom lay at the foundation of Iroquois government, allowing them to foster genuine, effective statesmanship.

It is no coincidence that the U.S. Constitution strikingly resembles, in both principle and form, the Great Law of Peace of the Six Nations Confederacy of the Iroquois League. When the Founding Fathers looked for examples of effective government and human liberty upon which to model a Constitution to unite the thirteen colonies, they found it in this New World society -- not in Europe, usually considered the cradle of modern civilization.

The Great Law of Peace

The Confederacy arose centuries ago among separate, warring communities as a way to create harmony, unity and respect among human beings. Implicit in Iroquois political philosophy is commitment to the highest principles of human liberty. Iroquois Law"s recognition of individual liberty and justice surpasses any European parallel. Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, an Onondaga, states The Great Law of Peace includes "freedom of speech, freedom of religion, [and] the right of women to participate in government. Separation of power in government and checks and balances within government are traceable to our Iroquois constitution -- ideas learned by colonists."

The central idea underlying Iroquois political philosophy is that peace is the will of the Creator, and the ultimate spiritual goal and natural order among humans. The principles of Iroquois government embodied in The Great Law of Peace were transmitted by a historical figure called the Peacemaker. His teachings emphasize the power of Reason to assure Righteousness, Justice and Health among humans. Peace came to the Iroquois, not through war and conquest, but through the exercise of Reason guided by the spiritual mind. The Iroquois League is based not on force of arms or rule of law, but spiritual concepts of natural law applied to human society.

At the planting of a Tree of Peace in Philadelphia in 1986, Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp explained, "In the beginning, when our Creator made humans, everything needed to survive was provided. Our Creator asked only one thing: Never forget to appreciate the gifts of Mother Earth. Our people were instructed how to be grateful and how to survive.

"But during a dark age in our history 1000 years ago, humans no longer listened to the original instructions. Our Creator became sad, because there was so much crime, dishonesty, injustice and war.

"So Creator sent a Peacemaker with a message to be righteous and just, and make a good future for our children seven generations to come. He called all warring people together and told them as long as there was killing there would be no peace of mind. There must be a concerted effort by humans for peace to prevail. Through logic, reasoning and spiritual means, he inspired the warriors to bury their weapons and planted atop a sacred Tree of Peace."

The White Roots of Peace

The Peacemaker legend is a central tale of Iroquois history, constituting an Iroquois Bible, Declaration of Independence and Constitution. This inspiring story describes a people mired in violent bloody feuds who, guided by a spiritual teacher, set aside war to adopt a Path of Peace. It's a mythic tale of struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, and the triumph of Reason. It's a morality play depicting the transformation of humans rising above suffering and tragedy to establish a higher order of human relations. It's also a practical guide to establishing unity and balance amongst diverse human communities. It's a successful model of how to distribute power in a democratic society to assure individual liberty.

To portray the spirit of democracy, the Peacemaker gave The Tree of Peace as a symbol of the Great Law of Peace. This is a great white pine tree whose branches spread out to shelter all nations who commit themselves to Peace. Beneath the tree the Five Nations buried their weapons of war; atop the tree is the Eagle-that-sees-far; and four long roots stretch out in the four sacred directions -- the "white roots of peace."

The Peacemaker proclaimed, "If any man or nation shows a desire to obey the Law of the Great Peace, they may trace the roots to their source, and be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree."

Upon hearing the Peacemaker legend, Dr. Robert Muller, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, remarked, "This profound action stands as perhaps the oldest effort for disarmament in world history."

Several versions of the legend have been transcribed from oral traditions. The most complete and authentic is The White Roots of Peace by Dr. Paul Wallace, respected ethnohistorian. In his words, "The Iroquois excelled in the arts of statesmanship and diplomacy. After the white man came, during a century of intercolonial strife, [the Iroquois] loyally protected the infant English colonies, showed them the way to union, and helped prepare American people for nationhood."

Iroquois and the U.S. Constitution

By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Iroquois had practiced their own egalitarian government for hundreds of years. The Iroquois reputation for diplomacy and eloquence reveals they had securely evolved a sophisticated political system founded on reason, not on mere power. Accounts of the "noble savage" living in "natural freedom" had inspired European theorists John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to expound ideas that had ignited the American Revolution and helped shape the new direction of government.

But the Founding Fathers found their best working model for their new government, not in the writings of Europeans, but through their direct contact with the Iroquois League; for the Great Law of Peace provided both model and incentive to transform thirteen separate colonies into the United States.

George Washington, after a visit to the Iroquois, expressed "great excitement" over the Iroquois" two houses and Grand Council. Ben Franklin wrote, "It would be strange if ignorant savages could execute a union that persisted ages and appears indissoluble; yet like union is impractical for twelve colonies to whom it is more necessary and advantageous."

At Cornell's conference, Dr. Donald Grinde, Jr. of Gettysburg College presented evidence that Thomas Jefferson adopted the specific symbols of the Peacemaker legend. The Tree of Peace became the Tree of Liberty; the Eagle, clutching a bundle of thirteen arrows, became the symbol of the new American government.

Grinde also brought the revelation that "one of the framers, John Rutledge of South Carolina, chair of the drafting committee, read portions of Iroquois Law to members of the committee. He asked them to consider a philosophy coming directly from this American soil."

The Great Law of Peace laid out a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" with three branches. The Onondaga, the Firekeepers, are the heart of the Confederacy. Similarly, the U.S. presidency forms an executive branch.

The League's legislative branch is in two parts: Mohawk and Seneca are Elder Brothers who form the upper house, while Oneida and Cayuga are Younger Brothers, similar to the Senate and House of the United States Congress. The Iroquois" equivalent of a Supreme Court is the Women's Councils, which settle disputes and judge legal violations.

America Joins the Great Peace

In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed George Morgan the first Indian agent to promote peace with Indian nations. Congressional President John Hancock told Morgan to follow the custom of the Iroquois "forest diplomats" by taking a "great peace belt with 13 diamonds and 2,500 wampum beads" to invite Indians to the first U.S.-Indian Peace Treaty. This historic Washington Covenant belt was given to the chiefs and clan mothers at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784 as a promise that they would never be forced to fight in U.S. wars, and that Indian land rights would be respected. As in the Peacemaker legend, the war hatchet was buried beneath the Tree of Peace and prayers of peace were offered through the sacred pipe.

Another speaker at the Cornell conference, Gregory Schaaf, Ph.D, recently discovered a cache of Morgan's papers in an attic of Susannah Morgan, 94-year-old family heir. In his book The Birth of Frontier Democracy from an Eagle's Eye View, he writes: "Before the Revolution, members of the Continental Congress met with Iroquois ambassadors to learn how they governed themselves. A Chief advised, 'Our wise forefathers established Union and AmityI this made us formidable. We are a powerful Confederacy, and if you observe the same methods, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power.'

After meeting with the Iroquois in 1754, Ben Franklin first proposed creating a colonial Grand Council in the 'Albany Plan of Union': 'One Government may be formed administered by a President, and a Grand Council chosen by representatives of the people.' Franklin's plan for a Grand Council of United Colonies resembles the Iroquois Grand Council."

The Fire That Never Dies

Today the Iroquois League remains alive -- the last surviving sovereign nations of native Americans in North America. Its capital still sits at the center of New York State in Onondaga County, just south of the City of Syracuse. On a bend of Onondaga Creek Valley is the Onondaga Nation, a 35 square mile island of still sovereign native soil inhabited by 1500 survivors of the once great Iroquois Confederacy. It was nearby, at Hiawatha Point on the Onondaga Lake shore, that Peacemaker taught the Iroquois to "bury the hatchet" and imparted The Great Law. The Onondagas, Firekeepers of the League, still host meetings of the Grand Council of Iroquois government.

Among Indian tribes in America, Iroquois are special in that they remain autonomous, independent nations. Yes, nations, not "reservations" as many Americans mistakenly believe. Under international law Iroquois reservations aren't U.S. lands, and aren't subject to federal, state or local laws. Rather, they are foreign nations within the United States and Canada, who exercise their own self government on their own national soil. They're a distinct culture and race with their own language, religion, history, families, communities, and government.

Their sovereignty is continually challenged. As recently as 1983, Dennis Banks, an Ojibway leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), was sought by South Dakota for prosecution on riot and arson charges connected with a demonstration by Sioux Indians at the Rapid City Courthouse. Banks sought political asylum under the wing of the Onondaga Nation. New York State under Governor Cuomo declined to send agents onto Onondaga soil to extradite Banks. On another front, the Iroquois are fighting the presumption of the U.S. Selective Service to draft Iroquois sons into the American military.

To Iroquois traditionalists the Great Law of Peace isn't merely a form of government, but religious practice of an ancient spiritual legacy. Peacemaker wasn't a military hero or social leader, but a messenger of the Creator. Following The Great Law is a spiritual practice, and those who follow the Longhouse tradition are "faithkeepers."

There's no separation of church and state in Iroquois society. Indeed, spirituality lies at the root of government and law.

New Light From an Ancient Source

Hundreds of years ago in North America a spiritual Teacher appeared in the Finger Lakes region to communities of the red race who guarded the eastern gate into the continent's interior. This messenger from the Creator transmitted an instruction to these people of how to live together in honor, dignity and peace.

The Peacemaker spoke his Words of Law to only a few villages, but his message and vision is the legacy and heritage of all human beings, of all five races of humanity.

Today the League remains one of the best examples of democracy, self- government and libertarian society on Earth. Through it we continue to gain wisdom and inspiration needed today to confront intensified challenges to peace and survival. Seneca traditionalist, writer and lecturer John Mohawk, in his Foreword to the recent version of Dr. Wallace's White Roots of Peace, sums up his ancient past amid our modern predicament:

"Long ago on the Onondaga Lake shore a man proposed peace was a possibility. It was a radical idea at the time, as it is now. He proposed justice could be achieved, that there would be no true peace until justice is achieved. He proposed because human beings are rational and have a potential to use their heads, these things are possible. His vision contained many principles, and what nearly amounted to a faith based on the process of thinking.

His efforts carried an obscure group of Indian peoples to the center of the world stage of history. It was a major building block which enabled the Haudenosaunee to become one of the most politically and philosophically influential peoples in history.

"The ownership of the thinking which took place then, and the generation of thinking which needs to take place now are our job. That's what we'll find when we follow the roots to their source. The White Roots continue to represent a tradition of thinking about ourselves as a species, and the responsibility to use our minds so that we continue to survive and create a good world for our children seven generations into the future."

"We, The People..."

It is unfortunate that the Iroquois" central role in the creation of the United States government has apparently been a well kept secret. For The Great Law provides uniquely valuable instruction in the arts of politics and law, negotiation and diplomacy, disarmament and government.

The search for world peace is of utmost concern to all men and women of good will today. As American democracy celebrates its 200th birthday, we must assure this deeper heritage of freedom is rediscovered and exposed to national attention once more. Beneath the great gushing growth of modern American culture, hidden and forgotten, lie the true roots of freedom, democracy and peaceful co-existence.

Let us hope modern civilization will pause its arrogant, headlong rush to catastrophe long enough to look and take note. For if we follow the White Roots of Peace back to their source, we find men and women of the Iroquois Nations gathered around a hole into which Peacemaker cast the weapons of war. There we find the spiritual inheritance of all humanity: One Peaceful World, the United Nations of the human family. 


for a green and peaceful planet for the Seventh Generation