The Indigenous Other and Aboriginal Democracy

The predominant strands of thought in western societies associate the origins of democratic thinking and democracy per se with a number of classical Greek philosophers and their antiqual city-states. Conventionally referred to as ‘Athenian Democracy’, it preceded the Roman Republic which followed suit until 27 B.C and other novel democratic institutions such as the parliamentary Corts Catalanes ─ its origins tracing back to the Assemblees de Pau i Treva around 1021 A.D ─ and the Cortes de Léon established in 1188 A.D. Indeed, despite scholarly divisions over the specific date at which these city-states shifted from societal ‘protodemocracy’ to institutional ‘democracy’, most historians situate it around the Solonian reforms of the early 6th Century B.C (Christ, 2008: 513). As for the tremendous classical heritage these Hellenic polities brought forward to the historical formation and evolution of democracies, it suffices to say the entire discussion of this article is framed around an etymology deriving from the ancient Greek word demos[people]-kratie[power].

The Greek polities however were by no means an exemplar of liberal or radical democracy in the modern sense of such terms. They were conceptually hampered, for one due to their restricted ‘citizenship’ which excluded slaves, women and foreigners but also given their selection of officeholders was predominantly a randomised rather than electoral process (although the political scientist Etienne Chouard has suggested otherwise, arguing randomised allocations would prove more legitimate in the light of current plutocratic tendencies). The qualifier at hand, ‘democracy’, must therefore be treated as an open-ended signifier, applicable to any ancient political structure which displayed credible democratic tendencies. Whether a given ancient polity maintained comparatively strong egalitarian, representative or participative principles is certainly of importance though secondary to extrapolating its intrinsic democratic undertone.


            With this premise in mind the article primarily focuses on the political structure of the Iroquois Confederacy by and in itself, before outlining some comparative theoretical and political ramifications which may result from such an analysis.


The confederation arose out of the merging of five distinct tribes: the Mohawk and Seneca at both territorial ends, the Onondaga as the host tribe and the Cayuga and Oneida. As per Athenian Democracy, there is no definite consensus concerning the exact date of its formation. Nonetheless most archeologists and historians concur in situating it around 1450, which would have been roughly eighty five years before French explorer Jacques Cartier first encountered Mohawk tribesmen along the Saint Lawrence River (Crawford, 1994: 353-354). The chronology therefore is no minor detail for it implies the Iroquois political structure was aboriginal, that is to say distinct from any external sociocultural influence beyond its native counterparts such as the Algonquins or Cherokees, if they even qualify as such. Put differently, the Iroquois Confederacy had no Athenian heritage as opposed to nearly all democratic-leaning counterparts of its period in time thus its conceptualisation of the polity was resultantly unique.


            Since the Iroquois Confederacy withheld no external influence, the extent to which it may be considered a distinct non-European forefather of democracy is a crucial question which not only relates to Native American anthropology but moreover to the history of democracy. The most effective way perhaps to analyse this question is to scrutinise the Iroquois oral constitution, known as the Great Law of Peace. In this regard, there were no written records of its dozens of articles for nearly 500 years until the late 18th Century. The only way to promulgate it instead consisted of lengthy recitals by its chiefs with the help of wampum shells around the council fires. Whilst originally a verbal document,  the Great Law of Peace is in fact considered to be the oldest living constitution of the northern continent, even preceding one of if not the most revered symbol of democratic rule, the federal constitution of the United States (Lutz, 1998). As such when anglophone transcripts eventually emerged, so did a number of variations due to both primary native interpretations and secondary anthropological translations, though most of these are semantical and affect the founding myth of the confederacy more so than its actual legal clauses (Vecsey, 1986).


            If the constitution itself does not seemingly contain much linguistic ambiguity, there are competing analyses however of both its legal provisions and their consequent political enactment. On the one hand, some historians argue most if not all native American tribes held an inherent predisposition towards collective and popular distributions of power (O’Brien, 1989: 14-15). The reason behind this protodemocratic trend according to such scholars was their conflation of religion and politics, man having to live in harmony with his environment by placing both nature and society above himself (Ibid). In the case of the Iroquois, O’Brien goes even further by explicitly associating such socioreligious trends and the constitution’s ‘governing council of fifty chiefs [sachems]’ to a ‘rule [not] by a few or even by a majority, but a rule by all’ (pp.18-20). His assertion already hints at the possibility of primal Iroquois democracy though Crawford goes even further by asserting the five tribes and the confederation itself were functional ‘democracies’ (1994: 345). On the other hand, certain historians present a more conservative analysis of the Iroquois political system, situating it within a wider spectrum ranging from ‘traditional tribalism’ to ‘institutionalised democracy’ (Lutz, 1998: 114).


This interpretative academic divide of both the constitution’s nominal provisions and their functional enactment ─ what was stated and what was materialised ─ is of great importance for it conditions the extent to which the Iroquois Confederacy was characteristically and functionally a democracy, hence the extent to which it may be considered a foundational exemplar in the history of democracy. The most notable disagreement between O’Brien and Lutz lies in the selection process of the sachems, the fifty chiefs of the confederation’s council. Indeed, the manner in which these were designated is crucial, for the council was the core of Iroquois governmental representation. According to O’Brien, the nomination took place within the clans of each five tribes and it appears the initial decision was taken by the elderly ‘clan mother’ who, in conjunction with the other women of that particular clan, could choose the most suitable men amongst them, granted he displayed the virtues of ‘generosity, truthfulness, reliability, courage and religious spirit’ (O’Brien, 1989: 19-20). This being said, the sachem then had to be confirmed by the tribe in question and the confederate council (p.20). As a result, O’Brien argues the combination of these two processes in the selection of a sachem, the consensual decision of the clan women and the tribal/confederate ‘checks and balances’, support his assertion that power among the Iroquois was ‘delegated by the people’ hence the confederation equated a ‘rule by all’ (p.20). In this regard, Crawford goes even further by claiming this selection process effectively resembled a democratic process with ‘universal voting rights’ (1994: 381).


However such compressed understandings of the confederation’s sachems omits a number of crucial details. If the selection process did in fact take place primarily within the clan itself, only the families who inherited the title of a sachem, these were termed royaneh families, could participate in the selection process (Lutz, 1998: 111). The women of these royaneh families in a given clan would select a royaneh son or nephew and this nomination would then be confirmed by the men of these royaneh families (Ibid). Any disagreements amongst the royaneh men and royaneh women were solved by the existing sachems of that particular clan (Ibid). Whether agreed upon unanimously by the royaneh families themselves or by the clan’s schacems, the nominee would then need the approval of the sister clans within the other tribes and finally the confederation’s council as a whole (pp.111-112). All of this to say that it wasn’t the clan of a sachem as a whole who nominated the successor, but only the royaneh families of that clan which according to the best estimates represented no more than 5 percent of all Iroquois families (p.114). As Lutz eloquently puts it, the overall process ‘could be viewed as consensual [though by] generating consensus among an oligarchy’ (p.112).


Of course, this isn’t to say the Iroquois Confederation displayed no democratic tendencies at all. By institutionalising their political offices ─ the sachems ─ for they were dissociated from their temporary holders, the confederation had developed a significant ‘nontraditional’ structure resembling our modern political systems (p.114). Furthermore, the sachems could be deposed if they did not take into account three consecutive warnings of the tribal ad hoc council (p.113), as may the legislators of most modern assemblies. On a different note, the confederation also promoted a number of ordinary or plebiscite Iroquois men to the status of Pine Tree Chiefs, usually by virtue of their merit and courage in battle (pp.116-11). These men held a privileged position for they could assist the confederate council as honorary non-voting members and ‘[convey] the people’s wishes, complaints, and questions’ (O’Brien, 1989: 20), thus perfecting the representativity of the confederation. Still, the most convincing argument in favour of conferring a substantial degree of democracy upon the confederation remains the regular formation of male and female inner-tribal councils as well as the occasional establishment of an overarching ‘Great Council of the Women of the Five Nations’ and ‘Great Council of the Men of the Five Nations’ (Lutz, 1998: 115). In all of these tribal and inter-tribal councils, ordinary Iroquois were consensually designated instead of royaneh men and women in what appear to be a truly non-discriminatory selection process. Furthermore, whilst the two Great Councils were only formed during moments of ‘great importance’ or ‘danger’ and held no means of binding their views, the confederation’s council of sachems was intended to ‘confirm’ the opinion of the people expressed in them (p.115). This, according to Lutz, was ‘the closest the constitution [came] to describing a democratic body’ (Ibid).


            Overall, it appears as if the Iroquois Confederacy was neither a fully democratic nor a primitive political system, but rather something in between as previously suggested. Truly, there is no denying the sophistication and consensual nature of the Iroquois Confederation. In comparative terms as well in regards to the Greek city-states, both excluded a number of individuals from either the citizenry boundary or the royaneh family institution. Furthermore, neither the Greeks nor the Iroquois upholded either an arbitrary or an electoral selection process, as these were based on random allocations or matriarchal, tribal and ensuingly confederate consensus. Granted the designation of sachems rested upon an oligarchal system framed by the royaneh families. Nevertheless, a number of provisions were laid out to prevent the council’s power from becoming despotic and strengthen the responsiveness of the citizenry. These included the possibility of deposing a flawed sachem, the presence of Pine Tree Chiefs at the council and above all the circumstantial consultations of the popular ‘Great Councils of the Nation’ by the confederate council. In summary then, characterising the political structures of the Iroquois Confederacy and its tribes as ‘democracies’ per se (Crawford, 1994:: 357) is probably an overstatement, as much as reducing the confederation's elaborate societal and political bonds to a mere ‘primitive tribal alliance’ according to Orlando Sentinel columnist Charley Reese seems incomplete to say the least (Johansen, 1996: p.x). Perhaps then, the most accurate label to describe the Iroquois polity would be an ‘Aristotelian “mixed regime”’ (Lutz, 1998: 99) for as Horatio Hale astutely asserted, ‘the system of government [combined] very ingeniously the methods of democracy and aristocracy’ (1883b: 497). The Iroquois Confederacy then, as much as Athenian Democracy, could be considered a flawed though antiqual democracy and as such a foundational exemplar to the historical development and spread of democracy.


            On a final note, there are a number of open-ended remarks such conclusions may lead to. Not only does this indigenous exemplar deconstruct the predominantly Eurocentric vision of democracy’s roots but it also critically demonstrates the underlying conceptual and societal prejudices western scholars and societies may have, at least complacently, in underestimating the inner sophistication and progressiveness such ‘barbaric’ or ‘primitive’ communities had. Specifically in regards to the Iroquois, certain revisionist historians have gone even further by not only exploring their political and societal values for their own merit but also in relation to the colonial societies and consequently the American and Canadian nations. Indeed, some have contentiously suggested the Iroquois Confederation influenced the drafting of the American constitution and have provided a number of convincing arguments  (see Grinde and Johansen, 1990) to the point where a number of scholars consider it a reasonable thesis worthy of discussion. Other scholars have focused on the more evident and documentable relationship conjoining the transcendental progressive values of Iroquois society and early 20th Century American feminist movements (see Wagner, 2001). The history of the world therefore appears far more complex and diffuse, wherein revisionist and critical minds should always reconsider the position of the discursively marginalised Other in the name of emancipatory ideals. As Aradau once stated, academia and politics alike must ‘[claim] a voice for the silenced’ (2004: 397).


This essay was written by a Rethinking Associate Writer, Edouard Hargrove.





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Crawford, N. (1994). A Security Regime among Democracies: Cooperation among Iroquois Nations. International Organization,48(3), pp.345-385.


Christ, M. (2008). Athenian Democracy. The Classical Review, 58(2), 513-514.


Grinde, D. and Johansen, B. (1990). Exemplar of Liberty: Native American and the Evolution of Democracy. [online] Available at:


Hale, H. (1883b). The Iroquois Institutions and Language. Science, 2(36), pp.496-497.


Johansen, B. (1996). Native American political systems and the evolution of democracy. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.


O'Brien, S. (1993). American indian tribal governments. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press.


Lutz, D. (1998). The Iroquois Confederation Constitution: An Analysis. Publius, 28(2), pp.99-127.


Vecsey, C. (1986). The Story and Structure of the Iroquois Confederacy. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 54(1), pp.79-106.


Wagner, S. (2001). Sisters in spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) influence on early American feminists. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing CO.