There is an ancient legend that tells how the Haudenosaunee (commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy) was formed. Today, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy consists of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and the Tuscarora American Indian Nations. These nations historically inhabited the lands that surround the North American Great Lakes, known as the Eastern Woodlands cultural area. This is in the area of North America that is now known as the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in the U.S. and the southern regions of the Maritime provinces of Canada.
Oren Lyons, the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onondaga Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, on July 3rd, 1991, spoke with journalist Bill Moyers telling him about The Legend of the Gai Eneshah Go’ Nah (the Great Law of Peace), which was given to his people by a man who they call The Peacemaker.
In this interview, Mr. Lyons explained that over a thousand years ago the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and the Mohawk people had been engaged in constant conflict with one other. Violence and bloodshed had become a way of life. Then a spiritual man, known as The Peacemaker, came to the Five Nations and gave them instructions on how to live together in peace. Later, the Tuscarora people, who because of the negative effects of colonization, migrated from the south and joined the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The instructions that The Peacemaker gave are known as The Great Law of Peace, which governs the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to this day.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was the first American democracy, and it is the one after which the ‘Founding Fathers’ patterned the U.S. Constitution.
Yet, the notion of ‘democracy’ has a slightly different meaning for the Haudenosaunee people than it does for the dominating U.S. culture. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a rather egalitarian form of government, a specific type of direct democracy called a participatory democracy, in which there is a belief in the need for consensus and the sharing of power. The Haudenosaunee people believe that law, society and nature are equal partners, each holding important roles. While in a similar yet distinct way, the U.S. form of government is a representative democracy, where, essentially, the majority rules in a power-over fashion within a system of hierarchical power structures. Thus, in America, the term ‘democracy’ is a shared symbol that embodies different meanings, depending on the worldview of the people using the term.
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