Iroquois Great Law of Peace (Kaianerekowa)

The Great Law of Peace is the oldest constitution in North America defining a system of participatory democracy that has sustained the Iroquois Confederacy for perhaps 1,000 years. At a time of terrible war, say tribal elders, a Great Peacemaker emerged to inspire the warriors to bury their weapons of war (the origins of the saying, “to bury the hatchet”). The Peacemaker planted on top of the weapons a sacred Tree of Peace and established a code of laws called     Kaianerekowa,the Great Law of Peace.

Mohawk Wolf Clan Chief Jake Swamp explained: “The powerful story of the birth of democracy began long, long ago. 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” (Schaaf, 2004, 7).

“During the dark age of our history 1,000 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 the Creator sent a Peacemaker with a message to be righteous and just, and make a good future for our children seven generations to come,” said Swamp (Schaaf, 2004, 7).

Six historic accounts of the Great Law of Peace exist. The versions exhibit minor variations. The New-house edition was the first published account. The Chiefs’ edition was a joint collaboration by the chiefs of the Six Nation Council. Linguists at the Smithsonian Institution translated the Gibson edition. The Wallace, Buck, and Mohawk editions included the highlights of the Peacemaker’s life.

Iroquois elders widely agree that the Great Peacemaker was a divine being who was sent by the Creator to make peace on Mother Earth. The Great Peacemaker is said to have been the result of an immaculate birth on the shores of the Great Lakes. As a child, he displayed extraordinary talents thwarting early attempts to take his life.

War raged for generations 1,000 years ago around the Great Lakes and present-day upstate New York. The Peacemaker and Hiawenthe (Hiawatha) bravely marched into the middle of the battle. No one harmed the holy men, but the warriors at first did not stop fighting. Armed only with logic, reasoning, and their spiritual message, they conducted Condolence Ceremonies with the battleworn warriors. They convinced the original five Iroquoian nations, one by one, to make peace and to unite as the Iroquois Confederacy.

The Peacemaker then unveiled a new form of government—participatory democracy—and a legal     system called the Great Law of Peace. The core teaching of the Great Law is that “peace was the law, and the law was for peace.” Under the Great Law, fifty chiefs and clan mothers were organized in a three-part system of government, with executive, legislative, and judicial divisions. The Onondaga nation became like an “executive branch.” The “legislative branch” was formed when the Mohawk and Seneca were organized like the U.S. Senate, and the Oneida and Cayuga (later joined by the Tuscarora) formed a sort of U.S. House of Representatives. The “judicial branch of government” was turned over to the clan mothers; thus the women gained veto power over war and the power to nominate the chiefs.

Mohawk Bear Clan Chief Tom Porter described how chiefs are raised: “Women deserved 90 per cent of the credit in raising the children. Oh, we men do a little. We might change a diaper or two, but in the middle of the night, when a baby cries and we men are sound asleep, momma gets up and rocks the babies back to sleep. The mothers watch the children carefully as they are growing up. The ones who are greedy and push around the weaker children will never be chosen to be a chief. The ones who are kind, unselfish, and always helping others are considered for future leadership positions. Honesty is the first requirement for leadership” (Porter, 1986).

The Iroquois Grand Council provided a model for the American colonists. As early as 1754, Benjamin Franklin proposed: “One general government may be formed in America, administered by a President General . . . and a Grand Council to be chosen by representatives of the people of the several colonies . . .” (Franklin, 1754). The main difference in the original Iroquois system as compared with the U.S. Constitution is that the Women’s Council constitutes the Supreme Court and the judicial branch of government. Under the Great Law of Peace, the women nominate the chiefs and have the power to impeach any chief who violates the Great Law of Peace or the dignity of leadership. The Women’s Council retained veto power over war. The men could not go to war if the women said no. Women also held in trust the title to the land and the property in their homes. If the delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention had embraced all facets of the Great Law of Peace, then there would be Founding Mothers, as well as Founding Fathers.

Another main difference exists between the Great Law of Peace and the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. system is a form of “elective” democracy versus the Iroquois form of “participatory” democracy. Iroquois citizens must actively participate in their governance. Their system encourages direct citizen involvement.

To better analyze the similarities and differences between the Great Law of Peace and the U.S. Constitution, a project began in 1980 to organize the two documents in two columns showing the parallel passages side by side. The comparison clearly illustrated similarities and differences in the two founding documents. In 1987, the evidence was submitted as testimony before U.S. Senate hearings on the origins of the Constitution. For the first time in history, Congress officially recognized that the U.S. government was “explicitly modeled” after the Iroquois Confederacy (Congressional Record, 1987).

Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp further commented: “Our Iroquois chiefs and clan mothers have long said that the Great Law of Peace served as a model for the U.S. Constitution. We know that our ancestors met personally with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others involved in drafting the U.S. Constitution” (Swamp, 1983).

Comparisons with the Great Law of Peace allow students to see the U.S. Constitution in a new light. Featuring high qualifications for leadership, political rights for women, and a remarkable system of justice, the Great Law of Peace may inspire people to reconsider the founding principles of the United States. For example, why were the rights of women guaranteed in the Great Law of Peace, but denied under the original U.S. Constitution? The logical conclusion would be a difference in philosophy regarding fundamental human rights. Under the Iroquois system slavery was illegal. There were no taxes or prisons. The recognition of equal rights for all was the law.

Iroquois women to this day hold greater rights in accordance with the Great Law of Peace, than their non-Indian female counterparts under the U.S. Constitution. Interviews with Iroquois clan mothers revealed their Native philosophy. Women choose the leaders, because they devote the most time to raising the babies. Women have veto power over war, because they give birth and respect the sanctity of life in a special way. Land title is passed down through the women, because one always knows for certain who the mother is. Iroquois social structure is matrilineal and land title is passed down through the women.

The women nominate men for leadership positions based on the following qualities: “The Chief Statesmen shall be mentors of the people for all time. . . . Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will,     and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people. . . . With endless patience they shall carry out their duty, and their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgment in their minds, and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation” (Schaaf, 2004, 22–23).

The clan mothers explained why warriors and war chiefs were forbidden from being civil leaders: If you choose a war leader to be a leader in your civil government and your country is constantly at war, whom do you have to blame but yourselves?

Gregory Schaaf

Further Reading Barnes, Barbara Kawenehe, ed. 1984. Traditional Teachings. Cornwall Island, ON: North American Indian Travelling College.; Congressional Record–Senate. 1987. Senate Concurrent Resolution 76, To Acknowledge the Contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy, 100th Cong. 1st Sess.133 Cong Rec S 12214. September 16. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.; Fadden, John Kahionhes. 1999. Kaianerekowa Hotinonsionne: The Great Law of Peace of the Longhouse People. Berkeley, CA: Oyate.; Fenton, William Nelson. 1998. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Franklin, Benjamin. 1855. “Albany Plan of Union” (Albany, NY, July 10, 1754). Queen’s State Papers Office, British Museum, London, “New York Papers,” Bundle Kk, No. 20. Edited by E. B. O’Callaghan. Albany, NY, v. VI, 853–892.; Parker, Arthur Caswell. 1916. The Constitution of the Five Nations or the Iroquois Book of the Great Law. Albany: New York State Museum.; Porter, Tom. 1986. Personal communication.; Schaaf, Gregory, and Chief Jake Swamp. 2004. The U.S. Constitution and the Great Law of Peace. Santa Fe, NM: CIAC Press.; Scott, Duncan C. Traditional History of the Confederacy of the Six Nations. Ottawa: Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 1911.; Swamp, Jake. 1983. Personal communication.; Tehanetorens, Ray Fadden. 2000. Roots of the Iroquois. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company.; Thomas, Chief Jake. 1994. The Great Law. Grand River, ON: Six Nations Council.; Wallace, Paul. [1946] 1998. The White Roots of Peace. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.

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