Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
Erik Brady: Rick Santorum could not have been more wrong about Native American contributions to U.S. culture

Erik Brady: Rick Santorum could not have been more wrong about Native American contributions to U.S. culture

Support this work for $1 a month
Rick Santorum (copy)

Former Sen. Rick Santorum.

The Iroquois Confederacy was trending on Twitter the other day. The attention came in reaction to something that Rick Santorum said. But let’s leave the former senator aside for the moment and talk about what really matters.

The U.S. Constitution is based in significant part on the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy. This is an aspect of history that is important to know, especially in Buffalo. That’s because one of the Six Nations of that Confederacy is the Seneca Nation of Indians, who have lived for centuries in what is now known as Western New York and Southern Ontario.

The Seneca joined with the Mohawks, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Oneida – and later the Tuscarora – to form a central government that ties those nations together while at the same time maintaining their individual governance.

This living example of federalism served as a model for what would become the U.S. Constitution. The Senate recognized this in a 1988 resolution marking the bicentennial of the Constitution: “The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself.”

When delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention met, in 1787, the Founding Fathers could not look to Europe for examples of democratic governments; there were none. Instead they looked in large part to the Haudenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse.”

One of the nation’s leading experts on all of this is Donald A. Grinde Jr., who testified before the Senate when it was considering the resolution.

Grinde, who is Cherokee Yamasee, is a professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo and a co-author of “Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy.” His 1991 book, with Bruce E. Johansen, outlines how the Haudenosaunee Confederacy offered real-life examples of many of the ideas that would become hallmarks of the Constitution: separation of powers, sovereignty in the people and federalism.

John Adams wrote a handbook – a sort of compendium of world governments across time – for the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. “He wrote,” Grinde says, “that it would be productive to investigate forms of government of the Indians, since – and here’s the direct quote – ‘since the League of the Iroquois was the best example of governmental separation of powers.’ ”

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy offered parallels to executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. It vested sovereignty in the people, as opposed to the English notion that God vested it in a monarchy. This idea is conveyed in the Constitution’s familiar opening words: “We the people.”

Theresa McCarthy is interim chair of the University at Buffalo's new department of Indigenous Studies, which is set to open in the fall of 2022. She is a member of the Onondaga Nation as a Beaver clan citizen of the Grand River Territory in Ontario. And she says it is important to recognize that the political contributions of the Haudenosaunee do not end with the U.S. Constitution.

“The early suffragists were influenced by the political authority held by Haudenosaunee women,” McCarthy says. “They used this as a way to argue their case for the vote for women — because political autonomy for women was unheard of in Euro-Western culture. When we talk about the influence on our political structure, it is something that has continued.”

That includes today’s environmental movement, she adds: “You can’t underestimate the value of the knowledge of people who have been caretakers of the land for millennia.”

Santorum does underestimate the value of Native peoples. The former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, now a CNN commentator, recently spoke to a youth group called the Young America’s Foundation.

“We birthed a nation from nothing,” Santorum said. “I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans. But candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

This, of course, is a historical hokum. Indigenous culture is with us in ways too many to count – from the crops we grow to the food we eat to the land on which we live. And, as many of the Twitterati quickly pointed out, to the government we have.

“That sound you hear,” tweeted Kathleen Belew, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, is “the simultaneous primal scream of historians.”

Count Grinde and McCarthy among them. Grinde says that nothing in Santorum’s words surprised him. “Same old, same old,” he says.

“It checks all the boxes,” McCarthy says. “Racism, white supremacy and colonialism.”

She wishes Santorum’s point of view were less common. “Unfortunately,” she says, “it is pervasive.”

Which, she says, is precisely why the new department forming at UB is so badly needed.

“The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is still in operation,” she says, “and it is the oldest living, continuing, participatory democracy in the world. Santorum talks about people coming here and making something out of nothing. But they didn’t have anything that they understood as democratic governance except what they found here.”

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News