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IN CASE OF CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS….Start here: The Great Law of Peace

Updated resources: Dec. 9, 2018, March 21, 2019
Posted September 6, 2018

I agree with those who say that Americans are in a constitutional crisis in 2018. I believe that the most unifying, sanity-inducing, and relief-giving activity that we can do right now is to learn the details of the Great Law of Peace and how the Iroquois League implemented their constitution.  Americans who are looking for new options for action or a liberating framework for real democracy will be greatly refreshed by this comparatively ancient vision that manifested on this very land.

If I understand my readings correctly, the Great Law of Peace was codified around 1142 and is still operational. Like most Americans educated in the last 60 years, I knew that the Iroquois Constitution had informed the writing of the U.S. Constitution. But I did not know why certain ideas were adopted by the Founding Fathers while others were omitted. That was partly because the details known by scholars in the 1960s-1990s were not widely disseminated and partly because the scholars studying the Great Law of Peace were not American Indians. It was also partly because the Indians east of the Mississippi needed more time to resuscitate themselves and their culture, having been the frontline resistance to European conquest.

But in 2000, a scholar of the Bear clan, Seneca nation — Barbara Alice Mann, professor of humanities at University of Toledo — published a comprehensive description of the Iroquois Constitution and how it compared to the U.S. Constitution. Her book is IROQUOIAN WOMEN: THE GANTOWISAS, where Gantowisas translates variously as clan mothers, government women, mature woman acting in her public capacity.

Since I read the book in 2015, I have been searching for related materials on the Great Law of Peace. But nothing compares with the breadth, depth, and storytelling that is contained in this book, a heavily annotated, bibliographed, indexed, but highly readable one. It is literary, entertaining, humorous, and deadly serious—a perfect match for this moment in American life when more and more people are waking up to the seriousness of self-governance and to the confusions in American discourse.


1.  As a first step for moving through this constitutional crisis, here is a brief summary of the Iroquois Constitution’s principles and structures, as well as some resources for further thought and discussion. See below.

2. A second step would be to connect to the living Haudenosaunee people and organizations to see if they might be willing to help all of us understand how the Great Law of Peace can be applied to the U.S. in the 21st century.

3. A third step could be a national book club (year-long?) to read the U.S. Constitution, the Iroquois Constitution, and any other resources that might help us update our “rulebook” (a term used by historian Nancy MacLean).

4. A fourth step could be Constitutional Conventions in every state and territory (including Washington, DC) to explore amendment proposals that would enable more practical and comprehensive implementation of our collective ideals.  The ideal convention process would be to include everyone who wasn’t included in the drafting of the 1787 document–American Indians, women, African-Americans, and every living American adult (voting age).


1. Foundational Principles

These two paragraphs from Prof. Mann’s eye-opening book (Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas) present a succinct comparison of the founding principles of the United States with the pillars of the Iroquois League.

pp. 212 -13
“It is interesting to me that, in all of the debate furiously raging ever since Bruce Johansen’s Forgotten Founders (1982) rubbed academia’s nose in the fact that the authors of the U.S. Constitution had been strongly influenced by the Iroquoian Great Law, few have noticed the main disparity between Iroquoia and the United States. It was not the political presence or absence of women, or trial by jury, or a standing army, or any of a dozen other, readily spotted political differences that marked the distinction. It was, instead, the failure of the Founding Fathers also to adopt and adapt the Iroquoian system of grass–roots economics that complemented its political base of Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ (popular sovereignty).

“The true failure of the resultant hybrid lay in the unthinking assumption by the Founding Fathers that European war-lord economics and Haudenosaunee Ne” gashasde”’sa’ could operate in harness without the plunder economics of Europe throwing the political system of Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ into disarray. By furthermore ignoring the sibling principles of Ne” Sken’no” (Health) and Ne” Gai’ihwiio (Righteousness) as practical tools of economic prosperity (as opposed to mere moralistic pieties), the Founding Fathers sabotaged hopes for real participatory democracy by writing the proprietary economics of Europe into their Constitution. It is this mismatch of popular but unfunded sovereignty bound to the naked exploitation of capitalism that is short-circuiting American Ne” gashasde”’sa’ today, subverting the political will of the people through the undue economic pressures exerted by a financially privileged elite. No such unbalancing access was possible in the prototype, however, for the clan level where Ne” Gashasde”’sa’ was fomented was also the level at which the confederated economy was managed. Power, will, and weal did not trickle down in Iroquoia; they percolated up.”


2. Foundational Structures
Most of these basic structures are codified in the Great Law of Peace and discussed in great detail in Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. 

Bicameral self-governance for 500+ years
Women’s councils + men’s councils
— 100% inclusion: all adults
— Living document (ease of amendment): 5-year sunset clause

Responsibilities of women’s councils:
— Set the agenda for men’s councils (including preferred options)
— Appoint and remove chiefs
— Initiate and end war

Economic structures
— Funded sovereignty: basic income
— Reciprocal economics: gift economy (absence of “bullyboy” economics)
— Distribution hubs: clan mothers

— Women: farming
— Men: forestry, hunting, fishing

Social structures
— Full personal liberty for all
— Legal identity, record-keeping: clan mothers


3. Resources for the Great Law of Peace
— VIDEO OF SYMPOSIUM: Practicing Peace for Climate Justice:Haudenosaunee Knowledge in Global Context.  Cornell University, March 14, 2019.  Three speakers + Q&A, 2.5 hours.   Video link.
— BOOK: Kayanerenkó:wa: The Great Law of Peace (2018), by Kayanesenh Paul Williams. Analysis of Kayanerenkó:wa as a living, principled legal system, by an indigenous lawyer. University of Manitoba Press. 
— BOOK: Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (2000), by Barbara Alice Mann (Bear clan, Seneca), Prof. – Humanities, Univ. of Toledo. So far as I can tell, no other resource provides the level of detail that is included in Prof. Mann’s book about life in the Iroquois League.
— ESSAY: “Slow Runners”, by Barbara Alice Mann. In Make a Beautiful Way: The Wisdom of Native American Womened. by Barbara Alice Mann (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2008)
— VIDEO on history of Iroquois Constitution (no title). Presentation by Barbara Alice Mann at 2nd World Congress on Matriarchal Studies (Texas State University, 2005, presented by Societies of Peace).  43 mins. + 10 mins. questions.  Audio quality not great, but the content is astounding.
— BOOK: Basic Call to Consciousness (2005), ed. by Akwesasne Notes
Includes 1977 speech at United Nations (Geneva): Haudenosaunee Address to the Western World
— WEBSITE: Iroquois Constitution, an English translation, by Arthur C. Parker (Seneca)
Prepared by Gerald Murphy, The Cleveland Free-Net, the National Public Telecomputing Network.
— MUSEUM: Ganondagan—Seneca Art & Culture Center (Victor, NY)
— EXHIBIT: ‘Hodinöhsö:ni’ Women: From the Time of Creation’  (2-year exhibit, 2018-20) at Ganondagan
Article:  Exhibit at Ganondagan’s Seneca Art & Culture Center Honors Women as Sacred Creators (May 2018), by Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today
— HERITAGE CENTER: Ska-nonh—Great Law of Peace Center (Liverpool, NY)


b.  SECONDARY SOURCES on Haudenosaunee Culture
— SPEECH (print): Rematriation of the Truth (2011), by Barbara Alice Mann
— WEBSITE: Rematriation – new website by and for Haudenosaunee women
— VIDEO:  #MeToo from a Haudenosaunee perspective (30 mins.)
— VIDEO: Listen to your Mother (2012), by Barbara Alice Mann (11 mins.).  Haudenosaunee matriarchy.
— BOOKLET: Neighbor to Neighbor, Nation to Nation: Readings about the Relationship of the Onondaga Nation with Central New York, USA (revised 2014). Published by Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), a project of the Syracuse Peace Council. 79 pages.



4. Current Constitutional Resources
—BOOK: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017), by Nancy MacLean, Prof. – History, Duke University. The last chapter (Get Ready, pp. 222-29) covers some plans to alter “the most important rulebook, the U.S. Constitution”.
—PROJECT: Comparative Constitutions Project — Informing Constitutional Design. Through the subsidiary Constitute Project, CCP makes available the texts of active constitutions worldwide. Unfortunately, their database starts with documents written in 1787 and does not include the Great Law of Peace.
—SHORT ESSAY — a Politico Big Idea: The Constitution Needs a Reboot (Sept. 2018)
by Sanford V. Levinson, professor at University of Texas
–BOOK: A More Perfect Constitution (2007), by Larry Sabato, Prof – Political Science, University of Virginia.  Suggests a national Constitutional Convention + 23 proposals for amending the Constitution. Also video (2008) and website.
–BOOK: The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates that Define and Inspire our Country (2008), by Howard Fineman, journalist. Accessible and useful framework for thinking and talking about 21st century constitutional issues in the U.S.