American Indian Governance and Its Impact on the U.S. Constitution

Benjamin Franklin's Albany plan to create an alliance of 13 colonies stemmed from recommendations from the Iroquois Confederacy.
Benjamin Franklin’s Albany plan to create an alliance of colonies stemmed from recommendations from the Iroquois Confederacy.

A little know piece of American history is something called the “Albany Plan,” a Benjamin Franklin-led proposal in 1754 to put the disparate colonies under a central government. It didn’t fly at the time, but it was an initial effort to create some form of union.

Even less well known than the Albany Plan is the fact that it was a leader from the Iroquois Confederacy (which had its own alliance) who recommended such a colonial collaboration to Franklin and others a decade earlier.

This is one example historians point to showing the impact Native American tribal governance had on the Founding Fathers and the framing of the U.S. Constitution. The good news is that the conversation is ongoing. For too long, the Native American contributions to American political thought have been largely hidden or ignored. For many of us, our formal education didn’t even hint at such things.

The latest contribution to this debate comes from Robert Miller (Eastern Shawnee), a Law Professor at at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He published a paper March 1 titled: American Indian Constitutions and Their Influence on the United States Constitution. It appeared in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. This very accessible paper looks at the impact of the Iroquois Confederacy on the Founding Fathers, then explores the impact the U.S. Constitution had on tribal efforts to create written constitutions.

Here are a few takeaways.

Miller points out that prior to the U.S. revolution, key founding fathers such as Franklin became intimately aware of Indian governance structures through their work as treaty negotiators and colonial emissaries. He writes:

Franklin and colonial representatives were expressly advised in 1744 by an Iroquois Confederacy leader, Canasatego, that the English colonies needed to form a union such as the Iroquois had created.

At a 1744 Lancaster treaty council, Canasatego advised colonial representatives, stating:

“. . . we, the Six Nations, heartily recommend union and a good agreement between you . . . . Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another.”

Franklin printed the speech in 1744. While the Albany Plan did not bear fruit in 1754, the union was certainly the road taken by the Founding Fathers. Miller continues:

The Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, and other tribal governments operated under democratic principles with “national” or “federal” governing councils, as well as with checks and balances on civil and military affairs to avoid the concentration of power in individuals. Almost all tribes separated military and civil duties between different chiefs or leaders. These tribal governments and communities also protected a wide range of personal freedoms and democratic principles, such as freedom of religion, women’s suffrage, initiative, referendum, veto, and recall.

Scholars still hotly debate the extent American Indian political thought affected such things as the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution. Politifact did a piece disputing those who claimed that the U.S. Constitution owes its notion of democracy, separation of powers, and freedom of speech to the Iroquois Confederacy. Without having the scholarship at hand to settle that debate right here, we can at least take a breath and acknowledge that tribes of the times did have their own developed forms of government and had ideas Europeans found worth copying.

In fact, Congress has acknowledged as much. On the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 331. Its purpose was to “Acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution …”

Whether this fact has penetrated the nation’s consciousness is another question.

The Iroquois Confederacy and other tribes were certainly ahead of the curve in allowing women to participate in decision making, something the U.S. democracy didn’t figure out until the 20th Century. Miller writes that “Iroquois women played very important roles in their government, and women were heavily involved in the governance of most, if not all, tribes.”

Miller also delves into how the U.S. Constitution shaped tribal governance, not always for the better. In the 1800s, some tribes began to adopt written constitutions based on the U.S. model, he writes. It seems to have been motivated in part by a tribal desire to show that they could adopt to American ways — an effort to fend off encroachment on their lands. Miller related the following story of self-imposed assimilation:

The Stockbridge-Munsee Band also tried to protect its sovereignty by adopting a constitution written in English in 1837. This document required elected leaders to be Christians, prevented women from voting, and established a three-branch government similar to the United States.

Miller  examines the impacts of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which encourage written constitutions. The majority of tribal constitutions in use today stem from that law, he writes. And the model it set forth had some serious flaws. Significantly,

… the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] created an entirely new role for itself by including in most, if not all, tribal IRA constitutions the requirement that the Secretary of the Interior approve all laws enacted by tribal governments that organized under the IRA. …

Indian tribes today are still fighting to free themselves of the paternalistic BIA.

Click on this link for the full article.

For more, Indian Country Today also wrote a piece on this issue in 2012 headlined: American History Myths Debunked: No Native Influence on Founding Fathers.

We are still learning about this issue. Comments welcomed.

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