By Terri Hansen & Jacqueline Keeler
As we absorb the results of the 2018 midterm elections—and the question of whether a divided Congress and a willful chief executive means a looming constitutional crisis—it’s an excellent time to refocus our attention on the Indigenous origins of democracy in this country.
As Native journalists covering the stories of our people, we are lucky to have recorded thousands of hours of knowledge from our elders, our youth, our brave-hearted women and men, and it’s hard sometimes to express how much that inspires our work and keeps us going. As journalists come under attack around the world and even by this president, we are reminded to keep listening and keep sharing what is on our peoples’ minds.
We are reminded about the role Haudenosaunee leaders played in planting the seeds of democracy that led to the United States of America.
In 2011, Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, took a timeout from a summit in Beaverton, Oregon, to tell one co-author of this piece the history of the Iroquois Confederacy—also called the Six Nations or Haudenosaunee.
What an honor.
A great deal has been written about the Iroquois’ “Great Law of Peace,” but listening to Lyons recite it recalled the initial cultural exchange that inspired English colonist Benjamin Franklin to print the speeches of Onondaga leader Canassatego at the signing of the Treaty of Lancaster of 1744. Canassatego urged the contentious colonies to unite, as had his people, using a metaphor that many arrows cannot be broken as easily as one. This inspired the bundle of 13 arrows held by an eagle in the Great Seal of the United States.
The Iroquois Confederacy was created among the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca in 1142 (and with the Tuscarora in 1722)under the guidance of the Great Peacemaker to ensure peace among their nations. They created a government based on a model that was fair and that met the needs of every person in their community. The example of the Iroquois sparked the spread of democratic institutions across the world, a story recently explored in episode 2 “Nature to Nations” of the new PBS series Native America.
“Our societies are based upon the democratic principles of the authority of the people,” Lyons explained.
The Native American concept of always considering how our actions will affect the seventh generation to come is taken from the Iroquois Confederacy. And Indigenous nations in North America were organized by democratic principles that focused on the creation of strong kinship bonds that promoted leadership not compelled by financial gain or profit margins, but by service. Not like our country today.
A healthy democracy requires that all people participate. As a result of U.S. occupation of our homelands, Native Americans and, in particular, our national identities, have been hidden and shunted out of sight and out of mind. This shrouding of Native Nations’ continued political existence is understandable as a full reckoning with our nations would greatly alter the map of the most powerful country in the world. Honoring treaties would mean returning land and resources. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, most Native Americans live off the reservation as economic refugees from their homelands. It’s hard to understand why Native peoples are overlooked in the demographic analysis of urban areas when equally small populations are included. (Native Americans are usually relegated to the “other” category.)
In 2018, American schools still teach children that all of the Native Americans have died. A stunning 87 percent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray Native peoples in a pre-1900 context.
And the Indian Wars continue to be waged as Native Americans are killed at a higher rate by law enforcement than any other race or ethnicity, often in remote locations, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If those numbers were addressed by agencies charged with oversight, it could help to lower them. But no one knows.
Our suicide rate is higher than any other race or ethnicity in the United States. Among people ages 18 to 24 nationwide, our suicide rate is 12.8 deaths per 100,000.
There is an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in this country. It’s underreported, yet one in three Native American women and girls have either been raped or experienced attempted rape.
So, Native Americans have a lot at stake in U.S. elections—just as they did in the 2018 midterms—because we know that invisibility makes its way into policy and negates our issues at decision-making levels of government.
When a Supreme Court decision came close to keeping tribal members in North Dakota from voting for lack of physical addresses, the tribal nations worked to get them new IDs and addresses at their own expense before the polls opened.
And the first Native congresswomen were elected on Tuesday, including Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin who also identifies as LGBTQ, and Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe.
Haaland told NPR she sees policies changing as a result of their being elected. She talked, for example, about the missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“It’s an epidemic. With two Native women in office, and two Native men [both Republicans from Oklahoma], the four of us can push it easier than one.” She ended the interview by saying, “We will listen to the voices of our constituents.”
#NativeTwitter has been a trending hashtag for about six months. We’re looking forward to the day when we can retire it.
You bet we are.