Despite the dark history that has overshadowed much of the American record, it bears keeping in mind that much of what has made the founding of this country outstanding is the product of a shared heritage between the Native Americans and European immigrants. It was never inevitable that white presence in the Americas meant the extermination or removal of an entire race of peoples. The wrong turns taken by the American civilization are the collective result of greed, prejudice and consistently misguided leadership—but at no time were they inevitable. The fact remains that many of the people who emigrated here did so for genuinely upright reasons: because they were living in oppressive, impoverished European countries and it was the only decent thing they knew to do for their families. Native Americans themselves recognized this by consistently extending friendship and hospitality to the settlers. It was the diligence and ingenuity invested by so many immigrant Americans, and the generosity of resources and knowledge contributed by Native Americansthat not only made this country possible, but made it thrive.
A glance at these early interactions, and how they helped to birth the high ideals this country supposedly represents, prompts us to think about the way things could have been, had history taken a different course. And they still stand out like a beacon, showing the way things should be.
It turns out that the great ideals that make America "unique" are evidently not so unique. They were flourishing here long before the Founding Fathers laid out a plan for independence that embraced Enlightenment principles. Personal liberty, equality, and representative government were long traditions throughout Indian country. The democratic and egalitarian customs of many Indian peoples in what is now the eastern United States inspired the early colonists with a new sense of initiative and self-determination.
Perhaps foremost among these is the Iroquois Confederacy. A powerful force during America’s colonial period, its six allied nations make up the oldest participatory democracy in the world. Each nation delegated 10 representative chiefs, nominated by respected clan mothers, to represent its voice in a transnational council. At the same time, the respective nations retained their sovereignty in domestic matters, and every individual enjoyed the right of public participation. The documented legal code uniting the nations of the confederacy—The Great Law of Peace—bound not only their citizens, but held their rulers under public accountability. This arrangement ensured a balance of power among its members and provided checks and balances that account for the remarkable longevity of the Iroquois League.
Founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin recognized the stability and efficiency of the Iroquois form of government, and consulted with Iroquois leaders nearly three decades before the first Continental Congress. It is now widely affirmed among scholars and historians that the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois served as a model for the Constitution.
From Indian societies, Americans learned even broader meanings of liberty. For the first time they saw women treated as social equals of men, capable of making important decisions and holding positions of authority. The deep respect for life in the indigenous worldview naturally meant a high respect for women, a concept that had been long absent from European culture. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Seneca Falls Convention, which proved a pivotal event in the history of women's suffrage, took place in the heart of Iroquois country, where clan mothers traditionally appointed chiefs and made significant decisions regarding their nation's welfare.
When American colonists took up arms to gain social and economic independence from the British Empire, Indian nations like the Iroquois, already fractured by the side effects of colonialism, found themselves fractured by alliances to the foreign powers vying for their lands. Despite their considerable influence in turning the tides of conflicts on North American soil, and in shaping the identity of the new republic that grew on it, many Indian peoples ultimately found only grief in being on the side of the winner. Even those who had hoped to gain some benefit or immunity through their service to the Continental Army were swiftly rewarded only by the wholesale exploitation and dispossession that characterized most of America’s dealings with Indian people for the next two centuries. In a vicious cycle of violence and distrust, the hereditary tensions between Indian people and white settlers became amplified, gradually overshadowing the positive aspects of the interchange that made this association so vital. In fact, this impact stretched far beyond the early days of this country’s settlement.
A larger exchange
Native Americans from across this continent have consistently been a source of inspiration for democratic ideals—from the system of direct democracy as practiced by the Iroquois, to the egalitarian and inclusive nature of its societies, to the unbridled independence of the Plains cultures that captured the European imagination.
These are only brief examples of a powerful spirit of freedom that began influencing the Western world long before the American colonies declared independence. When Europeans reached the Americas, they were exposed for the first time to perspectives, lifestyles, and forms of social organization that were radically different from the European cultures that had festered so long under the same political and religious systems. For centuries they took it for granted that kings ruled by divine right, and that the church controlled every person's destiny. Europe had been locked in a prison of isolation, oppression, and indoctrination. It could be freed only once it was exposed to the realities in which other cultures existed. This cultural rebirth began shortly after the Crusades, when a gateway to the East opened a new cultural exchange with the Islamic world. The invention of the printing press, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Renaissance and the rise of the new middle class all followed quickly on its heels. But this resurgence came to fruition only after the discovery of America brought accounts of a way of life that kindled the minds of European thinkers, already eager for new outlooks on their changing world.
While these men of thought were chafing under the most flagrant absolutism, ideas about natural rights and individual value spread like wildfire through the countries of Europe, fueled by new ideas and perspectives coming out of the American continent. Depictions of Native American societies varied widely and were not always accurate. But the intrinsic portrayal of a civilization that lived in close connection to the natural world, with the apparent absence of distinct social classes and absolute rule, where each individual played a direct and valuable role in society, held an endless fascination for Europeans. This is reflected in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, who made frequent references to Native American society in their writings, and drew upon their understanding of it in their foundational works on social theory. Later on, these ideas came full circle when men like Thomas Jefferson drew upon these very same writings for the principles that formed our early government.
It appears that the awakening of independence and free and rational thought that challenged the established order, and ultimately led to the downfall of European absolutism, was perhaps the New World's greatest contribution in the Columbian Exchange.
Western civilization often ascribes its great achievements to the fact that it is the heir of Greek democracy and Roman law, and America in particular likes to think of itself as a "bringer of civilization" to the rest of the world. But we often forget that Greek democracy began and ended with property-owning male citizens, and so-called Roman justice was brutally imposed on the world at the edge of a sword. At various periods, America has reflected the advantages and drawbacks of both these civilizations. If America is different from other countries, or unique in its pursuit of democratic ideals, perhaps it is because of the Native American influence that helped to shape it during its infancy.
Ironically, mainstream America has been all too eager to appropriate the credit. Reverting to the same imperialist tendencies it sought to escape, it has habitually assumed a tone of moral superiority, while marginalizing its colonial origins and the benefit of learning first-hand from cultures that are in many ways far more advanced. From the outset, America has relied heavily on indigenous knowledge, and even today, despite all our technological advances, the wealth of wisdom from Native American viewpoints is increasingly valuable and relevant.
Sadly, nations usually don't live up to their own ideals, and America is no exception. If anything, it is more to blame because it has had so much going for it, and all of history to learn from. For a nation so proud of its founding principles, it suffers from a chronic moral complacency. From the start it has been a melting pot of the worst kind of contradictions. The founding fathers we praise are often examples of the things we most abhor. The Bill of Rights paradoxically coexisted with the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. Every shining moment in its history is counterbalanced by the stains of racism, slavery and genocide. In each phase of the building of this country, it has matched its successes with the most abysmal failures—and perhaps no one is more keenly aware of this than the Native Americans.
Yet in the face of all of this, countless Indian men and women of distinction have continued to enrich America’s arts, contribute immensely to every field of knowledge, and play substantial roles within its military, economy and infrastructure; not because they have all been assimilated, but because so many of the things that are worth working for supersede the boundaries of nationality. Freedom and justice are bigger than any nation or any individual, and are not the property of those who dispense with it as they wish. History has shown that the rights, freedoms and privileges we praise are only as strong as the people who are willing to stand up for them, whatever their national identity. As Native American teachings reinforced to the first colonists, life, liberty and the [responsible] pursuit of happiness are everyone's rights, but they rarely come easy and are never free. It is maybe our strongest reminder yet to keep striving for the ideals that the best people who have lived in this country—both Indian and white—have shown us.
For better or for worse, Independence Day is here to stay. Maybe with a new face, it can have a more honest and meaningful legacy for all Americans—and those beyond our shores.