Not only does American democracy rank a miserable 17th on the list of the world’s modern democracies (according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracy); it also doesn’t fare well when compared with traditional Native American democracies, in particular, with the Iroquois Confederacy–the Haudenosaunee–“the oldest living participatory democracy on earth.”
In “Perceptions of America’s Native Democracies,” Donald A. Grinde Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen point out that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others, could benefit–and did benefit to some extent–from Native Americans’ experience in designing functional democracies. Unfortunately, being racist and sexist as well as mostly contemptuous of direct democracy, our Founding Fathers failed to take full advantage of the political genius of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: The Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Tuscaroras. Among the Iroquois provisions absent from the U.S. Constitution is the law that allows Iroquois clan mothers to initiate impeachment against incompetent or criminal political leaders, or “sachems”:
The rights, duties, and qualifications of sachems were explicitly outlined, and the clan mothers could remove (or impeach) a sachem who was found guilty of any of a number of abuses of office–from missed meetings to murder.
Had our Founding Fathers been less prejudiced and more inclined to study Native American political philosophy seriously, they would have learned a valuable political lesson from the Iroquois. Today the mothers of U.S. soldiers killed in wars started by the neocon armchair warriors in the White House would have the moral and legal authority to initiate impeachment of these immoral “sachems.” In the case of the worst crime of the 21st century–the U.S. war on Iraq–the Iroquois law would give Cindy Sheehan and thousands of American mothers the legal power to force impeachment proceedings in the Supreme Court by bypassing an irresponsible or incompetent Congress.
Once removed from office, Bush and other warlords like Cheney and Rumsfeld would be subject to our criminal laws–no pardon or parole being available to officials thus impeached. (Consider the advantage of this provision if Nixon had been sent to prison, instead of being pardoned by President Gerald Ford, an immoral decision that has had tragic consequences.)
The genius of Iroquois democracy to empower mothers, “the Lifegivers of our Mother Earth,” with impeachment authority is that such a law restrains expedient political power with apolitical moral judgment. Iroquois women were not part of the political/military elites and did not feel compelled to compromise moral principles under political pressure. Not our elected representatives in Congress, not our career female politicians like Clinton or Pelosi–but ordinary American citizens, mothers of U.S. soldiers, should ultimately keep executive power in check.
It may be that the Iroquois impeachment law is the only efficient way for modern democracies to balance political expediency with moral responsibility.
KAZ DZIAMKA is editor of the American Rationalist and teaches English and Native American Studies at the Albuquerque Central New Mexico Community College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org