Roots of Democracy

The Opening Words and Chalice Lighting are adapted from the traditions of the  Haudenosaunee – the Iroquois

Greetings, Friends.  Hold fast for in union there is strength.
Greetings, Strangers.  Welcome the stranger and give them shelter for the stranger may become a prop to your house.
Begin this day in love.  Bury old hates and let them be forgotten, for if old stories are to be revived there can never be an end to war.

May the flame of this chalice be a fire for peace, ours to tend throughout our lives.
At the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, New York, a stone monument on the museum grounds bears this inscription:

To America’s oldest ally The Iroquois Confederacy “People of the Longhouse” Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas – to whom were later added the Tuscaroras constituting the Six Nations founded by the Peacemaker and Hiawatha who planted the tree of peace at Onondaga (Syracuse) sometime before the coming of Columbus. They excelled in statesmanship and the art of diplomacy.  After the white man came, during more than a century of intercolonial strife, they loyally protected the infant English colonies, showed them the way to union, and so helped prepare the American and Canadian people for nationhood.

As this nation’s annual celebration of July 4 comes to a close, I want to tell you the story behind that inscription.  I do so to honor this nation’s oldest ally and acknowledge the connections between the “13 fires” of the English colonies and the “6 fires” of the Confederacy.  I also tell it mindful that Unitarian Universalism has its roots in this democracy and so acknowledge our connections – however distant – to this same story.  The current state of much of our politics adds a kind of wishful thinking to this telling.
The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) say that it happened a long time ago and was accomplished in five days.  Sometime between 1390 and 1450 and taking perhaps decades or even generations to complete, a United People was created out of five nations – Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas.  A sixth, the Tuscaroras, joined about 1710.  This union was more than the establishment of a central government.  A Basic Call to Consciousness – a series of papers presented to the Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations in 1977 by the Six Nations – said it was the creation of a United People specifically to prevent abuse of human beings by other human beings through the cultivation of a spiritually healthy society and the establishment of peace.
The people with whom the Peacemaker shared his vision some 600 years ago lived in land where all rule and order had broken down, except that of the “headhunter, a rule under which the pendulum swing was from random violence to undeclared war.  Into this chaos, the Peacemaker came. . . He found survivors of the violence and. . . talked to them.  Clearly. Carefully. Slowly. Patiently.  Persuasively.  Logically. He spoke about the human capacity for reason and the human desire for peace – both gifts of the Great Creator.  He spoke of a society in which strength would be found in union (not revenge) and thought and action guided by reason, righteousness and peace (not fear and hatred.)
Though the people were frightened, so weary, and often very angry, the Peacemaker again and again encouraged them to put aside fear, put aside prejudice and privilege, put aside their sense of superiority and recognize that creation is intended for the benefit of all equally.  All have a right to those things they need to survive.  No one has the right to deprive another of those things.  (Call to Consciousness page 8)
When white settlers from England and other European countries encountered the Six Nations, they encountered a culture and tradition grounded in a sense of equality, democratic social ideals, and healthy skepticism. When these settlers began to consider making of themselves a new nation, they turned to the Six Nations for guidance.
In 1744 the Six Nations chiefs gathered at Lancaster, Pennsylvania to meet with the Governors of Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania.  The Chiefs advised the governors to create a union like the Haudenosaunee.  The Chiefs spoke a plain truth, that “one arrow will break, six arrows do not.”  The secretary for that meeting was Benjamin Franklin.  He had, in a way the Governors did not, a vision for a nation free and unified. A decade later, in 1754, Franklin called a meeting in Albany.  Again, the Chiefs of the Six Nations were invited to discuss with colonial leaders a Plan of Union, to talk about what is required to create a strong and lasting confederacy.  In 1775 the Continental Congress met with the Six Nations Chiefs and told them, “Now we are going to take your advice and plant a tree of peace in Philadelphia.”
Sounds encouraging – colonial leaders seeking to learn from those who had success in doing what they now sought to achieve for themselves.
These words from Ben Franklin are reflective of the more prevalent attitude among our “founding fathers”. “It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous. .” (PAWW page 3)
While Franklin disparaged the Six Nations as “ignorant savages”, he knew good political advice when he heard it!  Colonial leaders could have no better advisers that the Six Nations Chiefs whose ancestors had, hundreds of years before, struggled to create “a more perfect union.” (PAWW page 34)  Here are some of the qualities and commitments of that Union:
In the Iroquois Confederacy:

  • each Nation’s way of life was to be preserved – no great cultural melting pot but unity and diversity;
  • hunting grounds, food and raw materials were available to all so that national boundaries would not be the cause for one nation to go hungry while another had plenty;
  • each nation practiced its own religious tradition without fear of persecution from its neighbors;
  • freedom of speech was symbolized by the Council fires and each nation, clan, family and women as well as men were full partners in democracy; ground rules created what we today might call “a level playing field” by, for example, limiting Council times to daylight hours and allowing no public discussion on an important proposal on the same day it was introduced in Council.

Those who lead the Confederacy and its member nations are responsible for cultivating a spirit of unity among the people.  Courage, patience and honesty are the virtues most important to the Chiefs responsibilities.  The Peacemaker who planted the Tree of Peace among the Six Nations more than 600 years ago is said to have told the Chiefs this, “When you administer the law your skins must be seven thumbs thick.  Then the magic darts of your enemies will not penetrate. . . This is to be strong of mind, oh Chiefs: Carry no anger and hold no grudges.  Think not forever of yourselves, O chiefs, nor of your own generation.  Think of continuing generations of our families, think of our grandchildren and of those yet unborn. . .“ (PAWW page 43)
As this 4th of July passes, as governments and leaders around the world struggle with injustice, struggle to be just, I would offer only this prayer – not advice but a prayer for the leaders of this nation, for all nations.
May you cultivate unity; practice courage, patience and honesty.
May you think of continuing all the generations of all our families, our grandchildren and those yet unborn so that the story they tell of their inheritance, the story of what we bequeathed them to sustain their lives will echo these words of the Peacemaker – the land will be beautiful, the river shall have no more waves, and one may go everywhere without fear.

A Basic Call to Consciousness – a series of papers presented to the Non Governmental Organizations of the United Nations in 1977 by the Six Nations

The White Roots of Peace by Paul A.W. Wallace (textual reference PAWW), University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946; republished by Chauncy Press, 1986

Among the Haudenosaunee the word for peace and the word for law are the same.  Peace is law – both means and end.  May the patience, persuasiveness and perseverance of the Peacemaker be ours, that our world may yet know peace as law, a world where people of all nations are united in Reason which is soundness of mind, in Health which is soundness of body, in Righteousness as law which is justice codified, and Power which is confidence that justice will prevail.