Rick Santorum And His Critics Are Both Wrong About Native American HistoryRoundup
tags: Rick Santorum And His Critics Are Both Wrong About Native American History
Michael Leroy Oberg is distinguished professor of history at the State University of New York, College at Geneseo, where he teaches courses in Native American and Early American history.
This week, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) spoke at the Young America’s Foundation “Standing Up for Faith and Freedom” conference. America, Santorum argued, was settled by people “who were coming to practice their faith.” Santorum saw himself and his audience as their heirs. “We birthed a nation from nothing,” he said. “I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
The reaction was swift. On Twitter, enough people responded with the old argument that the United States Constitution was patterned upon that of the Iroquois League (or the Haudenosaunee) to get “Iroquois Confederacy” trending.
But both Santorum and his critics got the history wrong. They both whitewashed American history, ignored the violence of the new nation and downplayed the thoroughness of its campaign to dispossess Indigenous peoples, including the Iroquois. And this matters deeply, because flawed Native American history is as harmful as Santorum’s erasure of the Indigenous past.
The “Iroquois influence” thesis has been around for a long time. The argument goes like this: The Founders learned from Haudenosaunee diplomats the strength and value of an unbreakable union. These lessons were offered at treaty grounds and councils, where native peoples and European newcomers met. The Iroquois presented a workable model of democracy and confederation for the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Although it isn’t true, the theory gained purchase and became popularized. In 1988, the United States Senate even approved a resolution acknowledging “the contributions made by the Iroquois Confederacy … to the formation and development of the United States.”
In reality, however, the Iroquois League was not a democracy, but rather a place for ritual condolence and consultation among the league’s five (and later) six nations. League sachems sought consensus but did not operate on the principle of majority rule. There is little about the Iroquois League in myth and historical memory that resembles the winner-take-all approach to politics engaged in by the American Founders and their successors. So the version of Iroquois history that became so popular was simply wrong. Moreover, history shows that at the time of the founding, there were plenty of existing models for the new government; many of the colonies had a single executive and bicameral legislatures, for example.
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