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The myth of the Iroquois and the Constitution

"A group of Iroquois Indians gathered on the Mall in Washington this September to celebrate their emerging victory over American history books. With the help of a few renegade historians and a New York advertising firm, the Iroquois have been persuading the public that their ancestors guided Madison's hand in writing the Constitution. Indeed, in October the Senate and House passed resolutions acknowledging "the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the U.S. Constitution."

The Mall celebration was as hokey an affair as one would expect, complete with ritual incantations and an awkward, come-join-in dance. (About half of the 100 or so in attendance did join in.) Iroquois chiefs from three different tribes spoke at the ceremony, which was hosted by LaDonna Harris, president of a lobby group called Americans for Indian Opportunity. Before Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp took center stage to deliver his incantation, Harris asked the audience to refrain from taking photographs or using video cameras. She urged everyone to "get into the mood," to "keep harmony with nature." It was to be a primeval moment. Chief Swamp then stepped up to the microphone. "I don't mind," he said. "The video cameras can continue to roll."

The successes of the Iroquois campaign are impressive. The ceremony on the Mall was officially sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution Bicentennial Commission. The House and Senate resolutions passed easily. And in New York the Iroquois have almost succeeded in rewriting the history textbooks--their revision of a teacher's manual is awaiting approval from the state board of education. All this to further an idea with no discernible merit. The notion that the Iroquois somehow influenced the writing of the Constitution is dismissed by virtually every reputable historian with knowledge of the subject: Michael Kammen, author of A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture, calls the idea "a colossal myth." A scholar of Indian history says the Senate vote "destroys my faith in the historical literacy of the Senate."

The myth isn't just silly, it's destructive. Whatever brief boost the rewriting of history may provide for Iroquois self-esteem, it steals attention from the many real and persistent problems now facing the country's 1.4 million Native Americans--the Iroquois included."

Get the Story:
Michael Newman: Founding Fathers (The New Republic Online 11/24)

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Opinion: Sacred grounds of the Haudenosaunee (11/23)