My buddy Oilman2 sent me a link this week. He was excited to find a long discussion of how the Iroquois band had a “Great Nation” centuries ago and how the Native American traditions were largely borrowed-from by the Framer’s of America’s Constitution.
It’s an interesting theory, plain enough, so I put it on my reading list.
What I found was not exactly comforting…
First, let’s start at the link OM2 shared: “1100 – Great Law of Peace, Constitution of the Iroquois Federation.”
The article begins with a quote from Charles Man and his book Wait! Were they really quoting from Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus? (Who is Ure to catch a typo?)
Now we have a problem, because I’ve read Mann, and while he does bring some information to the table, I didn’t recall claims of the Framers “borrowing” from the Iroquois.
Since OM2 is interested, perhaps you are, too.
The first question any serious science-based student might ask is “Just how real is the claim in the article?”
To answer this kind of historical question, I never begin with books or documents written after World War II, in general. I become even more skeptical of books written after 1960. I downright trash anything after 2000 because of monetization run amuck., Except for really well-footnoted works like Graham Hancock’s books.
There is just too much money being connected with history. Almost any group of people from long-ago are in a struggle. somehow, somewhere, related to economics and compensation. Bend some history now, pull out some dough down the road. Seen it work, so it will likely in the future.
For this reason, I go back to the earliest source I can easily lay my hands on, which in this case happens to be the 1892 5th Volume of The American Anthropologist published by the Anthropological Association of Washington.
We can look at a vastly different view of the Iroquois Confederacy here. It turns out to be largely legend – and not so much steeped in the (sociopolitical agendizing) of “modern researchers.” Who, we might note, are often paid for research outcomes, not purity of source or thought.
(I hope that was politically correct enough? Think climate change data tweaking as an example. Extend to history and you’ll catch on.)
The first thing this 1892 journal article notes is that this is a legend that was passed down. Along the way, much useful is learned, however, don’t mistake me on that:
“It is noteworthy that in this legend supreme preeminence is not given to Hiawatha (Hai yo hwat ha) and that he is placed merely on an equality with the leading spirits who took part in the formation of the confederacy It may not be digressing too much to remark here that the greater part of the miraculous and mythic doings misapplied by the vulgar and uninitiated to (Hai yo hwat ha) such as the story of the white canoe the clearing of the rivers from obstructions and monsters belongs really to the character of the Sky god (Tha ro hya wa ko).”
With a background such as Ure researcher has (finance to the penny, resistance to the ohm, airspeed to the knot, and so forth), I am bothered by historical claims that seem to stretch things just a bit far.
I was relieved (rereading Mann) because the book is in my personal collection. He didn’t delve deeply into the Iroquois Confederacy as being a major framework for the US Constitution. But that seems to be the more “modern” bend of history.
Rather (Mann, pages 330-332, 333) covers the legend of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy along the same (general) lines as the American Anthropological article laid it out.
This is not to lay a “diss” on the Iroquois nor their traditions, or oral history for that matter. Did the Framers have a wampum pile they consulted? Not so likely.
But it Reveals a Larger Problem
The problem? We are only now coming to understand that in historical accounts, there is often very good data, but it is stacked in such a way that translation into our modern thought processes is difficult.
Take for example the totems of the Haida peoples of the Haida Gwaii Islands off British Columbia. The former Queen Charlotte Islands.
There, when a spouse dies, there is a totem carved in honor of the person who passed. Their life is summarized by their personal symbols (like an eagle & bear) and then the tribal symbol, and under that are accomplishments, honors ancestors…there’s an art to reading a “mourning pole.”
And, you can occasionally see them at the outside corner of a Haida home…and no, it’s not just a touristy photo-op deal.
People there characterize a person’s life highlights and then commemorate them in cedar logs, later colorfully painted.
So this is what we’re up against in the Iroquois Confederacy founding legend. There’s one part where the 1892 journal reports on the pre-confederacy efforts to find the regional despot (likely a cross between a warlord and shaman) in order to assert the confederacy’s rule.
After making a stop at one remote cabin, and receiving instruction how to find the despot’s home…
“When night had come the two spies with assurances to their host that they would report to him the success or failure of their errand left the cabin As they reached the limits of the forest they again transformed themselves into crows and flew over the forests intently scanning the horizon in all directions to discover if possible the smoke of Tha do da ho After a long search they found a smoke rising like a huge pillar to the very sky…”
Tha do da ho, in case you haven’t figured it, is the villain in the legend.
Here’s where we get to the anthropological interpretation issue to address: How are we to sort out this phrase and what does it mean?
“As they reached the limits of the forest they again transformed themselves into crows and flew over the forests intently scanning the horizon in all directions to discover if possible the smoke…”
Does this mean they lit up some kush and took to a remote-viewing session to find their way?
Or, does it mean literally that they had some air conveyance laying around?
Or, was it possible that this was legendary prose, a series of metaphors for traveling at night, over a wide range, as quickly as possible?
If you’ve got your copy of Field Manual O9-37 [Small Unit Operations in Afghanistan] handy, you’ll notice that the soldier on the cover is sitting on a very, very high (commanding) viewpoint.
If Ure’s truly was reading this the 1892 report with the same perception I’ve been developing to close out the research for my new book (should be out next week, or the week after but before Thanksgiving for sure), the way I would read this would be as any warrior would read it:
“They took to high ground and, climbing trees now and then for the widest, quickly advancing so they could overlook forests and lowlands, looking for telltale smoke from Tha do da ho…”
The interpretation problem is very similar to the ones that confront The Chronicle Project that Chris Tyreman chairs. When you’re dealing with antique languages, you need to “get into antique mindsets.” Modern mental constructs weren’t around. Life was simpler and most direct.
In modern parlance you’d never tell your Scout troop to “transform into crows at the forest edge ” to find someone.
But, absent the (cost/benefit) of Reductionism, telling them go do as crows go up/to sky/and see could convey high ground, up trees, go to promontories (not in Utah, lol).
To instruct the scouts to straight-arrow direct to a location might translate as “going like a bear.” Or, if the big rocks, hard on the peds and paws are to be avoided, “go like a wolf...” which might be semi-direct but the fastest path afoot.
Your small unit operations training could kick in here, too: Going like a wolf would mean an unchallenged advance, while going like a deer might mean stay off the lunch menu on Ure way. Each animal is a menu item for another, and so with scouts of old…
There’s a whole branch of religious scholarship that I touch on in my new book that works around this. We have a tendency to impute meaning from ancient texts based on our modern modes of thinking. But that doesn’t make them correct. In fact, it’s a huge source of error.
For now, it’s an interesting take on things. But our hearing the claims doesn’t make it so. We prefer contemporaneous accounts pre-1900’s. And with no “Sethite” imputing of what was really meant.
And above all, follow the money and track the sale of guilt. My money is on a treasure trove of both at the end of this trail, but we respectfully acknowledge the crows and totems along the path.
Still, when comes to history, we hold to the old. Cite sources pre-1900 directly, or don’t bother me with them. I’ve started a reading pile for OM2 next time he’s up…
Beat paper with a stick, sometime,