The federalism of New England, the Cherokee, and the Iroquois
Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024 - The Lord of Hosts p/d 5 of 8
Good morning! Before the United States constitution, biblical federalism had a strong foundation in the New World. Villages in New England as well as among the Cherokee nation would deliberately divide if the village got too large for everyone to have a public voice. The Iroquois has four autonomous federal levels. This Turtle Island federalism comports with Daniel Elazar’s understanding: “the biblical grand design for humankind is federal.” To read the previous devotions in this “The Lord of Hosts” series, click its date: January 19, 22, 23, and 24.
The Bible’s federal messianic vision finds expression in North America before the Constitution’s federalism. Some colonial communities, for instance, refused to grow beyond a size at which families could participate in politics. Unlike American counties, New England townships “refused to grow beyond the size of socializing and assimilating its members,” according to historian Lewis Mumford. When a township got too large, “the surplus members of the community would select a new pastor and move off to a new plantation, to erect a new meeting house, enclose a new common, form a new village, and lay out fresh fields.” The maintenance of such small scales encouraged political participation:
Each family had its rights in the common land; each family had fields on the outskirts, as well as gardens nearer their homes; each male had the duty of participating in the political affairs of the town through the annual town meeting. A democratic polity—and the most healthy and comely kind of environment, as long as it remained on a small scale.1
The New England colonists, then, seemed to understand with Daniel Elazar that “the biblical grand design for humankind is federal.”2
Jefferson made the same connection between geographic area and political participation at the state level. He argued against a proposal to make new states several times larger than the original thirteen British colonies:
This is reversing the natural order of things. A tractable people may be governed in large bodies but, in proportion as they depart from this character, the extent of their government must be less. We see into what small divisions the Indians are obliged to reduce their societies.3
Jefferson was perceptive, according to historians Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen. No “tractable people” constituted any First Nation. The Cherokee Nation, for instance, “took public opinion so seriously that, if a village became too large (about five hundred people) to permit each adult a voice in counsel, it was usually split in two.”4
The Cherokee, like most of the nations that the early British colonists encountered, were federations. The Iroquois were federations, organized politically at the family, clan, tribal, and intertribal levels. The intertribal level involved council meetings, pictured as taking place in a longhouse, which came to symbolize the Iroquois (or Six Nations) confederacy.5 Each of these federal levels was autonomous. The Iroquois Grand Council could not interfere at the tribal level. Each tribe’s sachems could not interfere at the clan level. In this way, as Grinde and Johansen point out, “the notion of federalism was strictly adhered to by the Iroquois.”6
The family foundation of Iroquois federalism required that women exercise powerful political functions. Women and children constituted the basic political units:
The basic unit of government was the “hearth,” which consisted of a mother and her children. Each hearth was part of a wider group called an otiianer, and two or more otiianers constituted a clan. . . . The otiianer women selected one of the males within their group to fill any of the fifty seats in the League.7
The clan mothers also selected each nation’s sachem. The sachem’s powers were circumscribed by the Iroquois’ Great Law of Peace, written on wampum and passed down from one generation to the next. All of the sachems’ authority was moral, and the Great Law specified the great thickness required of the sachems’ skin, Grinde and Johansen report, “so that they would be able to withstand the criticism of their constituents.” Women made the sachems, and women could un-make them, too: “. . . 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.”8
The Iroquois’ federalism was based on their culture’s matrilineal descent, which prevented political power from concentrating in particular geographic areas. Instead, the matrilineal descent underlying the basic federal system of hearth, otillaner, and clan reinforced the connection between politics and natural and spiritual forces:
Iroquois political philosophy was rooted in the concept that all life was spiritually unified with the natural environment and other forces surrounding people. The Iroquois believed that the spiritual power of one person was limited, but was enhanced when combined with other individuals in a hearth, otillaner, or clan.9
Most Native American societies were matriarchal,10 and the matriarchy complemented the societies’ federalism:
Matriarchal societies are centralized around the feminine principle that sources the beginning of every human’s life. So matriarchy does not refer to “ruling over” but to egalitarianism and freedom for both genders through complementary functions.11
The political involvement of women and men in First Nation federations, therefore, grounds politics in nature, equality, and spirit.
While self-contained, today’s devotion also benefits from its series’s other devotions, including tomorrow’s. See you then!
Mumford, City in History, 331-32.
Elazar, “Althusius’ Grand Design,” xxxvi.
Quoted in Grinde and Johansen, Exemplar of Liberty, 34.
Grinde and Johansen, 33-34.
Grinde and Johansen, 22, 24-25.
Grinde and Johansen, 31.
Grinde and Johansen, 27.
Grinde and Johansen, 22, 24.
Grinde and Johansen, 27.
Topa and Narvaez, Restoring the Kinship Worldview, 61.
Topa and Narvaez, 62 (Darcia Narvaez’s words).