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For the Next Seven Generations: Indigenous Americans and Communalism

Knowledgebase > For the Next Seven Generations: Indigenous Americans and Communalism

Native American Glenn Morris provides an historic overview of political organization and community life among native peoples before Europeans arrived in North America. While the social structures are varied, it’s instructive that communal, nonhierarchic forms were common. With the rising interest in resource-conscious living, it is important to recapture accurately the wheels of sustainability that have already been invented.

In 1492, over 600 distinct indigenous nations existed in what is known today as the United States. With all of the colonization, destruction, and forced assimilation that has transpired since then, over 500 nations survive, representing 2,000,000 indigenous Americans, with 200 native villages in Alaska alone. A common misconception about these indigenous peoples is that they were homogeneous. Although some common characteristics can be found, indigenous peoples in the Americas were, and remain, as distinct from each other as Swedes are from Basques are from Armenians. 1

This diversity spanned over 300 languages and dialects, distinct spiritual traditions and practices, and differing social organizations. But there are some common threads through the indigenous world that are helpful in discussing communalism — especially as it may be useful in constructing sustainable, egalitarian social models for the future.

Communalism for indigenous peoples is not an aberrant social practice; it is, instead, the social norm. This is quite distinct from the infrequent examples of communalism in Western societies. Notions of land held in common, consensus decision-making, and respect for the environment, though considered deviant within Western culture, are neither new nor controversial in traditional indigenous societies.


Haudenosaunee Confederation, 400 Years of Multinational Government

Before 1600, five indigenous nations — the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca — formed the Haudenosaunee Confederation, or League of the Iroquois, with homelands then covering what is now upper New York State. (Since then, the Tuscarora and remnants of other indigenous nations have joined.) The Haudenosaunee system is consensual in design and operation. The Onondaga are the fire keepers, acting as executives and mediators. They also guard the wampum belts, which are read and serve as the Iroquois constitution. The other nations of the Confederation serve in either upper or lower houses of the Iroquois legislature.

In the Haudenosaunee system, there has never been a concept of a dictatorial leader, let alone a male one. The Haudenosaunee were, and continue to be, matrilineal. When a man and woman marry, the man moves to the woman’s family, and newborn children enter the clan of their mother. The clan mothers select the political leadership of the nations, and possess the authority to remove leaders from office for malfeasance. In addition to leadership selection and removal, the clan mothers also serve as the judiciary.


Haudenosaunee Political Organization Inspires U.S. Constitution

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and most probably other members of the U.S. Continental Congress, had extensive contact with indigenous culture, and borrowed major portions from the Haudenosaunee system for use in the U.S. Constitution. 2 The political philosophies and institutions of the indigenous American peoples, from the Haudenosaunee to the Delaware to the Cheyennes, are reflected in the development of every major Western political philosophy in the past 300 years. From Rousseau to Thomas Paine, from John Locke to Proudhon and Kropotkin, their theories of natural rights and egalitarianism, and their belief in individual liberty, are all found in indigenous societies. In reality, indigenous societies play a vital role in the evolution of modern political thought. 3


Communal Harmony among the Muscogee

A second example of advanced indigenous social organization is the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Originally located in Alabama and Georgia, the Muscogee have the oldest political institutions in North America, with a continuing, recorded history going back beyond 400 years. The decentralized, matriarchal, communal nature of the Muscogee permeates every aspect of life, from familial relationships to the administration of criminal justice. Muscogee society provides balance and harmony, while fostering a large degree of personal autonomy and freedom.


As Sharon O’Brien describes,

Harmony was so highly valued among the Muscogees that a special system was devised to maintain it even when a major issue could not be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. If a member or several members of a talwa [Muscogee town] continued to disagree with the majority on a policy, they were free to move and establish their own community, with the support — not the enmity — of those whose talwa they were leaving. When a dissident group established a new town — and also when a neighboring tribe joined the Muscogee Confederacy, an ember from one of the mother talwas was used to start the fire of the new settlement as a symbol of continuity and unity. 4

The Muscogee exhibit some essential characteristics of the communalism found in many indigenous societies:

  • the importance of spirituality and respect for all life;
  • the absence of hierarchical, coercive authority with the goal of consensus in decision making;
  • the liberty of the individual coupled with the individual’s consciousness of responsibility to the whole;
  • the importance of extended family with concomitant respect for both the children and the elders; and
  • the operation of systems of justice that focus on the healing of society and the restoration of balance, rather than retribution or vengeance.

It has been rare to find an indigenous society run by a dictator, an oligarchy, or even by majority rule — since majority rule creates an out group, the minority. Political authority truly emanates from the consent of the entire nation when consensus decision making is used. In 1727, New York Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden observed that “The authority of these (indigenous) rulers is gained by and consists wholly in the opinion that the rest of the Nation’s (members) have of their wisdom and integrity. They never execute their resolutions by force upon any of their people.” 5

Similarly, Georgia governor, James Oglethorpe, in describing the Muscogee political system in 1764, stated, “There is no coerciveÉpower.É(Their leaders) can do no more than persuade.ÉThey reason together with great temper and modesty till they have brought each other into some unanimous resolution.” 6

These examples of advanced indigenous society are a far cry from the mainstream portrayals of Indians as primitives ruled by brute force through the principles of social Darwinism. Instead, indigenous social systems are characterized by humanity and foresight, as expressed in the centuries-old Haudenosaunee philosophy that all major decisions of a nation must be based on how those decisions will affect at least the next seven generations. 7

The ethic of respect for the earth and for future generations is translated into social practice in every activity, from child rearing to crop planting to decisions on where to establish new communities. This socialization process results from centuries, if not millennia, of wisdom about the earth, about the fruits of the earth, and about human settlement over time in any particular part of the earth.


Indigenous American Renaissance

Despite centuries of erosion by extermination and assimilation, traditional indigenous culture began a comeback in the seventies that continues today. After experiencing technological society run amok, many indigenous young people made conscious decisions to remember the indigenous truths that have evolved over millennia in the Americas. Through this renaissance, indigenous people began communicating with the traditional elders of their nations to learn their languages, their ceremonies, and their native histories. Consequently, there has been an enormous rebirth of indigenous spirituality, a resurgence of indigenous political and social sovereignty, and a willingness to express an indigenous alternative to the ecological, social, and political crises of the late twentieth century. 8


Indigenous Communalism: Cultural Threat or Path to the Future?

Indigenous communalism presents the same ecological challenge to the Western world view today that it did in 1492 — providing sustainable alternatives to environmental destruction, to the inequality created by capitalist competition, and to the continuing fragmentation of human beings in an expanding industrial milieu.

The future of transformational thought, be it communitarian, utopian, green, or otherwise, can only be enhanced and strengthened by the respectful inclusion of indigenous views. This inclusion must not be an afterthought, or a patronizing attempt to appear multicultural;9 it must be a serious evaluation of indigenous perspectives. Such an inclusion could lead to a new, sustainable society that will promote cooperation, equality, and deep ecological principles, while simultaneously celebrating diversity, individual liberty, and dissent on a postindustrial planet.



1. Debo, Angie, A History of Indians of the United States (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1979, 1989), describes the diversity of indigenous peoples and their experiences with invader or settler states, as do the following titles. Jaimes, Annette, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1992). Prucha, Francis Paul, Documents of United States Indian Policy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975). Williams, Robert A., Jr., The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

2. Barriero, Jose, “Indian Roots of American Democracy,” Northeast Indian Quarterly (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University). Grinde, Donald A., Jr., The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1977). Johansen, Bruce, Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois and the Rationale for the American Revolution (Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1982) Johansen, Bruce, and Donald A. Grinde, Exemplar of Liberty (Los Angeles: UCLA, American Indian Studies Program, 1991). Unfortunately, the framers of the United States Constitution were not ready to integrate some of the more liberating elements of the Iroquois system, such as suffrage and political power for women, abolition of slavery, and periodic redistribution of societal wealth.

3. Ibid. Brandon, William, New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500Ð1800 (Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 1986). Commager, Henry Steele, The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978).

4. O’Brien, Sharon, American Indian Tribal Governments (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 23. Debo, Angie, The Road to Disappearance: A History of the Creek Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941), describes Muscogee (Creek) sociopolitical systems and United States subversion, as do the following titles. Green, Donald E., The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government and Society in Crisis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977). Moore, John H. “The Muskoke National Question in Oklahoma,” Science and Society 52(2) (1988): 163.

5. O’Brien, Sharon, American Indian Tribal Governments (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 16.

6. Ibid., 22.

7. “A Basic Call to Consciousness,” Akwesasne Notes, 1978, Mohawk Nation, Rooseveltown, NY 13683. Jaimes, Annette M. with Theresa Halsey, “American Indian Women: At the Center of Indigenous Resistance in Contemporary North America,” and accompanying notes in The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1992), describe the roles of women in indigenous societies. Llewellyn, Karl and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Cheyenne Way (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941), describes traditional indigenous systems of justice. Noon, J., Law and Government of the Grand River Iroquois (New York: The Viking Fund, 1949). Strickland, Rennard, Fire and the Spirits: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975), 10, describes a Cherokee perception of law that was at odds with the encroaching European view: “To the Cherokees, law was the earthly representation of a divine spirit order. They did not think of law as a set of civil or secular rules limiting or requiring actions on their part. Public consensus and harmony, rather than confrontation and dispute, as essential elements of the Cherokee world view, were reflected in ancient concepts of law.”

8. Steiner, Stan, The New Indians (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), documents the genesis of the transformational indigenous renaissance. Gedicks, Al, The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations (Boston: South End Press, 1993). Waley, Rick and Walter Bresette, Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1994). Rose, Wendy, “The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections on Whiteshamanism,” in The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1992), distinguishes the indigenous renaissance from the emergence of the nonindigenous new age movement, which often seeks to appropriate indigenous knowledge for its own purposes.

9. Churchill, Ward, “Another Dry White Season,” Bloomsbury Review (April/May 1992). Notable indigenous spokespersons are providing valuable contributions to transformational politics. But only a few are recognized, such as Lakota leader Russell Means, Anishinabe activist Winona LaDuke, Seneca historian and SUNY Buffalo professor John Mohawk, and Wisconsin Greens leader Walt Bressette. Most “Green” publications don’t cite indigenous sources, and fail to give credit to indigenous philosophy and practice as the foundation for much of the green agenda.

About the Author

Glenn Morris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Denver and he directs the Fourth World Center for the Study of Indigenous Law and Politics. He also serves on the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, and he has participated in the deliberations of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Glenn is of Shawnee Heritage. Some portions of this article were presented to the 1990 Communal Studies Association Conference at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

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