As Red Letter Christians, we have tried to become a voice for oppressed people, but we have sometimes failed to speak out on behalf of Native Americans. While endeavoring to highlight the contributions to the creating of our nation made by other ethnic and racial groups, there has been little attention given to the indebtedness that we have to the original Americans. Taking note of some forgotten history might begin to correct that.
In 1744, two hundred and fifty two Native Americans marched into Lancaster, Pennsylvania to meet some Anglo governors and other representatives from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Their goal was to work out a treaty that would resolve questions regarding land use and establish rules to enable these different peoples to live together in peace. The Native Americans were representatives of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederacy formed 300 years before the Europeans arrived. This confederacy would later be joined by the Tuscarora nation.
These Indian Tribes had developed within the confederacy a system of government that was different from anything that the representatives of the British settlers had ever before witnessed. This confederacy of Indian “nations” had come together and established laws and regulations that all their respective tribes would respect and obey, and at the same time would enable each of these Indian nations to maintain its individual identity and customs.
The leader of the Iroquois Confederacy was Canassatego the chief of the Onandaga nation. During the ensuing discussions this wise and impressive leader would chide colonial representatives at this gathering, asking why these separate British colonies had not established a confederacy like the Iroquois. Such a confederacy, Canassatego explained, would make for greater harmony between these colonies and enable their combined militias better to stand up to outside threats like his challenge. He planted the idea that would eventually give rise to the Articles of Confederation that eventually led to the framing of the U.S. Constitution.
An Anabaptist Christian leader named Conrad Weiser acted as a translator for the Lancaster gathering. Weiser had lived among the Mohawk people for the better part of the year 1712, during which time he learned the Indian language. He also had lived for a couple of years at a German Baptist monastery (yes, there was such a thing!) in Ephrata, where he had learned to respect the indigenous American people and their culture. The Ephrata community hoped Weiser would become a missionary to the Indians, but his respect for the ways and values of Native Americans rendered him lukewarm for this vocation. Weiser’s time in the Ephrata cloister, however, gave him attitudes and dispositions that made him an excellent diplomat who was able to bring the British settlers and the Native Americans together for the creating of the Lancaster Treaty. What made Weiser especially adept at this task was that, unlike most British colonists, he carried no sense of superiority to the Native Americans who soon recognized his capacity to relate to them as equals.
When the agreements of the treaty were written down, the finished document was taken to Philadelphia where a young printer named Benjamin Franklin produced several printed copies. For Franklin, what proved to be of great importance was that he learned about how Native American tribes had formed a confederacy of seven “nations” which was governed by a unified set of rules and regulations that nurtured harmony among their peoples. Even more important, the confederacy had created a unification of the warriors of those Indian nations which, with its comparatively large numbers, could establish a formidable defense against any threatening army.
This fact was not lost to Franklin, and at a later gathering of colonists and Indians called to prepare for a possible war against the French, Franklin laid out what would come to be called the Albany Plan. This plan proposed that there by a grand council, “chosen by representatives of the various colonies, presided over by a ‘president general’ to be appointed by the King of England.”
It is easy to recognize that what Franklin learned from the Iroquois Confederacy and then proposed for the British colonies provided the embryo from which grew the U.S. Articles of Confederation and, eventually, the U.S. Constitution.
In 1988, The U.S. Senate passed a resolution, “To acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution.”
Unfortunately none of this is public knowledge, nor is it taught in our public schools. I never knew any of this until reading One Nation Under Gods by Peter Manseau. This book, along with other writings, gives extensive evidence that dispels the belief that America was not founded only on the Christian Faith. Instead, Manseau makes a good case for the fact that America is a nation born out of the contributions of many cultural influences, with an array of religions. History attests, however, that the religion of the colonists eventually came to dominate.
In the Bible, John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, makes clear that in the Heavenly kingdom all of the nations of history will gather around God’s throne to glorify the creator of humanity. On that day the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy will get their due and all the rest of us will learn so much more about their special contributions, not only to the American society, but to all of human history.