“Independence is a condition of a person, nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory.” At the time the first Europeans stepped on the shores in what is now the United States of America and Canada, estimates are that there were 7-18 million people already in independent, established societies.
Yet a former U.S. Senator, in a prepared speech to the Young America’s Foundation group, erroneously stated on April 23, 2021:
“We came here and created a blank slate, we birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
The uproar created by this misinformed declaration caused him to admit on May 3 that he’d “misspoke.” Then he backtracked once again on May 25th by stating, “…I told the truth here.”
Had Indigenous Americans not fed the European invaders and had they forced them back onto their ships to return to their eastern hemisphere homes across the Atlantic, an American Independence of a different sort would be celebrated today. Those belonging to the First Nations on this continent would still be speaking one of the 300 Native languages prevalent in this country in 1620 when the bedraggled passengers disembarked from the Mayflower.
If the former senator had indeed told the truth, why did Benjamin Franklin reference “the Iroquois model as he presented his Plan of the Union at the Albany Congress in 1754?”
Franklin, although pejoratively, asserted, “It would be a very strange thing, if six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union…and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies.” Why would he make a comment referencing the Iroquois Confederacy if he were unaffected by the very people with whom he had many interactions? In fact, members of the Confederacy were invited to address the 1776 Continental Congress.
John Adams wrote a handbook for the convention “surveying different types of governments and ideas about government.” In it, he included various Indigenous governments with which he, Franklin, Jefferson and others had had contact—including the Iroquois Confederacy.
Six separate nations united for their mutual benefit. While retaining autonomy, they would still defer to decisions reached by a council of their chiefs for matters affecting them all. “The Iroquois Confederacy, founded by the Great Peacemaker in 1142, is the oldest living participatory democracy on earth.”
In 1988 Congress passed a resolution officially recognizing the influence the Iroquois and their form of government had on the framing of the Constitution of the United States.
Canassatego, the Onadaga diplomat and spokesperson, urged the 13 colonies to unite despite their differences. This 1744 exchange at the signing of the Treaty of Lancaster motivated Benjamin Franklin to print Canassatego’s speech:
"We heartily recommend Union and a good Agreement between you our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another."
Canassatego’s metaphor that a handful of arrows is stronger than one arrow inspired the symbolism of the 13 arrows gripped in the eagle’s talons portrayed in the Great Seal of the United States.
So when we celebrate the Independence of this country on July 4th, let us acknowledge that we did not “birth a nation from nothing.” The original Americans contributed a rich legacy to the great benefit of us all.