Throughout my years as a scholar of Early American literature and political thought, I’ve many times heard our Democracy referred to as an inheritance from the public squares of Athens, Greece. And while I appreciate the connections and likelihood of that influence, I am also very much aware of the influence that tribal nations had upon the soon-to-be Americans who encountered the long houses and council fires of nations from every corner of these lands, including the freshwater coast of the Great Lakes region.
What the early arrivals from Europe encountered was a scene of shared influence. Where all those present had a voice understood as important to assuring a full reckoning of interests and consequences. Leaders of the tribe were chosen for their ability to listen, and so a grandmother’s concerns were taken as seriously as a war chief’s. It was a singularly frustrating situation for many of the Government officials representing the colonies and states, as such egalitarian councils took a great deal of time, and often if a unanimous decision could not be made, action would not be undertaken.
I contend that the careful approach found at the Council fires also proved foundationally inspirational. As Ben Franklin remarked in his 1784 essay “Remarks Considering the Savages of North America, “for all their government is by counsel of the sages; there is no force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study oratory, the best speaker having the most influence.”
That reason can take the place of force is indeed an inspiration to aspire to. It is not difficult to make the logical leap that the workings of these tribal councils resonated with America’s Founding Fathers to influence the language of our key founding documents.
Indigenous principles exist through the practice of humility. Those who remain vigilant enough to listen to a multitude of voices can resist the hubris of power erroneously aimed toward self. Humble acquiescence to our mutual dependence on the earth : the foundation of the true egalitarian spirit of democracy .