In 16th century pre-colonial America, five Native American tribes in upstate New York – the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca – came together to form the “Iroquois League” (League of Peace and Power). In true federalist spirit, each tribe retained control of its own day-to-day affairs in a decentralized form. But the League provided a framework for joint decisions and actions (especially in regard to common external affairs), and reaffirmed their interdependence among each other as beings from one Creator and their responsibility to live together in peace within universal equality.
To set the context for this league, a comprehensive Constitution of the Five Nations was created. It laid out in extensive detail the role, rules, and ritual of the Grand Council which would guide the joint actions of the tribes. The Grand Council was made up of 50 representatives, selected by the mothers within each respective tribe. New members of the Grand Council would accept their oath of service within a defined ritual, which included the following statement recited by current Grand Council members:
“We now crown you with the sacred emblem of the deer’s antlers, the emblem of your Lordship. You shall now become a mentor of the people of the Five Nations. The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans – which is to say that you shall be filled with peace and goodwill and your mind filed with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy [League]. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty, and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. Neither anger nor fury shall lodge in your mind, and all your words and actions shall be marked with calm deliberation.
In all your deliberations in the Council, in your efforts at lawmaking, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not away the warnings of others, if they should chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law, which is just and right.
Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and always have in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the earth – the unborn of the future Nation.”
Come forward around 200 years later, to the summer of 1787. Several dozen men of diverse backgrounds, goals, and political ideas from the 13 American states came together in Philadelphia charged with developing needed amendments to the Articles of Confederation then governing the United States. Four months later, they had opted instead to throw out the Articles entirely and replace it with a brand new Constitution. (There were statements made at the time that their action was perhaps an illegal maneuver, but virtually no one today is complaining about their bold innovation!) That Constitutional Convention produced a most incredibly creative document by establishing a new form of government heretofore unknown in civilized history. It was built upon a series of compromises designed to balance significant differences in the aspirations, fears, lifestyles, and religious / economic / social / cultural structures that then existed throughout 1780’s America. It was not a “perfect” document, principally due to leaving many Americans out of the full equality promised by the Declaration of Independence. And it is, at best, a framework for governance, not an oracle of detailed instructions. It was designed to be flexible and interpretative enough to evolve alongside of us as we continue to evolve as human beings.
But as strong as its message is in form, perhaps its weakness is in not inspiring us sufficiently in spirit. Maybe that is why we are so often disappointed in the men and women who present themselves to us as the potential actors in that constitutional form. Our Constitution gives them tools to work with, and stages to act upon. But we write our own scripts, and too often for too many these scripts are a desire to separate one’s self from others, or to seek fame at the expense of, or without consideration for, others.
So perhaps on occasion we need to look to the ancestral occupiers of this land. Look to those who were taught to live more within Nature and the heart of the land (rather than just the brain of human beings) in order to find an inspirational guidance that transcends Constitutional form. As people the world over have borrowed from our Constitution, so we should be open to borrowing from a constitution from within our heritage. As our leaders manipulate the levers of our Constitutional government, and make decisions based upon political dogma, budgetary arguments, I’m-right-you’re-wrong positioning, let us remind them – and ourselves – of another constitutional responsibility offered up nearly 500 years ago:
“With endless patience you shall carry out your duty, and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. Neither anger nor fury shall lodge in your mind, and all your words and actions shall be marked with calm deliberation … self-interest shall be cast into oblivion … Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and always have in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the earth – the unborn of the future Nation.”
Form alone is not sufficient for good governance. Decisions measured against a litmus test of supposed literalistic wordings is not meaningful. Constitutional governance also requires an infusion of proper spirit and good heart to breathe life into its meaning and relevance. It is a spirit of selfless humility. It is a heart great enough to see, understand, and respond to everyone. With liberty and justice for all.