In 1776, when a group of 13 British colonies broke off from their empire, there was more than just a battle that needed to be fought. First, there needed to be a rationale or philosophy that the rest of the world (Europe, in particular) could embrace for such a revolt. The rationale was laid out in the Declaration of Independence, which formed the United States of America. The Declaration stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, for Europeans that truth was not so self-evident. Under the yoke of Europe’s monarchies, all men were not regarded as equal and all rights came not from creation but from the thrones, the royal families. The “sovereignty” of the monarchs was derived from one of the biggest lies ever perpetrated by man: that “God” bestowed a “divine” and ultimate power upon chosen ones to rule over all others. The kings and queens of Europe ruled on the myth that they were chosen by God to wield ultimate and unlimited power over man and Earth. The vast majority, those not chosen by God, had no inherent right to liberty or the pursuit of happiness. All privilege came from the throne. Even life was a privilege dispensed or limited at the whim of these “rulers.”
Conversely, for thousands of years the Haudenosaunee had lived in a world where only nature and the natural order of things provided the paths for life. Sovereignty was inherent; it was a birthright; and it was inalienable.
Respect for the paths of all the elements of creation guided our own journey through the generations. The power and authority to carry ourselves was an individual right. It was our obligation. Our sovereignty was not a “collective right” but a right we defended collectively. Our people were not governed or led by a chosen few but, rather, were served by them. The consent of the people was essential for all major decisions. This was the original rationale adopted by this breakaway group of white men from Europe, which is now sold to the rest of the world as the “great experiment” that is the United State.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence stated, as a matter of fact, that the “just powers” of a government derived those powers from the “consent of the governed.” The clear implication was that the power was from the people and any “authority” not derived from the consent of the people was not just. This concept came directly from the philosophy and path of the Haudenosaunee.
Those who were chosen for specific responsibilities were not elevated as leaders but rather placed in the service of their people; they were servants of the people. The young United States also made a commitment to adopt this concept.
But, as so often happens in the world of man, responsibilities are confused with authority, especially for those who lived for centuries under a hierarchy, male dominance and tremendous economic disparity. The influences of the European system, which were so engrained for centuries and, thus, so hard to entirely dismiss, not only corrupted the intentions of their children but, ultimately, also took its toll on our ways.
Make no mistake. Whether the citizens of the United States now look at their elected positions as “rulers” rather than “servants,” whether they now accept their birthrights as extinguished and their rights and privileges as “grants” from those “rulers,” we Haudenosaunee do not! Whether elected by popular vote or selected through clans, those chosen by the people are SERVANTS. Those that sit in council for their people have no authority on their own. Resolutions, decisions and proposals can only be reached with and by the consent of the people.
Since Haudenosaunee sovereignty remains vested in the people, the debate over the authority of the people against the assumed and exaggerated authority of “tribal leadership” must be settled. In fact, what some regard as the “Nation” is “the People.” The “Nation” is not a council, a chief, a president, a chairman or a trustee. Again, these are servants of the people.
Before we appropriated words, such as “sovereignty,” the Haudenosaunee said, “Tewatahtawi” — “We carry ourselves.” Our livelihoods are the means for our survival. The right to carry ourselves is the assertion of our inherent right, our sovereignty. This we always knew.
The trade conducted within our territories and between our territories is the most vital and sustaining commerce we have. Our individual Native-to-Native trade is Nation-to-Nation trade. An act of aggression by a government or agency against an individual conducting a lawful act on Native land or between Native lands is an act of aggression against all our people. Violating the sovereignty of an individual violates the sovereignty of us all. Our commerce is a sovereign act in our free use and enjoyment of our lands and the right to “carry ourselves” without interference, whether that commerce is carried out by individuals or an agency or designee of the people.
– John Karhiio Kane, Mohawk, a national commentator on Native American issues, hosts “Let’s Talk Native…with John Kane,” ESPN-AM 1520 in Buffalo, Sundays, 9-11 p.m. He is a frequent guest on WGRZ-TV’s (NBC/Buffalo) “2 Sides” and “The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter” in Albany. John’s “Native Pride” blog can be found at www.letstalknativepride.blogspot.com. He also has a very active “Let’s Talk Native…with John Kane” group page on Facebook.
Before we appropriated words, such as “sovereignty,” the Haudenosaunee said, “Tewatahtawi” — “We carry ourselves.”