Tree trunk in NC River

Indigenous Influence on American Democracy

By Aaron Locklear

If there’s anything I’ve learned about being part of a tribe that has been fighting for full federal recognition for the past 100 years is that politics is a game you must know how to play.  Politics in tribal territories can be complicated and will even sharpen the wittiest politician’s knife.  Most tribes can have their own constitutions and tribal governments depending on whether they have state or full federal recognition.  The United States Government has created agencies that govern or manage all of those that are federally and state recognized tribes, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  

With 3.7 million* Indigenous people in the U.S., one may wonder why Native Americans have gained so much attention during recent election seasons. During the 2020 elections, there were six Native American candidates who won their races and were elected to the House of Representatives.  That is the highest number of Indigenous persons in Congress ever reported to be elected.  Along with this achievement, Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico was selected as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior by President Joe Biden, making her the first Native American to be selected for a Cabinet position in U.S. history.  

My tribal community gained some of the national spotlight as well during the 2020 election.  The Lumbee people, mostly of Robeson County, seemed to cross from blue to red as the election caught fire in the community.  With well over 50,000 members, the Lumbee vote would make a difference in the outcome of county and state elections.  Former president Trump held a rally in good ole Lumberton, North Carolina to secure the support of the Lumbee people with a promise of none other than full federal recognition.  Despite gaining media support from the rally and winning the state of North Carolina, Trump would still go on to lose his second term election.  President Biden also took an oath to fight for full recognition for the Lumbee.  But the People of the Dark Water (Lumbee) are not new to this recycling event that tends to occur over and over and over again with no resolution.**

With so much attention in recent years, Americans often overlook just how much influence Indigenous people have had in shaping American Democracy from the beginning.  In 1988, the U.S. Senate paid homage to the “Great Law of Peace” created by the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) that is home to the Six Nations.  Many people may have never heard of this law before, or maybe they were never taught its significance in grade school.  The Great Law of Peace inspired Benjamin Franklin’s plan to unify the 13 colonies. His plan of union mirrored many ideologies of the Iroquois Confederacy.  So much so, that Franklin invited members of the Council of the Iroquois Confederacy to address the Continental Congress of 1776. If you compare the United States Constitution with the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy, it is easy to notice that there are striking similarities between the two.  

To this day, the 13 arrows held by the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States represent that the 13 colonies are stronger together than individually — a metaphor taken from a speech given by an Onondaga leader of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1744.  The rise of Indigenous people taking on more political responsibility in U.S. Government is not coincidental.  Neither is thinking that one day, in the not too distant future, the “leader of the free world” could also be a descendant of the those who created the Great Law of Peace.

*2020 U.S. Census results indicate that 3.7 million people identify as American Indian/Alaska Native alone and 5.9 million identify as American Indian/Alaska Native combined with another race — for a total of 9.5 million. 
**On November 1, 2021, the House passed bill H.R. 2758 (Lumbee Recognition Act), which is the latest of numerous bills introduced in effort to obtain federal recognition for the Lumbee.  As of the date of this blog post, H.R. 2758 sits with the Senate.
*** Photo by Kelly Garvy on Unsplash