Every year I walk my students through an excerpt from the Iroquois Constitution, which is known as the Great Law of Peace. Five tribes from the northeast woodlands in and around upstate New York and the Great Lakes ratified the document in the centuries before colonists arrived. With today’s caustic political climate, this document provides an opportunity to look at what this Native American culture considered to be the characteristics of a good leader.
In a section of the article we read, the protocol of installing a candidate for a leadership role is discussed. It is interesting to note that these candidates were selected by the women of the tribe who also made sure they lived up to the ideals outlined by the confederacy.
One characteristic that stands out is how the leader is to be insensitive to insults and criticism. As translator Arthur Parker put it, “The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans – which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticisms.”
The leader was to have a “heart filled with good will” as well as “a mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the confederacy.”
Patience and firmness were also attributes to be encouraged, but they were to be “tempered with tenderness for your people.” Anger and fury were to be avoided and all things were to be approached with “calm deliberation.”
The Iroquois also demanded selflessness from their leaders. As it is written in the constitution, “self-interest shall be cast into oblivion.”
A good leader was a good listener and heeded the warnings of others. Ultimately, they were reminded their actions had consequences beyond their lifetime. As Parker translates, “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present, but the coming generations…the unborn of the future nation.”
After we read, I ask my students to think about our leaders today and see if they compare. This can make for a lively and interesting discussion, but there is one point I want them to understand – if our leaders do not live up to these ideals, then we are to blame.
Although a leader of the confederacy was to exhibit these traits, it was up to the people of the nations to make sure they picked candidates worthy of the title. Maybe that’s why they tasked the women to make the selection because they were the ones who brought “the future nation” into the world and embraced both the present and the future.
What do we require of our candidates today? We talk about their stances on the issues we care about the most, but that seems to be all we talk about.
In fact, when you think about it, we know very little about the people we elect. On the state and national level, we only know a carefully crafted narrative that has been created by media moguls. On the local level, unless we know them personally, we only know them by their radio and TV ads or by their names on a sign along the road.
If our nation is experiencing a lack of good leadership it is our fault. We demand very little and expect too much. If the Russians influenced last year’s election through Facebook and Twitter it says more about us than it does about them. We let it happen by not listening, by not thinking, and by not demanding more from our candidates.
I am tired of going to an election where I am told to hold my nose and vote for the lesser of two evils. How did we get to this point? More importantly, how do we fix it?
When the Europeans began to arrive on this continent, they considered the natives uncivilized savages. That image was perpetuated over the years, but it was far from the truth. I wonder what a member of the Five Nations would think about how we choose our leaders today – and how civilized we really are.