Historian: Indians shaped U.S. constitution

There was standing room only in Sturges Auditorium on Friday for a lecture given by SUNY Buffalo professor of American studies Don Grinde. Grinde, a Yamasee Iroquois, presented a talk entitled, "The Iroquois and the Development of Democracy in America."

Grinde specializes in Haudenosaunee Iroquois history, U.S. Indian policy, the history of American Indian thought, and American Indian environmental history. He has published several books, including Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, which has been translated into many languages.

Grinde was recently awarded a $3.5 million National Science Foundation grant to study American Indian human ecology in western New York.

After introductions by English professors Caroline Woidat and Maria Lima, Grinde introduced a topic that he maintained was controversial. "There are a pantheon of ideas that make America so unique… Native American ideas, Iroquois and others, need to be factored into the equation," he said.

Grinde's talk focused mainly on how the Iroquois confederation influenced the scripting and formation of the U.S. constitution. Specifically, he spoke about the Albany Plan of Union (1754), a conference in which attendance was largely American Indian and according to Grinde, was heavily paraphrased in the early drafts of the U.S. constitution

Grinde also mentioned Charles Thompson, a secretary at the Albany Plan, who was adopted by an Iroquois tribe and is an often overlooked as a contributor to the constitution. He also said that many of the founding fathers agreed that Native Americans were a large influence on the document.

In addressing this topic, Grinde said he encountered a great deal of adversity. He said that the American people and government often do not want to hear that American Indian principles played such an important role in shaping the country.

In his talk, he gave examples of his struggles regarding research and criticism. When Grinde attempted to access documentation in order to write his book, Warren Burger, chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time, made it very difficult for him to continue research, he said.

In his conclusion, he stated that Americans continue to adopt from American Indians and other cultures. He quoted the Onondaga Council of Chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy: "All of the history books were written by the white man, and it is slated to justify his behavior in our lands. The sins of omission are apparent throughout the history books."

After finishing his lecture, Grinde opened up the floor for questions. Several members of the audience asked questions that Grinde answered in a manner that displayed his knowledge of the subject.

Russell Judkins, an anthropology professor, stated that, "…Grinde's very intelligent presentation on Colonial American interest in Iroquois principles of political confederation was important for…students to hear. It was an evening in which other Native Americans could feel pride and find a role model… his campus visit helped give actual content to our concern for greater diversity at Geneseo and its sponsors are to be applauded."

Anthropology professor Barbara Welker, who attended the event, stated that she "had no idea that there was so much opposition to the idea that Iroquoian philosophy [and] politics shaped American governance. I thought everyone knew [and] accepted that as fact. It is unfortunate that [people fail] to recognize the important contributions… of the peoples that preceded us in this part of the country."

Grinde was brought to Geneseo by the office of the provost, in conjunction with the American studies program, anthropology, English and political science departments.

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