Note: This article was originally published on February 18th, 2013 on the blog The Lighthouse.
The most accessible accounts of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas are those of European conquerors and their men. In these accounts, which are the source of many stereotypes, Native Americans are often depicted as being ignorant, backwards and weak. Although the technology available
to them in the 16th century was not as advanced as European technology, Native Americans were able to run empires and maintain political relations. Their social and political organization even influenced the politics of the modern United States. The United States owe their unification to the Iroquois League and the Inca’s political system, which was an early form of socialism, demonstrates the ability of Native Americans to run empires.
The idea that the Thirteen American colonies should unite came from a speech by Canasatego, an Onondaga sachem who spoke for the Iroquois League at the Treaty of Lancaster in Pennsylvania in 1744. He suggested that the colonies should unite just like the Iroquois did, in order for the Americans to be powerful enough to fight the French during King George’s war to solve a dispute between governors of different colonies. The Iroquoians themselves form a linguistic and ethnic sub-family, just as the Semitics and Germanics do. The original confederacy consisted of the Mohawks, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca nations; the Tuscarora nation joined the League afterwards. Before the European colonial era, the League controlled the Great Lakes and a part of the Saint-Lawrence River. Benjamin Franklin praised Canasatego; Americans adopted later on one of the League’s symbols: an eagle with a shield holding five arrows. The five arrows, representing the original five members of the Iroquois League, were changed to thirteen arrows for the thirteen colonies. American politics were also influenced by League of the Iroquois by Lewis Henry Morgan, a white lawyer, written in 1851. He had met Hasanoanda, also known as Ely S. Parker, a Seneca sachem who had a European education, in a bookstore. Parker had guided Morgan’s writings, which provided accurate descriptions of how the various members of the League shared their power.
Just like the Iroquoians, the Inca’s political legacy is ignored in most histories of the Americas. The Inca Empire had a communitarian organization of society. Citizens paid taxes through manual labour and goods such as wool, corn or meat. The Inca Emperor would save the goods and distribute them to the poor during droughts or famines. He would also have aqueducts built to send water to the fields of peasants who were having bad harvests. The Inca were not impressed with the Castilian monarchy. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, a Quechua chronicler, wrote to the King of Spain in his book The First New Chronicle and Good Government: “[Why] do you wish to run the lives of foreigners when you cannot run your own? Why do you demand from the poorest man his mule, but never ask if he needs any help?”*. Unlike popular myths spread by European conquerors, Native Americans did not feel inferior to Europeans.
Native Americans did not focus on developing technology as the Europeans did: they were more interested in social and political organization. Although they made contributions to politics, Native American political culture is not widely taught in schools, as their contributions are overshadowed by a Eurocentric view of North and South American history.
*Quoted from Stolen Continents by Ronald Wright