Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Listen, if all the mean-spirited debates about public school curriculum have got you feeling down, just travel on back with me to a simpler time where it felt like you could pick up all the crucial facts of American history with just a little afternoon Schoolhouse Rock.
Lyrics: Hey, do you know about the USA?
Do you know about the government?
Can you tell me about the Constitution?
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, yes. Back in those times when we thought we knew what we knew, and there was no doubt about it.
Lyrics: The USA was just startin’ out.
A whole brand-new country.
And so our people spelled it out
The things that we should be.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Except.
Male Speaker: Except what?
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: It turns out that well--
Male Speaker: Now, come on, don't ruin Schoolhouse Rock for us. Okay?
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: No, no, no. I promise. Schoolhouse is still rocking, but it turns out that this version of our constitutional roots is maybe incomplete.
Robert J. Miller: My name is Robert J. Miller. I'm a professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. I serve as a tribal judge and I'm a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Miller stopped by The Takeaway to give us a more complete understanding of the American origins of some of our deepest-held political values. It turns out that many of these ideas are Indigenous to the first peoples of North America, not just imported by European settlers.
Robert J. Miller: The French Enlightenment, that we give so much credit to Thomas Jefferson being a student of the Enlightenment and that it perhaps affected our founding fathers. These ideas of liberty and democracy went from North America Indigenous communities to the French through French diplomats, through the Jesuits that interacted with natives that are now in both the United States and Canada, and took these novel ideas to Europe.
One has to ask, where did ideas of independence and liberty arise in the monarchies of Europe? I think there's a very strong argument that these ideas by French philosophers were learned from Jesuit writings and French officials in North America from Indigenous intellectuals.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm intrigued because you just reversed the flow of the Atlantic Ocean and instead gave us this notion that rather than thinking of the North American continent as this wilderness without ideas, that, in fact, the intellectual roots might be happening here. Who are some of the tribes where you see these ideas of freedom, of liberty, of egalitarianism emerging in order to make these kinds of contributions both to our founding and transatlantically?
Robert J. Miller: Many tribal confederacies existed in the Northeast and the East of the United States that our founding fathers did encounter. Benjamin Franklin, in particular, was very familiar with the Iroquois Confederacy with upstate New York. This was a union of six different tribes that joined together in a form of federalism. I argue in articles I've written on this topic that the idea of a federalist society with an overarching national government, but underlying what we have in the United States are states. What tribes had was town governance, and they only joined together in their national confederacy for national issues.
Let me tell you one of the strongest pieces of evidence for Indian influence on our founding fathers. In 1744, the Iroquois leader named Canasatego told Benjamin Franklin and other representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that the American colonies needed to form a union like the Iroquois had. He said, "We are a powerful confederacy because we have joined together, and you should do the same."
Benjamin Franklin within seven years wrote a private letter that became very public. He says, "If ignorant savages can turn such a scheme for union into valuable thing, can't 10 or 12 of our colonies do the same?" In few years, Franklin put forward his Albany plan in 1754 to unite the 13 colonies into some sort of national government. Most historians agree that Franklin got his idea and was repeating what the Iroquois chief Canasatego had told him a decade before.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: The Franklin quote that you give us there that he begins on the one hand, "ignorant savages", and yet the very adoption of these forms of government suggests that although that may have been the discourse, clearly Benjamin Franklin and others in this founding tradition actually understood the deep intellectual and political value of the communities with whom they'd come in contact.
Robert J. Miller: Absolutely. Many of these colonial leaders that became our founding fathers were involved in treaty making with tribes, diplomatic relations with tribes. Thomas Jefferson studied tribes throughout his career. James Wilson, who is probably not known to the public but was from Pennsylvania and very influential, he says, we cannot copy the English. We were not relying on European models because, face it, they were monarchies that were not democracies. Where did our founding fathers learn about democracy? I say it's from American Indians.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: You've given me the Iroquois. Are there other tributaries, intellectual tributaries that you've traced here?
Robert J. Miller: The Cherokee from the American Southeast, the Jamestown settlers visited Powhatan. The Powhatan Confederacy was the organization of tribes in a very system I've been describing, town governance on town levels, but a national Confederacy, and Powhatan was the chief. In 1607, one year after the Jamestown colonists arrived, they go and try to treaty with Chief Powhatan. They recognize how important and powerful he is, and if Jamestown is to succeed, they need a good relationship with Powhatan.
From Georgia to Maine and, of course, up into what's Canada today, the colonists had to deal with tribal nations. They did deal with tribal nations every day, and they learned from tribal peoples and their political systems.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Where does we the people come from?
Robert J. Miller: That's interesting. Most native cultures, I suppose you would call it a democracy, but it wasn't a 51% rule. Most native cultures I've ever read about dealt in a consensus fashion and working as a lawyer and working on some federal regulations, I saw tribal and Department of Housing officials draft federal regulations on a consensus method where everyone in the room had to agree.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We're taking a short break right here, but don't go anywhere. We'll be back with more about the Indigenous roots of the American Constitution. It's The Takeaway. It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm still with Robert Miller, tribal judge and citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and professor at Arizona State University. Are Indigenous peoples actually named or mentioned in the constitution?
Robert J. Miller: I'm glad you asked that question because the people who debate and the few scholars that have said tribes had no influence on our founders, they overlook what you just asked me. The most obvious question, are Indian tribes mentioned in the Constitution? Are Indian people in the Constitution? The answer is yes. The question whether tribal peoples had an influence on the US Constitution is 110% correct, because it's in the document itself.
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 is the Interstate Commerce Clause, but the Supreme Court also calls that the Indian Commerce Clause because tribes are mentioned in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of our constitution. Indian peoples-- I'll be real quick here, Melissa. Indian treaties are mentioned also in Article 1 as not being citizens of the United States or of the state where they lived. In the 14th Amendment in 1868, part of the Civil War amendments to the Constitution, Indians are once again defined as not being a federal citizen and not being a citizen of their state.
We now recognize birthplace as citizenship in the United States. If you're born inside the borders of the US, we don't care who your parents are, you're a citizen. There was some discussion on the floor of the Congress whether this would make Indians United States citizens, and most of the congressmen and women and senators said no. In 1884, the Supreme Court decided a case and said very plainly in Elk v. Wilkins that the 14th Amendment did not make Indians United States citizens, and so Congress, finally, in 1924, made all Indians also citizens of the United States.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: This point you just made about both an implied and an explicit recognition of indigenous sovereignty through an understanding of indigenous citizenship as resting with the tribe, rather than with either the federal government or the state, does our contemporary form of the US Constitution adequately protect that sovereignty?
Robert J. Miller: It recognizes our sovereignty. The Supreme Court has cited Article 1 in Section 8, Clause 3, and in this phrase, it uses the Indian Commerce Clause dozens and dozens of times in our 200-year history. If tribes were not mentioned in that clause, there'd be great debate whether the Constitution and our founding fathers recognize the existence and the sovereignty of tribal nations. That express reference in the Indian Commerce Clause blows away any argument that the founding fathers didn't know what tribes are, didn't know that tribes were governments, and of course, our history of signing treaties. Melissa, the United States signed 375 treaties with tribes that the Senate ratified.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there lessons in tribal constitutions that we didn't learn, that perhaps we'd be a better country if we had learned and adopted?
Robert J. Miller: Well, that's an extremely interesting question that you posed to me just this moment. In the United States, we talk about our rights as citizens. Well, native peoples, of course, have rights via their tribal governments, but I think it's correct to say that most tribal cultures talk more about their duties as an individual than as their rights. Now, that is an entirely different way of looking at governance and an individual's relationship to the community at large and the government. That's about the best answer I can give to your question, Melissa. One would just have to read every constitution to see if there are novel ideas among some tribes.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Although even this distinction you just gave us between duty and rights does feel a little bit Kennedy-ish. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." That focus on the notion of what the individual owes back to the collective.
Robert J. Miller: That's an excellent point and an excellent quote of JFK. Yes. Have we gotten away from that? All we care about is our individual rights today, so I don't know. That's beyond my knowledge and what I've written on, but tribal communities still to this day, there are duties to the earth, if you want to talk environmental issues, there are duty to elders, there are duty to the community, you gather food, you have almost a duty to share some of that. That does seem to be that American society today only thinks of their rights and not our duties as citizens.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: If there is a takeaway, a lesson that you're hoping not only listeners today, but those who are really trying to think through the intellectual, political, moral, ethical roots of our constitution, our founding, our identity, what would you say are the key takeaways that you would hope people would come away with?
Robert J. Miller: We have to realize that our constitution recognizes and sprang from far more voices than just either the French Enlightenment or just those 55 ritual guys that met in Philadelphia from May to October 1787. I just want to mention two quotes that I think are important. Historian named Bernard DeVoto in 1957, I won't read the quote, but he says, "American history's been written as if it was solely the function of white culture in spite of the fact that well into the 19th century, the Indians were one of the principal determinants of historical events."
A recent biography by a Dartmouth professor on George Washington, The Indian World of George Washington, also said that although Washington grew up and lived in an Indian world, his biographers ignore native influence on him and many, many, many native events and impacts on history. When we talk about being a more diverse society, when we talk about considering more diverse views, we just learn so much more than thinking everything we have came from Europe or from French philosophers. This 2021 book I mentioned, Melissa, the idea that maybe these ideas went from North America to France before they came back here.
There is a Eurocentric way of thinking of things. Gosh, did our brilliant founding fathers learn anything from-- to use Benjamin Franklin's words, "ignorant savages"? I think there's no question that we did learn much from indigenous cultures, and it still impacts and helps define American society and certainly what's in our US Constitution.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I am so grateful for you taking the time to be with us today. Robert Miller, thanks for joining us here on The Takeaway.
Robert J. Miller: Thank you very much.
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