"Think not forever of yourselves, O Chiefs, nor of your own generation. Think of continuing generations of our families; think of our grandchildren and of those yet unborn, whose faces are coming from beneath the ground." Dekanawida, founder of the Iroquois Confederacy
The Gayanashagowa, or Great Binding Law, is the constitution which bound the five Iroquoian-speaking nations (Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida) together into a confederacy. Its elaborate system of checks and balances is said to have influenced the drafting of the American Constitution, and Benjamin Franklin, at least, wrote of his admiration for the Iriquois for their longlasting and well-executed scheme of union. But where the American constitution was written in English on paper, the Gayanashagowa was primarily an oral agreement, though no less binding for all that. Its remembrance and recitation is aided by a series of beaded belts known as wampum; over the centuries designated wampum keepers have been charged with the task of preserving and interpreting these and other wampum which commemorate important agreements and treaties. The Gayanashagowa wampum are today held by Onondaga wampum keepers in New York state.
The Gayanashagowa was conceived by Dekanawida or Deganawidah, a Mohawk visionary who had grown weary of the warring and bloodshed of the Iroquoian people. With his spokesman Hahyonhwatha or Hiawatha he worked to have all five nations ratify the Gayanashagowa; according to tradition, this took 40 years. When exactly the ratification took place is the subject of some debate: many sources put its date at around 1475; others write vaguely of some unspecified time between 1300 and 1600 AD; still others are very precise indeed, linking the ratification with an eclipse that was visible at the ceremony, perhaps the one that occurred on August 31, 1142.
Whatever the case, the Gayanashagowa was a unique concept for its time.
It laid out the duties of each nation to the agreement and detailed what each should do in the event of a dispute with another party to the agreement. It described the duties of a Great Council, of war chiefs, and of sachem or civil chiefs. Unlike the American constitution, it provided women with power to balance that of men: both sexes had their own councils, and women controlled the land on which they farmed and gathered food. Female leaders, known as clan mothers, had the power to choose and depose male leaders, the war chiefs and sachems; if the clan mothers did not choose or depose wisely, the men's and women's councils could compel them to do so. No official, not even a member of the Great Council, was exempt from the possibilty of removal which could be forced by any of the other councils. The Gayanashagowa spoke of civil matters: it forbade marriage between members of the same clan and allowed members of each nation religious freedom. It spoke of international diplomacy, prescribing how people could become adopted into a nation or leave a nation and procedures for making war or peace with neighbouring nations.
The entire Gayanashogawa can be found many places online, including below, or not on e2 at www.constitution.org/cons/iroquois.htm