It seems that human beings are everywhere searching for the right balance between the cowboy and the sheriff, between chaos and tyranny, between the individual and society. Industrial societies give a monopoly of power to the state in exchange for a guaranty of peace. We take this social order for granted to the extent that we tend to assume that there is anarchy and perpetual warfare in tribal or stateless societies.
What we do not realize is that such societies are acutely conscious of the fragility of the social order and of the constant effort needed to maintain it. Paradoxically, the people who live in societies that do not have formal political institutions are more political than those who do not since it is up to each individual to make sure that the system works, indeed to ensure that the system continues to exist at all.
They avoid anarchy only through constant and unremitting effort.
Matriarchal tribal societies go to great lengths to try to prevent the concentration of power that would erode their versions of egalitarianism - to prevent, in effect, the formation of anything like a state. They accord their leaders prestige but not power and abandon them if they appear to be seeking power for themselves.
The Iroquois, for example, developed a sophisticated confederacy in North America in which leaders served at the pleasure of their followers and had to maintain their prestige - popularity in order to hold on to their positions. These libertarians formed a league of nations sometime in the fifteenth century, before Columbus set foot in the New World. The confederacy of the Five Nations united the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca peoples, all of whom spoke Iroquoian languages. (They were later joined by the Tuscarora and became the Six Nations.) Cadwallader Colden, writing in the eighteenth century; remarked, "The Five nations have such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow of no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories."
The alliance was expressly intended to embody the principle of unity in diversity in order to protect its member nations and their ways of life from external attack. The Council fires of each of the five nations continued to burn as before. Just as their fires were not quenched, so were their nations not extinguished. They came together by mutual consent in the Great Council, where strict rules protected their rights. Each nation, as Colden observed is an absolute Republic by itself, governed in all Public affairs of War and Peace by the Sachems of Old Men, whose Authority and Power is gained by and consists wholly in the opinions of the rest of the Nation in their Wisdom and Integrity. They never execute their Resolutions by Compulsion or Force Upon any of their People. Honor and Esteem are their principal Rewards, as Shame and being Despised are their Punishments.
Such a system required that Iroquois leaders be fine orators. Like the Xavante, the Icelanders and all matriarchal peoples, the Iroquois expected their leaders to be eloquent mediators, skilled in argument in defense of law and persuasive in maintaining agreement among their people. Unlike the Icelanders, the Iroquois made their federal republic work for a long time. They achieved lasting success by establishing an elaborate system of checks and balances that protected the rights of the member nations while striving constantly to maintain harmony among the peoples who comprised them.
It was not the rules so much as the spirit in which the Iroquois operated their system that made it so successful. All matters of any consequence were referred to a council and major issues to the Great Council. The councilors saw their task as achieving consensus, and their procedures were designed to guarantee it. This entire approach was informed by the Great Law of Peace, the constitution of the confederacy.
The first section of the Great Law refers to the planting of the Tree of the Great Peace, a white pine that symbolizes the unity of the league. All the provisions of the constitution were committed to memory and recited by the chiefs of the confederacy with the aid of the wampum belts that served as mnemonic devices. The Great Law did not need to be written down until 1880, when the chiefs began to worry that the wampum belts indicating the Great Law's provisions might be lost or stolen.
The law sets out the rules that govern the collaboration between nations. Each nation is given a ceremonial role in the Great Council, and all of the procedures for reaching decisions encourage consensus. Much of the law concerns the nomination of the chiefs, their solemn duties while they hold office and the procedures for removing them if they abuse their position.
The rights of women and men are spelled out quite explicitly. Since the Iroquois traced descent in the female line, women and men belonged to their mother's clan. Women were expected to have an important say in the affairs of this egalitarian society, and the position of clan mother was especially prestigious. Clan mothers formally inherited the titles of chieftainship and then nominated men in their clans to carry out the chiefly duties. Under a different section of the law they were entitled to admonish and remove the chiefs, if necessary. The law also made clear provisions for people or nations who wished to be adopted into the league.
The Iroquois were quite serious about the Great Law of Peace, and they had every intention of extending it to all the nations of the world, until all humankind was united in their confederacy.
An astounded Jesuit father wrote in 1664 that the Iroquois were planning to send a peace embassy to the French, complete with women, children, and old men, in order to start on the process of uniting the two nations under the Great Law. The embassy was, however, ambushed by Algonquian allies of the French, and the Iroquois eventually became foes of the French and allies of the British. They were important allies to have, for their prosperous confederacy controlled most of what is now the state of New York.
From New England to Illinois, the Iroquois maintained their peace, welcomed their friends, and fought off their enemies. Both the British and the French sought their help against each other in the eighteenth century.
During the protracted negotiations that the British colonists maintained with the representatives of the Six Nations, Benjamin Franklin came to know the Iroquois personally. He already knew of them, for he had printed the text of the treaty of 1744 on his own press and had been hugely impressed by the eloquence and wisdom of the Iroquois elders. Perhaps that was why he accepted an appointment to be one of the commissioners representing the Colony of Pennsylvania in further negotiations with the Six Nations in 1753. It was then that he met them in person and saw how their councils worked. He observed the dignity and courtesy of their procedures. They did not interrupt one another or the representatives of other peoples, even when they disagreed with them. Out of respect they always allowed a full day to elapse before giving a formal reply to any major question that was put to them.
Ben Franklin was particularly impressed by the Iroquois ability to create unity while respecting diversity, and he used them constantly as a model while urging and prodding his colleagues to opt for a union of the British colonies in North America.
The League of the Iroquois, like all matriarchal societies, strictly limited the powers of chiefs. Some indigenous peoples go further. Feeling it is too difficult to combine the panache of a chief with the quieter skills of a mediator, they have hit upon the solution of mediators who are not chiefs.
The Nuer, for example, are a fiercely democratic and individualistic people who live in the endless marshes and wide savannas of the southern Sudan. They were studied in the 1930s by Evans-Pritchard, a young Englishman who was to become one of the most influential anthropologists of his time. He admired their fierce independence and devoted his first book on them, entitled simply The Nuer (1940), to a description of their political institutions. These institutions were remarkable for being virtually nonexistent. The Nuer had no legal institutions and no organized political life.
That every Nuer considers her/himself as good as her/his neighbor is evident in their every movement. They strut about like lords of the earth, which, indeed they consider themselves to be. There is no master and no servant in their society, but only equals who regard themselves as God's noblest creation. Their respect for one another contrasts with their contempt for patriarchal people who get in touch with them. Among themselves even the suspicion of an order riles a woman or a man and s/he either does not carry it out or s/he carries it out in a casual and dilatory manner that is more insulting than a refusal.
How did these proud and egalitarian people organize their lives? Through the familiar means - a fierce loyalty to their kin, feuds when serious disagreements occurred, and accepted mechanisms for putting an end to these conflicts. This society that recognized no leaders nevertheless respected the judgment of people called leopard-skin chiefs, who mediated disputes and were able to put an end to feuds.
Millennium, David Maybury-Lewis