The Great Law of Peace and the Planetary Crisis
Jack P. Manno

Like many PNL readers, I yearn for a social and political system that promotes peace, justice and environmental responsibility. As an

Tree of Peace by Oren Lyons

activist I’ve worked to agitate and organize for those values. As a scholar at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, I’ve analyzed the economic forces behind environmental destruction and the politics that collude with them and asked, what kind of governance could halt the planetary crisis and reign in the destructive political economy that dominates the planet.

In my search for a model, I have found nothing better than what began over a thousand years ago on the shore of Onondaga Lake. A man known as the Peacemaker (Deganawidah) inspired the leaders of five warring nations to bury their weapons beneath the tree of peace and form a confederacy. Incredibly, that confederacy, under assault for nearly half of those thousand years, continues to deliberate at its capital — the Longhouse in Onondaga – making it arguably the longest continually functioning democracy in the world.

Because of the courage, persistence and generosity of Haudenosaunee leaders and teachers, we can ask: what might governance look like if it were modeled on the Haudenosaunee constitution, the Great Law of Peace (Gayanashagowa)? Haudenosaunee history tells us that the roots of the Tree of Peace grew out from Onondaga in the four directions; that any nation or people can follow those roots back to their source and, if they are willing to live by the Great Law of Peace, they will find shelter there.

We might consider following those roots to find governance that works for the Earth. Where else should such a step begin but in Onondaga country? On Monday October 4, 7:00 pm, at Syracuse Stage, I have the honor of joining Audrey Shenandoah (Onondaga) and Tom Porter (Mohawk), two remarkable teachers and Haudenosaunee leaders, for a conversation on the Great Law, its history and relevance for today.

The Haudenosaunee formed the best known and longest lasting of the many Indigenous confederacies in North America. The Great Law is a comprehensive international agreement involving all aspects of Haudenosaunee collective life. It requires respect and gratitude to the natural world and consideration of the impacts of decisions on future generations.

I interpret the following principles from what I have learned from Haudenosaunee teachers and academic historians.

Righteousness. Also known as the “Good Mind,” an alignment of one’s mind with natural law and the welfare of one’s Clan and Nation.

Diversity within unity. Unity is necessary for individual and national development. Each individual has a responsibility to find and nurture one’s special gifts given by the Creator, and the community is responsible to help one identify and cultivate those gifts.

Freedom. Freedom from want, from coercion and violence. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Consensus. There is an expectation that extensive public debate will lead to consensus and the requirement that the process continue until it does.

Checks and Balances. A complex system of checks and balances exists between nations, clans, war chiefs and peace chiefs and between women and men.

Gratitude. All meetings and important events begin with the “Thanksgiving Address,”a ritual oration in which each element of Creation is thanked for continuing to perform its duties and thereby making life possible.

Clear Responsibility for the commons. The Great Law of Peace distinguishes between who is responsible for the land and resources in settled areas—the women— and who in the “woods,”—the men. Proper behavior and responsibility in both is delineated.

Open borders. People have full rights in any of the Nations, except the right to hold high office, and that too can be granted to an individual through the designated process of appointing leaders.

Families and Clans as fundamental social structure. Perhaps the most important social institution is the clan. Through the clans, which cross the six nations, international relations become family relations.

All authority springs from them. Issues are discussed within the clans and presented to a clan council made up of women. The clan council selects the clanmother who chooses the chief to represent the clan in council. The process of selecting chiefs begins very early when a young boy is observed, importantly for how he treats women and girls. Everyone is born into one’s mother’s clan.

Applying These Principles Today
Below are my thoughts on how to apply principles from the Great Law today:

Gratitude, duties and healing. Because many who came from Europe fled a long history of harsh treatment and oppression, our founders emphasized individual liberty and rights. Yet the environmental crises require everyone to grasp our total dependence on healthy ecosystems, air, water, sunshine and the rest of Creation. Instilling within the institutions of global governance a ritual expression of gratitude as part of all decision-making meetings could help make gratitude and responsibility a part of everyone’s awareness. A covenant that expresses the duties required of all human beings to live lightly and responsibly (like the Earth Charter, should be a foundation of any new institution.

The central role of female authority. Systems that ensure women’s active and equivalent participation with men should be designed into new institutions.

Commons and ecosystem services. It is essential that new institutions recognize and support local control and responsibility for land and resources and in particular recognize Traditional and Native Peoples’ rights and responsibilities for their homelands. This is particularly important if mechanisms to pay environmental caretakers for the work involved and riches foregone in maintaining and sustaining  “exploitable” natural resources are utilized.

in the Onondaga Land Rights Series
Both at 7 pm at Syracuse Stage
(820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse)

Onondaga Land Rights: Progress for Mother Earth Monday, October 25
Joe Heath & Tadodaho Sid Hill (Onondaga)

Finding Common Ground: Indigenous and Western Approaches to Healing our Land and Waters
Monday, November 8
Robin Kimmerer (Potawatomi) & Rick Hill (Tuscarora)

Sovereignty in an interdependent world. The Great Law clearly distinguishes between decisions of the Clans and families and decisions to be made by the Nation or the Confederacy. Outside of a fairly narrow range of decisions affecting the wellbeing of all the member nations, the Confederacy has little authority over the individual nations. The new institutions need to have a narrow mandate focused on international cooperation in environmental restoration and protection.

Clan identification. The clan system is the most difficult to imagine in our new environmental institutions. We might create international member organizations for distinct responsibilities. Membership could entail rights as well as duties, such as river-keepers, wolf allies, soil builders, foresters, midwives, tree doctors, keeper of the ceremonies, etc. A portion of a person’s political representation might function through these clan-like groupings linked internationally. Remembering that the essential feature of the clan system is that everyone is born into one’s mother’s clan, mechanisms would be required to institutionalize female authority and matrilineal rights.    

The new institutions should include a commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. By recognizing and honoring the rights of indigenous peoples in all its deliberations, the new environmental institutions will communicate and collaborate with Indigenous Nations based on mutual respect, equity and empowerment.

The Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, the environmental organization serving the Confederacy, has drafted an environmental protection process. It proposes three questions to guide decision-making: What effect will our decision have on peace? What effect will our decision have on the natural world? What effect will our decision have on future generations? That sums up the meaning of the Great Law of Peace as a model for environmental governance.

Jack is a longtime SPC member, professor of environmental studies at SUNY ESF and an organizer of the Onondaga Land Rights series.