The Indigenous Roots of American Democracy

Storyteller Fern Naomi Renville discusses her talk about The Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s Great Law of Peace, which united six Indigenous Nations in an alliance and helped inspire the US Constitution.

Fern Naomi Renville started theater accidentally—she registered for the wrong club in school. But her parents encouraged her parents to continue, and she transitioned from being behind the scenes to being on stage. Today, she is a theater director and playwright.

In her talk, “American Democracy’s Indigenous Roots and Future,” she explores the intersection of theater and storytelling, and highlights the influence of feminist Indigenous governance on the current model of democracy in the United States.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Humanities Washington: Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for this talk?

All the political upheaval of the last few years. We’ve had continuing threats to female reproductive rights and to rights in general for women in America. So it feels really relevant, more relevant than ever.

Humanities Washington: And could you talk a little bit about your background in theater and how it influenced your talk?

Much of my talk is really letting the stories do the heavy lifting for me. Storytelling is a form of theater, and Dakota people have had the tradition of the winter lodge, which is out on the prairie spending the time from January to March together in our winter lodges. A storyteller in each lodge shares the entire mythic arc of our people and ends with the current year.

You probably have seen the buffalo hides that are painted with the stories. Those would be collectively and conceptually created by the occupants of the lodge. It was theater, the repertoire that was shared every year. It remained the same, except for the current years, and was added on like covering of growth on a tree. And that winter lodge tradition is not that unlike the Greek religious festivals that influenced Western theater.

So absolutely, the Dakota tradition of storytelling is a form of theater. And the older I get the less boundaries I find between theater and storytelling.

Humanities Washington: In your talk description, you mention the influence of clan mothers in matriarchal societies. Can you talk a bit more about that?

The clan mothers are the inspiration for the Supreme Court, but in the way that the Haudenosaunee Law of Peace was adapted by our “Founding Fathers” as a model of governance. But the part that was left out was true to clan mothers toward grandmothers, the women who’ve lived the longest and raised families, as the ultimate moral authorities in our communities. So the Council of Grandmothers did, in fact, inspire the creation of a Supreme Court. But as we know, very few [Supreme Court justices] have been female.

But in Haudenosaunee times, only a clan mother, a grandmother chosen by their communities, could choose and remove the male leaders. And a clan mother was the only one who could pass the sentence of death in Haudenosaunee communities. It was a Haudenosaunee belief that a grandmother, who has changed the diapers of an important man, knows his true character, which was a really cool way to look at and value the work of women.

So in pre-contact times, Haudenosaunee women enjoyed enormous social, political, economic, and spiritual clout that the Founding Fathers saw to a degree. But because they literally had never seen female equality or representative government in action before, Ben Franklin wrote about it extensively. He was amazed by how much power women held, but with his limited perspective, he actually didn’t perceive how much power women held. So it’s just this invisible, erased part of history on this continent.

And it’s a reminder that for Indigenous women, female rights and equality isn’t something new that we’re fighting for. It’s our birthright and our Indigenous birthright that we’ve always had. Dakota people and Haudenosaunee people very much prioritized in our philosophies, male and female balance. So that’s the clan mothers.

Humanities Washington: How did you select the Seneca story of The Peacemaker and the Dakota story of White Buffalo Calf Woman to tell during the talk? What stands out about them?

I really felt like each of these stories say a lot about each of my cultures: about my Haudenosaunee culture, my great grandmother’s Seneca-Cayuga family, and my Dakota family and identity, which is, to be honest, a lot stronger because that’s the community I was raised in. I actually have a fairly insecure identity as a Seneca-Cayuga person, which is kind of sad. And that’s actually partly why I really wanted to tell, learn, and tell stories from my Haudenosaunee ancestry because I don’t want it to be forgotten and felt like that should be honored. And the reason I don’t know nearly as much has everything to do with the Carlisle Indian boarding school. So learning these stories is also very much an active reclamation and resistance to being erased.

Humanities Washington: What would you want listeners to take away from your talk?

That female power is all around us, whether we see it or not. It really wasn’t until I was a young woman that I recognized my own mother and grandmother as incredibly powerful women. Because I was immature, I didn’t see it. Female power is something that we can help to acknowledge and support and nurture by seeing it. And I never saw or heard any of these stories when I was growing up, or anywhere in the public education system—stories of Indigenous women, leaders, holding social and spiritual, and political clarity in our communities.

Precontact is not a story that’s told. But it’s also a story that right now feels so needed. And it lifts me up every time I get to share these stories. Also, our problems aren’t new as humans. We’ve been struggling with this for a while.

Check out Renville’s talk, “American Democracy’s Indigenous Roots and Future,” around the state. Check our calendar for upcoming dates.