The terms Native American and American Indian, or just Indian, are both used by various North American tribes and tribal representatives to refer to their people. Some insist on Native American; others say that only white liberals use that term, and they prefer the traditional, respectful title of American Indian. In fact, though, most spokespeople use the phrases interchangeably with little concern for political correctness. Further, the terms actually used by tribes such as the Commanche, Hopi, and Lakota Sioux to refer to themselves in their native languages can be translated as “The People.”
According to historians who have studied the relations between the Indians and the early colonists, the men we call our Founding Fathers were profoundly influenced by their contacts with the land’s inhabitants. The idea of uniting the thirteen American colonies came originally from the Indian leader Chief Canassatego of the Iroquois League. In that historic confederation, founded between 1000 and 1400, five and later six member nations had equal voices irrespective of their numbers or seniority — a forerunner of the Continental Congress and the Senate. The Iroqouis League also had provisions for the democratic political processes known as initiative, referendum, and recall. Even the concept of an open meeting in which citizens exercize an equal voice in decision-making was borrowed from the Indians, along with the Algonquian word for it: caucus. The Indian tradition of having separate leaders for war and peace was also adopted by the Americans (unlike England and many African and Latin American democracies, military leaders cannot serve in the U.S. government unless they first resign their commissions).
Bejamin Franklin, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, among others, openly acknowledged their debt to Native Americans for the structure of the democracy they crafted. The same revolutionary concepts of government they learned from the Indians were later exported to Europe, where they were carried directly by Thomas Paine. Paine had negotiated with the Iroquois during the American Revolution, tried to learn their language, and sought to incorporate their social structure into the Constitution.