This week, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) spoke at the Young America’s Foundation “Standing Up for Faith and Freedom” conference. America, Santorum argued, was settled by people “who were coming to practice their faith.” Santorum saw himself and his audience as their heirs. “We birthed a nation from nothing,” he said. “I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

The reaction was swift. On Twitter, enough people responded with the old argument that the United States Constitution was patterned upon that of the Iroquois League (or the Haudenosaunee) to get “Iroquois Confederacy” trending.

But both Santorum and his critics got the history wrong. They both whitewashed American history, ignored the violence of the new nation and downplayed the thoroughness of its campaign to dispossess Indigenous peoples, including the Iroquois. And this matters deeply, because flawed Native American history is as harmful as Santorum’s erasure of the Indigenous past.

The “Iroquois influence” thesis has been around for a long time. The argument goes like this: The Founders learned from Haudenosaunee diplomats the strength and value of an unbreakable union. These lessons were offered at treaty grounds and councils, where native peoples and European newcomers met. The Iroquois presented a workable model of democracy and confederation for the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Although it isn’t true, the theory gained purchase and became popularized. In 1988, the United States Senate even approved a resolution acknowledging “the contributions made by the Iroquois Confederacy … to the formation and development of the United States.”

In reality, however, the Iroquois League was not a democracy, but rather a place for ritual condolence and consultation among the league’s five (and later) six nations. League sachems sought consensus but did not operate on the principle of majority rule. There is little about the Iroquois League in myth and historical memory that resembles the winner-take-all approach to politics engaged in by the American Founders and their successors. So the version of Iroquois history that became so popular was simply wrong. Moreover, history shows that at the time of the founding, there were plenty of existing models for the new government; many of the colonies had a single executive and bicameral legislatures, for example.

The truth is Americans disagreed about much during the era of the Revolution, but they were aligned in their racist expressions of hatred and fear toward Indigenous peoples. The same Declaration of Independence that affirmed that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator” with unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” also condemned the king for inciting slave rebellions and stirring up “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

And American forces, fighting for their own freedom, had no qualms about denying other peoples this same unalienable right. They invaded Iroquois territory during the Revolutionary War. The results were horrifying.

In April 1779, New York militia forces struck Onondaga, the very center of the Iroquois League, burning the town and scattering its people. Onondagas said that the American soldiers raped women and murdered their children. Several months later, an American army invaded the homelands of the Senecas and Cayugas, the two westernmost Iroquois nations. They burned 40 towns, boundless orchards and crops in the field. They contributed to people’s forced dispersal and migration and an Iroquois diaspora that continues to this day, with Iroquois communities in two Canadian provinces and three American states.

These soldiers hoped to “distract and terrify” the Haudenosaunee and, in Gen. George Washington’s own words, “extirpate them from the Country.” Before they marched, the American soldiers drank a toast promising “civility or death to all American savages.” The Iroquois retreated in advance of the American army, finding shelter with the British at Fort Niagara. There they suffered. Many died during the brutal winter that followed the invasion.

To Indians, the Founders were not freedom fighters but invaders and “perfidious” and cruel “White savages.” They knew White settlers not as champions of liberty etching a republic on a “blank slate,” as Santorum described them, but as “butchers,” “killers” and “mad men.” They called them “Long Knives,” a terrifying name that reflected the violence with which they long had been associated.

Those Indigenous people who confronted the Founders and the citizens of the young republic feared that the Americans acted with genocidal intent, and they said it again and again. And they felt this way for good reason: One solution to the “Indian problem” confronting the new nation was, for some settlers, extermination, and groups of Americans expressed this desire frequently. They also acted on these words in ways that confirmed Native peoples’ worst nightmares: the slaughter of innocents carried out by the Paxton Boys late in 1763, for instance, or the massacre at Gnadenhütten in 1782. Gnadenhütten means “Huts of Mercy.” But American soldiers showed no mercy to the Christian Indians who lived, prayed and worked at this mission town in what now is eastern Ohio. The soldiers surrounded them, held a vote and determined to kill them all, men, women and children. They killed babies. This was, for many Native peoples, what American democracy looked like.

Like Santorum, the Founders saw nothing of value in the culture and society of Indigenous people, beyond the occasional rhetorical prop they could wield to critique and distinguish themselves from a refined and effete Europe. At best, some believed that some Indians might possibly become something else. The republic’s first presidents all pursued policies designed to transform Indians into replicas of White America acceptable to White Americans. With proper teaching, they hoped, some might progress from savagery to civilization. They would blend into the American population and disappear. They would give up their culture, and also their land.

Indigenous land became the means to pay Continental soldiers. New York, for example, which grew and expanded across the Iroquois homeland, became the Empire State only through a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession, its government financed from the sale of lands fraudulently and illegally acquired from Indigenous peoples.

To say that the Haudenosaunee people gave to White America the gift of democracy in the end rests on the flawed assumption that Americans were prepared to learn from Indigenous people in any meaningful way.

That is the mistake Santorum’s critics made. In properly calling out his racist dismissal of Indigenous history, they follow the same sort of conservative approach to history: poring through the writings of the Founders, looking for scattered sentences that supported their views. Like Santorum, they ignored sources from Indigenous peoples themselves, which tell the stories of the communities they lived in and the historical traumas they experienced, endured and survived. They ignore how the Haudenosaunee people continued to defy those who sought their destruction and dispossession.

In so much of this nation’s tortured discourse on racism and inequality, we are crusaders on the cheap. We claim that the Iroquois influenced the Constitution, without discussing the very real ways that Constitution justifies a colonial regime that limits Native peoples’ powers over how their communities are governed. We denounce the Founders and their successors for their support of “Indian removal” from comfortable homes that sit on Native American land. We are only too willing to overlook our own complicity in historical injustice and the bloody birth of the American Republic by clinging to comforting myths about who and what we are.