American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Canassatego

As tadadaho (speaker) of the Haudensaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy during the mideighteenth century, Canassatego played an important role in frontier diplomacy, notably educating Benjamin Franklin and other Anglo-American colonial leaders regarding the value of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy as a political model.

In 1742, Pennsylvania officials met with Iroquois sachems in council at Lancaster to secure an Iroquois alliance against the threat of French encroachment. At this council, Canassatego spoke to Pennsylvania officials on behalf of the Six Nations. He confirmed the League of Friendship that existed between the two parties and stated that "We are bound by the strictest leagues to watch for each other's preservation" (Colden, 1902, 2: 18).

Two years later, Canassatego would go beyond pledging friendship to the English colonists. At a 1744 treaty council also in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the great Iroquois chief advised the assembled colonial governors on Iroquois concepts of unity, telling them, "Our wise forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations. This has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and by your observing the same methods, our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire such Strength and power. Therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another" (Van Doren and Boyd, 1938, 75).

The preacher Richard Peters provided this description of Canassatego at Lancaster: "a tall, well-made man," with "a very full chest and brawny limbs, a manly countenance, with a good-natired [sic] smile. He was about sixty years of age, very active, strong, and had a surprising liveliness in his speech" (Boyd, 1942, 244–245). Dressed in a scarlet coat and a fine, goldlaced hat, Canassatego is described by historical observers such as Peters as possessing an awesome presence that turned heads whenever he walked into a room.

Shortly after he advised colonial leaders to form a federal union at the 1744 Lancaster Treaty Council, Canassatego also became a British literary figure, the hero of John Shebbeare's Lydia, or, Filial Piety, published in 1755. The real Canassatego had died in 1750. With the flowery eloquence prized by romantic novelists of his time, Shebbeare portrayed Canassatego as something more than human—something more, even, than the noble savage that was so popular in Enlightenment Europe. Having saved the life of a helpless English maiden from the designs of a predatory English ship captain en route to England, Canassatego, once in England, became judge and jury for all that was contradictory and corrupt in mideighteenth-century England.

While Shebbeare described his work as history and himself as an historian, Lydia is obviously a story that many people today would call historical fiction, with an emphasis on fiction. Canassatego never visited Europe. While not an historical account per se, Lydia is another example of how images of American Indians and their societies were used in counterpoint to Europe's. Borrowing the eyes of Canassatego to needle the corruptions of English civilization, Shebbeare assures his readers that the Iroquois sachem is qualified for the job. Not only were the Iroquois known throughout the Western world for their valor and military prowess, but, according to Shebbeare, "Nor, in the milder parts of legislative knowledge, are their souls deficient. Elocution, reason, truth, and probity are not less the characteristics of this people's knowledge" (Shebbeare, 1755, Act 1: 34).

Shebbeare seemed to have researched the real Canassatego's life relatively well. At the Lancaster Treaty Council of 1744, in addition to advising the colonists to form a federated union on an Iroquois model, Canassatego worried about the increasing dependence of his people on European manufactured goods. In Lydia, Shebbeare has Canassatego complaining that many Native Americans have become dependent on European manufactures: "What are we but slaves, who traverse the wide Woods of America in search of furs and skins" (Shebbeare, 1755, Act 1: 11)

Disembarking in England, Shebbeare's Canassatego meets with a rude sight: a ragged collection of dwellings "little better than the Huts of Indians" and men rising from the bowels of the earth, dirty, broken, and degraded. Asking his hosts for an explanation, Canassatego is told that the men have been digging coal. The Iroquois sachem inquires whether everyone in England digs coal for a living and reflects that he is beginning to understand why so many English have fled to America.

Subsequent encounters do little to warm Canassatego to English life and government. The sachem's hosts are forced to confess that England has a class structure and that some labor for the benefit of others: "He asked if England were not a free country," wrote Shebbeare, "where all were destined to the same employment, or if the Great Spirit had made two species of men, one inferior to the other, and the lesser destined to the service of the greater? How can it be reconciled that Creatures born of the same land, in the same Form, and endowed with the same Faculties, should be doomed to this inhuman labour whilst others live at ease?" (Shebbeare, 1755, Act 2: 7).

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Boyd, Julian. [1942] 1981. "Dr. Franklin: Friend of the Indian." In Meet Dr. Franklin. Edited by Roy N. Lokken. Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.; Colden, Cadwallader. 1902. History of the Five Nations. New York: New Amsterdam Book Company.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1991. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.; Shebbeare, John. [1755] 1974. Lydia, or Filial Piety. New York: Garland Publishing.; Van Doren, Carl, and Julian P. Boyd, eds. 1938. Indian Treaties Printed by Benjamin Franklin 1736–1762. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
 

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