American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Deskaheh

Born in 1872, elevated to the position of royaner (hereditary chief) of the Cayuga nation under the name Deskaheh in 1917, Levi General died June 27, 1925. He is buried at the Cayuga Longhouse in Sour Springs. Deskaheh is well-known for his unsuccessful efforts between 1921 and 1925 to stop Canadian interference in Six Nations affairs by obtaining international recognition, through the League of Nations, of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) sovereignty.

After 1918, the Canadian government, particularly the Department of Indian Affairs and its director Duncan Campbell Scott, refused to recognize the sovereignty of the traditional Six Nations' governance system at Grand River, Ontario. Adamant that the 1784 Haldiman Treaty had confirmed Haudenosaunee independence, Deskaheh traveled to England in 1921 with a petition for King George V. The petition was received by the colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, who returned the document to Canada.

Deskaheh and his American Lawyer, George Decker, then traveled to Geneva in 1923, where they convinced the Netherlands to lay Iroquois grievances before the League of Nations. Deskaheh, as a representative of the Six Nations, approached the Dutch based on a seventeenth-century mutual aid agreement.

On April 26, 1923, the Netherlands requested that the Iroquois petition be placed before the League of Nations Council. Following Britain and Canada's response, written largely at Scott's direction, the secretariat of the League presented the petition but failed to place it on the agenda for discussion. At this point the Netherlands withdrew its support. Much to the shock of Canada, Deskaheh twice requested, on August 7 and September 4, 1923, that the League grant the Six Nations formal membership as a state. Without the support of a member nation, however, Deskaheh's application was referred until September 27, when Ireland, Panama, Persia, and Estonia requested that the petition be presented to the League and the case for Iroquoian independence be brought before the International Court. Nonetheless, by 1924 Britain convinced Deskaheh's supporters to cease interference in an internal Canadian matter.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a federal order-in-council dissolved the Six Nation's Confederacy Council and created a democratically elected government subject to the Indian Act. Once elected, members of the democratic council, at the direction of their Indian Agent Colonel Morgan, proclaimed that Deskaheh was not an official representative. Also in 1924, in a dispute over land tenure between the traditional Council and Indian Affairs, an Ontario court ruled in Garlow v. General that Deskaheh's lands and possessions be confiscated and sold at auction. Colonel Morgan, after the Brant County sheriff refused to interfere because his authority did not extend to the Six Nations, auctioned Deskaheh's goods.

In the fall of 1924, Deskaheh returned to England to petition the king, an effort that failed. Deskaheh finally left Europe in January 1925, gave his last speech on Iroquois and Indian rights on March 10, and, after learning that his healer had not been allowed to cross the border, died on June 27. His funeral, three days later, was well attended by Haudenosaunee and the ever-watchful Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Canadian officials hoped that with the "troublemaker's" death the sovereignty issue would disappear. At the funeral, according to Iroquois customs, his brother Alexander General was elevated to royaner with the name of Deskaheh.

During his visits to Europe, many reporters, diplomats, and visitors were disappointed that Deskaheh failed to live up to their stereotype of a typical Indian chief. Much to Deskaheh's credit he refused to lower himself by playing Indian. Instead, he usually wore a simple brown suit and kept regular company with his lawyer, although photographs do exist of him in traditional garb.

While seeking to promote his people's sovereignty, Deskaheh's petitions and speeches form a wonderful corpus of material on indigenous rights and their trammeling by colonial powers. The most readily available materials by Deskaheh are the Redman's Appeal for Justice and his final speech on March 10, 1925.

Karl S. Hele


Further Reading
Rostowski, Joëlle. 1987. "The Redman's Appeal for Justice: Deskaheh and The League of Nations." In Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays. Edited by Christian F. Feest, 435–453. Aachen, Germany: Rader Verlag; Woo, Li Xiu (Grace Emma Slykhuis). 1999. "Canada v. the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy at the League of Nations: Two Quests for Independence." Ph.D. dissertation, M. en droit international—Université du Québec à Montréal.; Woo, Li Xiu (Grace Emma Slykhuis). No date. "The Truth About Deskaheh: Part II, III, IV." Eastern Door. Available at: www.easterndoor.com/9–10/9–10–4.htm and www.easterndoor.com. Accessed August 1, 2004.
 

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