To understand the outrage that is being directed at Chief Ava Hill, who leads the Six Nations Elected Council (SNEC), you must first understand the deep and profound political schism that has long defined the Six Nations community’s politics.
The situation immediately at hand involves a roadblock outside of Brantford, ON, that shut down an intersection on lands under claim — a protest organized to support the Wet’suwet’en Nation‘s effort to stop the TransCanada pipeline in British Colombia, which transverses their lands.
Hill has been telling Provincial and municipal officials in Ottawa to ignore the traditional chiefs and to enter into consultation discussions only with her government.
That has outraged members of the community.
Elvera Garlow, an influential figure in the community who advises the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council of Chiefs (HCCC) and founded Grand River Education and Training, has publicly called on Hill to stop disparaging the traditional council.
“Elected Band Council Chief Ava Hill is misleading all municipal, provincial and federal governments by telling them not to meet and hold talks with our Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs, ‘because they are not the government at Six Nations of the Grand River Territory,'” she wrote in a widely circulated message to the community. “This must stop.”
Garlow has called on the two Councils to meet to discuss SNEC’s limited role as an attache of the federal government of Canada whose role is merely to administer federal funds congruent with the Nation-to-Nation treaty relationship.
Many traditionalists at Six Nations see Garlow as a potential successor to Hill — someone they can trust to properly and rightly castrate the political ambitions of the federally imposed band council.
A longstanding struggle for recognition and liberation
The Six Nations of the Grand River at Ohsweken, ON is the largest First Nations community in Canada. Two competing governments have long battled for recognition as the legitimate government of the Haudenosaunee people, and the title holders to the tract of land secured under the Haldimand Treaty of 1784 and known as the Grand River Territory.
The first government — the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council of Chiefs — was founded in 1142 at Onondaga Lake with the codification of the Great Law of Peace, which established the oldest constitutional democracy in the world. That government invented much of American style democracy — separation of powers, dual sovereignty, a legislative body comprised of representatives chosen from political sub-units, and a legislative process that requires consensus building. Benjamin Franklin drafted the Articles of Confederation largely on his study of the Great Law, which inspired much of the principles enshrined in the United States Constitution.
That traditional government still meets on the first Saturday of every month at Ohsweken, operating as a sovereign government in exile. The Confederacy allied with the British during the American Revolution and bore the brunt of a genocidal military campaign ordered by General George Washington during the American Revolution — led by Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton — that burned nearly every Haudenosaunee village across the Confederacy’s ancestral territories in Upstate New York.
The survivors of that genocide fled across the Niagara River to the lands along the Grand River — six miles on each side from it’s source to Lake Erie — reserved in negotiations with Governor-General Frederick Haldimand as a term of the Confederacy’s alliance with the Crown. That tract of land today represents the largest outstanding land claim in Canada — and could, by some economists’ estimates, tank Canada’s credit rating as the Nation’s single largest ‘off-balance sheet’ debt.
The second government was forcibly imposed on the community in 1924. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided the Six Nation’s council house, beating the traditional chiefs with billy clubs, and installing their own system of elected Councillors under the Indian Act — a devastatingly racist tool of Canadian colonialism, much of which is still in force today.
The Canadian government was hell-bent on subjugating the Haudenosaunee. After all, unlike Canadians, the Six Nations were allies rather than subjects of the Crown — and the British still controlled Canadian foreign policy until 1949. The Canadian government grew resentful of this relationship, exacerbated by the racism and white supremacy of the day.
That was the political context in 1917, when Levi General was condoled as a hereditary chief of the Cayuga Nation and became known as Deskaheh.
In 1921, Deskaheh travelled to London with Rochester-based attorney George Decker, who was hired by the Haudenosaunee Chiefs as their attorney. Because the Canadian government would have denied Deskaheh permission to travel, the Confederacy issued their own passport for him on the advice of Decker.
In August of that year, Deskaheh appeared at the Hippodrome in full regalia, with a document entitled Petition and Case of the Six Nations of the Grand River. Winston Churchill, then the British undersecretary for the colonies at the time, insisted that the petition be returned to the Canadian government.
In 1922, Deskaheh went to Washington, DC and gained the support of the Netherlands’ minister of foreign affairs, H. A. van Karnebeck, who forwarded their petition to the League of Nations‘ Secretary-General.
Canada was so outraged that by 1923 Canadian officials had built an RCMP barracks on Six Nations’ Grand River lands and imposed a military occupation that would last until 1959. The RCMP regularly conducted searches of private homes, prohibited Indians from cutting wood for fuel (while allowing others to do so), made it illegal for Indians to possess or consume alcohol, and imposed a curfew that banned Indians from being out after dark.
At the time, the RCMP issued pamphlets with a slew of draconian administrative laws that turned the Reserve into a concentration camp — all the while, with the Haudenosaunee land base dwindling from theft, squatters, and unhonored lease agreements. The actions of Canada intensified the need for the community to seek protection from the British Crown.
On July 14, 1923, Deskaheh travelled to Switzerland where, for eighteen months, he lectured large audiences in Geneva, Bern, Lausanne, Lucerne, Winterthur, and Zurich. In the series of lectures, he reminded European colonizers of the new world of their obligations under the Two Row Wampum, the most significant pact made between the Haudenosaunee and European governments.
That political agreement codified the understanding that the relationship between Haudenosaunee people and European settlers would be like that of two vessels travelling the same waters but each directing their own course, careful not to traverse the path of the other.
Deskaheh’s eloquence, persistence, and ability to speak French helped win the support of Ireland, Panama, Persia, and Estonia. While his lectures generated warm reception by the Swiss people, they were not effective in changing British or Canadian positions.
On September 17, 1924, the Governor-General of Canada Julian Byng, the Crown’s representative to Parliament, mandated that the Six Nations Confederacy Council at Ohsweken be replaced with an elected council as described by the Indian Act.
On October 7, 1924, the RCMP dissolved the traditional government of the Six Nations, stealing important documents and wampums and declaring an immediate election to displace the traditional government.
Although Deskaheh became even more outspoken as a result of these events, even writing King George V directly, he was unable to make headway and was never able to meet his original goal of securing Six Nations’ entrance to the League of Nations as a member-state.
Deskaheh lived his last six months in Rochester, delivering speeches including his most famous one on March 10, 1925, on a local Rochester radio station. In this speech, he made a statement regarding policies of “forced acculturation” that have been much-quoted since:
“Over in Ottawa, they call that policy “Indian Advancement”. Over in Washington, they call it “Assimilation.” We who would be the helpless victims say it is tyranny. If this must go on to the bitter end, we would rather that you come with your guns and poison gases and get rid of us that way. Do it openly and above board.”
Deskaheh was prevented from crossing the border into Canada to return to Grand River. He was staying at the home of Chief Clinton Rickard on the Tuscarora Reservation during the final months of pneumonia that followed a bad cold he had contracted in Europe. He sent for his traditional medicine man, but the medicine man was not allowed across the border at Niagara Falls.
Deskaheh was buried on June 30, 1925, on the Six Nations Reserve, with two thousand mourners accompanying his casket to the cemetery after a ceremony at Sour Springs Longhouse.
It remains to be seen whether or not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will recognize the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council of Chiefs as the oldest still existent constitutional democracy in the world — and the rightful sovereign government of the Grand River Territory.