Deskaheh Levi General and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, past and present.
A look back at the visit to Geneva of a delegation from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to mark the centenary of Deskaheh Levi General’s visit to Geneva in 1923.
By Leslie Cloud*
This year, the 16th session of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was held against the exceptional backdrop of the centenary of Deskaheh Levi General’s arrival in Geneva to support his application to join the League of Nations (SDN) in 1923.
The Normandy Chair for Peace was represented in Geneva to follow the commemorative events organized jointly by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Geneva City Hall, the Indigenous Peoples’Center for Documentation, Research and Information (DOCIP), and the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève (MEG) (Museum of ethnography of Geneva). We also had the honor of speaking with Deskaheh Steve Jacobs (Bear Clan, Cayuga Nation), Kenneth Deer (Bear Clan, Mohwak Nation of Kahnawake), Louise Herne, (Clan Mother, Bear Clan, Mohawk Nation) and Michelle Schenandoah (Wolf Clan, Oneida Nation).
100 years ago, Cayuga chief Deskaheh came to Geneva to represent the Confederacy at the League of Nations.
Deskaheh Levi General’s (1873-1925) visit to Geneva to support the Confederacy’s application to join the League of Nations was prompted by a series of infringements by Canada on the sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. These serious prejudices were outlined by Heather George (Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne), Executive Director of the Woodland Cultural Centre, as part of the side event organized at the UN on July 18, 2023 on the Deskaheh journey.
The violations of the Haudenosaunee rights at the root of the Dekaheh Levi General’s visit to Geneva
For the period prior to Deskaheh Levi General’s visit to Geneva, Heather George distinguished three main groups of violations of their rights, by both Canada and the United States: violations of their Land Rights, with Canada’s adoption of the Immigration Act of 1921 in violation of Treaties, notably the Jay Treaty of 1794; the Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca Land problems in the United States; Canada’s infringement of the Six Nations Trust Fund, etc.; the adoption of the Solder settlement by the U.S. government, in violation of the U.S. Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada’s adoption of the Solder Settlement Act in 1918, which provided for the registration of all men with a view to their conscription; and other direct attacks on their governance with the Indian Advancement Act and the Indian Act (which created elected band councils) in Canada, as well as the adoption of the Marshall trilogy in the United States. It was against this backdrop that Deskaheh Levi General, after repeated unsuccessful approaches to the Canadian government in Ottawa and to Winston Churchill on the advice of lawyer George P. Decker, decided to take the dispute over Grand River’s status to the international stage.
The Red Man’s appeal for Justice and the opposition of the of the League of Nations to Deskaheh’s request
After pointing out that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was the oldest Society of Nations, Deskaheh expressed his wish to have the Confederacy admitted as a member of the League of Nations. In a letter dated August 6, 1923, known as “the Red Man’s appeal for Justice”, Deskaheh addressed the Secretary General of the League of Nations, James Erik Drummond. Although on August 7, 2023, Deskaheh’s petition and the Ottawa government’s response were informally circulated among the League of Nations Council, no member of the League requested that these documents be included on the agenda. It was then that Deskaheh decided to travel to Geneva himself with his lawyer Decker. He took with him three symbolic objects: “a wampun symbolizing the chain of alliance that fraternally bound the Haudenosaunee and the English people, a second two-rows wampun representing the two rows of coexistence and non-interference, and a silver pipe given to the Mohawks by Dutch merchants in 1679“. (From a panel in the exhibition “Deskaheh à Genève 1923-2023: Défendre la souveraineté des Haudenosaunee” (“Deskaheh in Geneva 1923-2023: Defending Haudenosaunee Sovereignty”), July 3, 2023-August 16, 2023, Geneva). He also travelled with his Haudenosaunee passport.
Before the League of Nations, he wished to invoke Article 17 of the League Covenant, which allows a non-member state, under certain conditions, to submit a dispute to the League Council for investigation. Although he initially won the support of Persia, joined by Ireland, Panama, the Netherlands and Estonia, to have his petition placed on the assembly’s agenda for discussion in March 1924, these delegations, accused of interfering in the affairs of the British Empire, eventually withdrew their support.
Unable to address the organization’s General Assembly, Deskaheh found support in Geneva from Jean-Baptiste Pons, Mayor of the City of Geneva, who offered to deliver the speech he had planned to make to the League of Nations.
The Canadian repression and Deskaheh’s last speech in 1925
In October 1924, while Deskaheh was still in Geneva, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dissolved the traditional Grand Council at Grand River, stole documents and wampun, and imposed the Indian Act Band Council under the authority of the Canadian Government (I. Schulte-Tenckhoff, oral communication, webinar of March 28, 2023, the right to self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, 100 years after Deskaheh: the right to self-determination and relations between Nations)
Disappointed and ill, Deskaheh eventually left Geneva in early 1925, never returning to Canada for fear of persecution by the authorities. He lived with the Tuscarora nation in the United States, giving his last speech on Radio Rochester on March 9, 1925, before passing away on June 27, 1925.
The infringement of the Confederacy’s rights continued without the Haudenosaunee even being able to benefit from the assistance of lawyers, considering that from 1927 to 1951, under section 141 of the Indian Act, it was illegal for indigenous peoples to hire lawyers, as Heather George pointed out in the aforementioned side event.
The status of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was once again pleaded at the League of Nations in 1929-1930, without further success.
The Haudenosaunee’s fight in Geneva and at the UN
Since then, the Haudenosaunee have consistently demanded the right to participate in UN decision-making as an Indigenous Government. The special relationship between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Geneva City Hall has also been maintained. In 1977, “when the Haudenosaunee delegation to the 1977 Conference was stopped at the border because its members had Haudenosaunee passports instead of Canadian and U.S. documents, the delegates appealed to the Mayor of Geneva, Claude Ketterer. After receiving a phone call, he informed customs officials that the Haudenosaunee were to be considered his personal guests. Since then, the Haudenosaunee passport is valid for entry into Switzerland if accompanied by a visa.” (From a panel in the exhibition “Deskaheh à Genève 1923-2023: Défendre la souveraineté des Haudenosaunee” (“Deskaheh in Geneva 1923-2023: Defending Sovereignty”), July 3, 2023-August 16, 2023, Geneva). Iroquois delegations were also received by the Mayors of Geneva in 1997, 2013 and 2019.
100 years later, the arrival of Deskaheh Steve Jacobs and a Haudenosaunee delegation to pay tribute to the struggle waged by Deskaheh Levi General
Since February 2023, numerous events have marked the centenary of Deskaheh’s visit to the League of Nations: the return of sacred objects, the planting of a Tree of Peace, a reception at the Palais Eynard, a side event on the Deskaheh Levi General’s journey, the Indigenous Peoples’ March and the inauguration of the photo and archive exhibition “Deskaheh in Geneva 1923-2023: Defending Haudenosaunee Sovereignty “.
The return of two sacred objects to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy by the Museum of ethnography of Geneva
On February 7, 2023, the Museum of ethnography of Geneva returned to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy two sacred objects looted two hundred years ago: a mask and a rattle donated in 1825 to the Academic Museum (ancestor of the Museum of Archeology and the Museum of ethnography of Geneva) by historian and politician Amédée-Pierre-Jules Pictet de Sergy (1795-1888). This restitution follows the request of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which “declares itself the traditional owner of these objects, which it considers sacred and that their cultural value makes them unsuitable for exhibition within the meaning of art. 25 of the ICOM Code of Ethics and arts. 11, 12 and 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples“. (Extract from an MEG article on the context and ceremony of the restitution of these two Haudenosaunee objects).
Planting a Tree of Peace in Geneva
The commemoration of the centenary of Deskaheh’s arrival also included the planting, on February 9, 2023, of a Tree of Peace donated by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the Parc Bastions, near the Palais Eynard in Geneva, in the presence of a Haudenosaunee delegation and the Mayor of Geneva, as a symbol of the bonds of peace and friendship that unite them. In keeping with Haudenosaunee tradition, two weapons – an arrow and a war club – were buried beneath its roots. A description of the event and a slideshow of the ceremony are published on the City of Geneva website. The planting of a white pine, pinus strobus, a symbol of Peace for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is a tradition that dates back to the creation of the Confederacy and the Great Law of Peace, as Kenneth Deer (Mohawk Nation) explained: “Our constitution is represented by a tree. When the Peacemaker buried our weapons of war, he planted a tree above it. It was a white pine. It’s the symbol of the Confederacy and the ways of peace.”
An exceptional reception at the Eynard Palace
On July 17, 2023, the alliance and friendship between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the City of Geneva was once again honored with moving speeches by members of the Haudenosaunee Delegation, who had come specially to Geneva, and the city’s mayor, Mr. Alfonso Gomez, attended by representatives of the Indigenous Peoples present in Geneva as part of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
It was an opportunity for Deskaheh Steve Jacobs to recall that the Haudenosaunee have never ceased to be Sovereign, and to confirm the relationship of trust, friendship and peace that unites the city of Geneva with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, symbolized by the friendship belt (Tehontatenentsonterontahkhwa) presented by Deskaheh Steve Jacobs to the mayor of Geneva.
Bear clan mother Louise Herne of the Mohawk Nation spoke on behalf of the Haudenosaunee women, emphasizing that this was a historic event since Haudenosaunee women do not usually speak out in public. She recalled the founding role of the Messenger of Peace, Jikonhsaseh, the importance of Natural Law and the authority of Haudenosaunee women in the governance of their Nations and the Confederacy, despite their continued oppression by the Canadian and American governments: “We are older than Canada and the United States, but their governments continue to oppress us!”. She recalls the ravages of the Doctrine of Discovery, the genocides suffered by their Nations, the violation of their Treaties, the usurpation of their Lands, the disappearances of women and children taken by force to residential schools… Her powerful speech, which emphasizes the need to give power back to women and return to rematriation, was followed by the presentation of the Haudenosaunee Women’s Nomination Wampum Belt (Ka’shastensera Kontiha:wa’ne Iotiianeh:shon: Clan Matron’s), a belt under which Haudenosaunee women have the right to nominate the 50 chiefs of the Confederacy, followed by a Haudenosaunee Women’s Song (on the issues raised within this speech, see our interview of July 18, 2023 with Louise Herne and Michelle Schenandoah).
The reception at the Palais Eynard continued at the end of the day around the Tree of Peace, planted in February 2023: small talk from members of the delegation and participants, thank-yous, sharing of experience and knowledge, and songs from the women of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy accompanied this union between peoples in a circle. Amazigh poet and activist Amina Amharech was inspired, and wrote a poem in homage to all the Deskaheh, which she performed on site before handing over a few days later, translated into English, to Deskaheh Steve Jacobs. We thank her for allowing us to publish her poem here in French:
Tribute to Deskaheh
Honor to the one who paved the way
Honor to the one who lit the way
Honor to the man who kept the flame alive
Honor to the one who offered hope
Today, we’re walking at a steady pace
Our vision is clear
Our voice is heard
And our horizon is wide
Thanks to the legacy of our predecessor brother, who watches over us and inspires us with his strength and courage, we will be grateful to him and honor him.
With humility, doing our best
Strength and courage to his successor
And takes up his torch
His burden and his cross.
Amina, Geneva, 17 /07/2023
A side event of the 16th session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on Deskaheh
On July 18, 2023, the Indigenous World Association organized a morning side event on Deskaheh’s struggle with the League of Nations. Heather George, (Mohawk Nation), Executive Director of the Woodland Cultural Center, spoke about the various infringements of Confederate rights that motivated Deskaheh Levi General to approach the League of Nations; the political and diplomatic role played by Haudenosaunee women during the First World War with regard to Haudenosaunee enlisted soldiers; Deskaheh’s efforts to have Haudenosaunee sovereignty respected; and his trip to Geneva and return to the USA shortly before her death. Her brilliant presentation was followed by a talk by Deskaheh Steve Jacobs on Deskaheh’s title, and then by Kenneth Deer on the diplomatic work carried out with various governments by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s Foreign Relations Commission, to which he belonged.
These presentations were followed by rich exchanges among the audience, including many members of the Haudenosaunee delegation present. Karissa John, (Mohawk Nation of the Territory of Gran River), great-grand daughter of Deskaheh Alexandre General, brother of Deskaheh Levi General, denounced the border between Canada and the United States, which divides their Nation, destroys families and is a source of humiliation every time the border is crossed, sometimes every day. In an earlier 2019 address to the UN, she pointed out that shortly before his death, Deskaheh Levi General, who himself had never been able to return to his people, had asked his friend Chief Clinton Rickard to never stop fighting for the rights of the Haudenosaunee to cross colonial borders and to “fight the line”. Clan mother of the Mohwak Nation, Louise Herne said the world needed peaceful measures and that the time had come to create a global school of peace based on Haudenosaunee principles. For her, it is not possible to reconcile what has never been reconciled. She therefore believes that true conciliation must be achieved through knowledge and understanding of the other.
The Indigenous Peoples’ March and the inauguration of the photo and archival exhibition « Deskaheh à Genève 1923-2023: Défendre la souveraineté des Haudenosaunee » (“Deskaheh in Geneva 1923-2023: Defending Haudenosaunee Sovereignty”).
On July 18, 2023, at the close of the day’s session of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the women of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy delegation invited the people of Geneva, the representatives of the Indigenous Peoples present and the participants in the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to take part in a march of Indigenous Peoples from the UN to the Quai Wilson, where the exhibition was taking place. Representatives of Indigenous Peoples from all over the world took part in the march, led by the Mayor of Geneva and the Haudenosaunee delegation, through the Botanical Gardens to the lakeside Quai Wilson.
At the end of the march, the Mayor of the City of Geneva inaugurated the exhibition «Deskaheh à Genève 1923-2023: Défendre la souveraineté des Haudenosaunee» (“Deskaheh in Geneva 1923-2023: Defending Haudenosaunee Sovereignty”), installed on the quay from July 3, 2023 to August 16, 2023. This exhibition of Swiss, American and Canadian photographs and archival documents, curated by Haundenosaunee curator Dr. Jolene Richard (Tuscarora Nation) with the support of DOCIP and the Geneva City Hall, consists of an aisle of several dozen panels of photos and archival documents with commentary, organized around four axes in four sections: “Principes haudenosaunee- Hodinǫhsó:nih Odrihwogwáisǫh” (Haudenosaunee principles), “Justice bafouée – Hodinǫhsó:nih Odrihwogwáisǫh” (Justice denied), “100 ans d’amitié avec des alliés internationaux- Heyǫhwęjogwé:gǫh Degoihwokáhǫʔ” (A 100 years of friendship with international allies) and “Promoting indigenous international law – Ǫgwehǫ́weh Gayę́nsroʔ Ohę́:do” (Promouvoir le droit international des peoples indigènes). These panels illustrate Deskaheh’s journey, the history and culture of the Haudenosaunee, the City of Geneva’s support for the Confederacy and Indigenous Peoples, and the advances of the international movement for Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
An exhibition website created by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy explains the purpose of the exhibition and lists the Confederacy members who contributed to it.
On the occasion of the inauguration of the Quai Wilson exhibition, Alfonso Martinez, the Mayor of Geneva revisited Deskaheh’s journey one hundred years ago. Describing Deskaheh as a precursor of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, he recalled the welcome given to him by the city of Geneva and its citizens, underlining “that this relationship demonstrates the importance of multilateralism and civil society“. He also spoke out in defense of historical memory and human rights: “Victims who have been scorned by history still need historical recognition. Without recognition of the injustices suffered, there can be no cohabitation, no living together, as we all wish. In this respect, Deskaheh Levi General’s journey 100 years ago is highly exemplary, as was the role played by the city of Geneva 100 years ago. We want to continue this pioneering work of recognizing the historical memories of Peoples scorned throughout the world, and of history itself. This is the role of our city, and the role of human rights, which we will continue to promote. Thank you for your visit!”
Heather George, (Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne) Executive Director of the Woodland Cultural Center, which defends the Haudenosaunee territories on Turtle Island, Deskaheh’s birthplace (Canada), gave a fascinating speech, excerpts of which we’ve transcribed here:
“Today we continue to fight for Indigenous Nations to have a voice as members of the United Nations and not just as observers. It is our responsibility to the future generations of our Nations to remind the governments and citizens of other governments that we have never and will never give up by force or treaty our rights to self-governance according to our laws, customs and traditions. While this exhibition is a celebration of all forms of sovereignty, we are reminded of our right to tell our stories, to share our stories with the world. Sovereignty is not just a political act or a political ideal, it’s a state of mind; every member of our Nation has a right to that Sovereignty. When we plant our trees, when we grow our crops, when we give birth to our children, we are Sovereign; when we feed our babies in the traditional way, we are Sovereign; when we speak our language, we are Sovereign; when we practice our culture, our heritage, we are Sovereign.”
(…) “Deskaheh was never able to return to his Grand River Territory to be with his family. He had to return to the United States for fear of reprisals from the Canadian government, despite his weakened health. He remained in the Tuscarora community on the Niagara Falls side of New York State. (…)
(…) Deskaheh made his last public speech on March 10, 1925, on Rochester radio. He spoke of the injustices faced by the Haudenosaunee in their homelands, and asked for the support of American and Canadian citizens. He appealed to the government for recognition of their rights and sovereignty over their lands. He said: I ask you a question, maybe two questions, don’t hurry to answer. Do you think, do you really think that all people are entitled to equal protection under international law now that you have so much strength. Do you think, do you really think that the promises and commitments of treaties must be kept; think about these questions, think carefully before you answer them, for yourself.” (…)
(…) “Deskaheh reminded us that Indigenous Sovereignty has always existed for Indigenous Peoples, and that this Sovereignty has to be defended, especially in the event of an occupation of our territories. We need the People, their Nations, their protection and their support. We believe that true governance and leadership comes from the voice of the People. Deskaheh knew this. Our Haudenosaunee Confederacy was founded on this and we will never give up our rights and responsibilities, our Sovereignty and our Nations.”
Today, as in the past, the Haudenosaunee continue to fight for the respect of their Sovereignty and the unity of their Territory, beyond the state borders established in violation of historic Treaties.
For more details on the foundation of the Confederacy, its fundamental principles and the struggle of Indigenous Peoples to have their right to self-determination respected, see this presentation by Kenneth Deer.
* I kindly thank Deskaheh Steve Jacobs for proof reading this article and Heather George for her advices.