Interview with Deskaheh Steve Jacobs, on the centenary of Deskaheh Levi General’s arrival in Geneva, the workings of the Confederacy, his role and responsibilities as Deskaheh and his message for the next generations.
By Leslie Cloud
Here are the main extracts from an interview with Deskaheh Steve Jacobs on July 19, 2023, at the UN quarters in Geneva, to mark the centenary of Deskaheh Levi General’s visit to the League of Nations in 1923. We hope to have transcribed our interviewee’s words as faithfully as possible.
Leslie Cloud (L.C.): “Good morning Deskaheh. Thank you for your availability. It’s an honor to be interviewing you. Could you please introduce yourself and tell us more about the origin of the title Deskaheh and its meaning?”
Deskaheh Steve Jacobs (D.S.J.): “I have two names; my Longhouse name and my English name. My title is Deskaheh and my English name is Steve Jacobs. Deskaheh translates as “more than 11”. Its origins go back to the Great Law, when the Peacemaker approached certain individuals to make them leaders. And when he approached this man (the future Deskaheh), he asked him how many people were behind him. And he explained that there were more than 11. Deskaheh thus means “more than eleven”. The title of Deskaheh was then created at the time of the creation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Five Nations with the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida and Cayuga Nations. (…) Around a 1 000 years ago. (…)
(…) I am the fourth Deskaheh. Deskaheh Levi General, who died in 1925, was in office for eight years; he was followed by his brother Alexander Jack General, he was Deskaheh for forty years, and then by my uncle Harvey Longboat senior, who was Deskaheh for thirty-one years. And me today. This is my twenty-first year. (…) Deskaheh has always belonged to the bear clan of the Cayuga Nation.”
L.C. What are your responsibilities within the Confederacy as Deskaheh?
D. S. J.: “There are 50 chiefs and we’re all equal; we all have the same powers, but some have different responsibilities within the Confederacy, within the Grand Council. For example, within the Grand Council, the Fire keeper is responsible for ensuring that the agenda is kept to. Chief Tadohaho is responsible for being in Onondaga. If anyone feels that a matter needs to be considered by the Grand Council, they speak to the Tadohaho. Each has different responsibilities within the Grand Council, and no one has more authority than the other. Within the Grand Council, decisions are taken by consensus.
Beyond our political responsibilities, we also have religious responsibilities. Every year, we have to make sure that religious ceremonies are held and that our religion is practiced properly. That’s why most chiefs have four people with them: a clan mother, two faithkeepers (a man and a woman) and an assistant. If I can’t perform a certain function, my assistant becomes my eyes and ears. He then reports to me what happened during the meeting or event he attended.”
L.C.: How are relations today between the Confederacy, Canada, the United States and the United Nations?
D. S. J.: “I’d say we are not respected. That’s why Levi General was already fighting in 1923 when he came here to present our situation. Since then, there have been a few advances with Canada and the United States, but not the ones we wanted. I would like to see more progress, but that will come with time. The United States and Canada have passed new laws to allow us to cross that imaginary line between Canada and the United States. It’s a good thing they’re working with us on this because we have families on both sides of that imaginary line and it’s really upsetting for those families. The Mohawk territory straddles the United States, Ontario and Quebec, so there are three borders in this one community, and they face difficulties every day. However, some things are positive you know. We can now cross that border with our own ID cards. So there have been some things that have been positive. On the other hand, it’s still as complicated as ever to travel with our passports. We don’t travel with a Canadian or American passport. We don’t want one, because it’s a question of saying who we are. (…)
(…) The UN wants us to have NGO status, but we’re not an NGO. We are a government, we are a people and we have our laws, our traditions and our language. So to accept to intervene at the United Nations as an NGO would be ridiculous. It’s not fair. It’s about being Sovereign and saying who we are.”
L.C.: The Confederacy, and Deskaheh Levi General in particular, have enjoyed a special relationship with the city of Geneva. Can you tell us more about this relationship?
D. S. J. “When Deskaheh came here 100 years ago, the people and city of Geneva welcomed him and offered him this place to give the speech he wanted to the League of Nations. It was then that a friendship was born for the Haudenosaunee. We returned in 1977 and were once again welcomed at the Geneva town hall. Oral history tells us that when Deskaheh came, a little boy was tugging at his clothes. An adult tried to pull the boy away, but Deskaheh Levi General objected and took the time to talk to him, to explain who he was. According to this story, in 1977, when a Haudenosaunee delegation returned to Geneva, the mayor at the time was this little boy. So there’s a link between Geneva’s mayor’s office and the Confederacy. And then in 1997, a ceremony was organized by the Geneva City Hall for the Haudenosaunee present. In 2019, when I came here, we visited the city. Kenneth (Deer) told me we were going to have a meeting with the Mayor and asked me what we were going to ask him. I replied that we had to commemorate the 100th anniversary.”
L.C. Could you tell us how you came to be Deskaheh?
D. S. J.: “The clan mothers decide who will perform this function. It’s a clan decision. The whole family is involved, but it’s the clan mother who ultimately decides who’s going to perform this function. So the mothers prepare all the children, because you never know where their steps will lead them. We don’t determine, I suppose it’s fate. It’s fate, you know. And when the kids get older, you kind of see what their path is. Before my uncle Deskaheh passed away, I was his assistant. So you know, they were grooming me for the job. (…) They’re always watching you, not all the elders but some of them. If the clan mother chooses you, then the clan meets and makes the decision. Once the choice has been approved by the Cayuga Nation, the decision is submitted to the “younger brothers”, the Cayuga, Oneida and Tuscaroras. Once approved by this group, the decision returns to the elder brothers. This is followed by a condolence ceremony, which we call an elevation ceremony, at which point the “elder brothers”, the Onondaga, Seneca and Mohawk, make their decision. The decision must be approved by consensus. Everyone must agree (…)
(…) You know, the title of Desakheh is not a prestige. It’s not a quest. It means more responsibility, more work. It’s difficult because everyone becomes your family. And you have to take care of everyone. (Deskaheh gets emotional) Sometimes you’re away from your immediate family. I really wonder who would want to have a role like this.”
L. C.: Finally, what are your concerns as a Deskaheh and what would your message be for future generations?
D. S. J.: “I have a lot of concerns, a lot of worries (…) We have to consider Mother Earth, we have to consider how we’re going to be affected by what’s happening. Some people talk about seven generations, but I don’t think we should limit ourselves to a number of generations. (…) That’s why we give thanks every day. I do it to give thanks for what has been given to us, because one day it’s all going to disappear. I try to make my decisions with that in mind, and take care of what’s to come. (…)
(…) To future generations, I will tell them about the Great Law of Peace. The four roots evolve in each of the four directions. And if someone wants to benefit from the protection of the Law of Peace, they must follow one of these roots. Therefore, it is possible to find protection under the tree and the Confederacy. I say never give up. We came here 100 years ago and we’re still fighting. We honor those who were here before us and we continue to fight for our rights as a Sovereign People. I believe we must observe the law of Mother Earth.”
I kindly thank Deskaheh Steve Jacobs for proof reading this transcription.