A rather different approach to improving the position of Aboriginal peoples came from the Cayuga leader Levi General, a man who carried the title of Deskaheh in the Council of the Six Nations. Insisting that his people and others were not, and never had been, subjects of Great Britain but were independent sovereign nations, he took the cause to the international stage where the League of Nations was being organized.12 Deskaheh argued that many of the principles upon which the League was founded applied just as convincingly to Indigenous peoples.

Cartoon,

"A Home from Home," 5 Mar. 1919.

"PRESIDENT WILSON (QUITTING AMERICA IN HIS FOURTEEN-LEAGUE-OF-NATIONS-BOOTS). 'ITS TIME I WAS GETTING BACK TO A HEMISPHERE WHERE I REALLY AM APPRECIATED.'"
The American president took his Fourteen Points to the Paris peace conferences that followed the First World War. One of the most significant proposals was the right to national self-determination for minorities in Europe. Sadly, the same rights were not extended to the First Nations in America.
Punch, 5 Mar. 1919 (cartoon by L. Raven-Hill).
American president Woodrow Wilson had brought the United States into the war to oppose imperialism and uphold the rights of nations, large and small, to govern themselves. As Alpheus Henry Snow shows in his pioneering work, The Question of Aborigines in the Law and Practice of Nations, preliminary investigation as to how these principles might be applied to Indigenous peoples in the Americas were already being pressed in the process that gave rise to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.}

Behind Wilson's pronouncements was the vision of a new era in human history governed by an international regime based on the rule of law rather than on the coercive force of militarism. This rule of law, he said, was to be founded on the principle of "the self-determination of peoples" and worked out in a global parliament where conflicts would be settled through negotiation and adherence to legal principles. The idea was to eliminate aggressions such as those that had led to the First World War. Deskaheh phrased his own ideas in similar terms and called on the League of Nations to recognize the applicability of League principles to the Six Nations. He produced a manifesto, entitled The Red Man's Appeal for Justice, which was given widened currency through the help of Rene Claparede, the driving force of an organization known as the Bureau internationale pour la defense des Indigenes.14 Deskaheh took the position that the Dominion of Canada was illegally ignoring and violating the treaty traditions that confirmed the sovereign status of Longhouse people as allies of the Crown rather than as subjects of Canadian law.

The government of Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, whose objective was to use the League of Nations to affirm a more independent position for Canada as a sovereign country, experienced intense embarrassment as a result of Deskaheh's interventions in Geneva. Rather than address his arguments, however, the King government took coercive measures to try to silence Deskaheh. It sent the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the Six Nations reserve to oversee the creation of an elected band council operating under the limitations of the Indian Act. In attacking the authority of the Longhouse, which Crown officials had recognized as the legitimate government of that community from its founding in 1784 until 1923, the Prime Minister seemed to be attacking not only the traditions of Indian peoples but also one of the symbols that supported the constitutional imagery of Canada as a British North America nation.

1923 - Deskeheh and the League of Nations

During the colonial wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Six Nations of the Iroquois had come to view themselves as allies of the British government rather than as subjects of the Crown. They were, therefore, considerably distressed by the Canadian government's attempts to change their status to virtual wards of the state at the end of the nineteenth century. After the First World War, the Iroquois launched a campaign to regain their sovereignty, an action led by Chef Deskeheh (Levi General). They petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada and attempted to have the case referred to the Privy Council in London, but their efforts were rebuffed. The new League of Nations, however, provided a forum for the grievances of the Six Nations and at least some Europeans were sympathetic to their appeal for justice and independence. Canada responded by stating that the transfer of power to the Canadian Parliament through the British North America Act and other British legislation did not include mention of any Aboriginal group. Although several smaller nations, including Holland and Persia, expressed support for the Iroquois, Britain would brook no interference in internal matters of the Empire, and the case was dropped.

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The outlawed system of representation was inherited from the very inception of the Longhouse Confederacy, when its founders had symbolically buried their weapons of war under the Great White Pine of Peace. In doing so, they created the continent's most famous Aboriginal confederation, a polity integral to the genesis of the British Empire in North America. Deskaheh claimed that the coercive replacement of this indigenous council without a referendum was "an act of war," but the King government responded by telling the League members that the dominion police force had entered the Deskaheh's home reserve as "a civil force acting under civil authority." The police presence in the community was said to have been "for the purpose of suppressing illicit distilling and maintaining law and order for the protection of the law-abiding Indian populace."15 But, for Deskaheh and those of his ilk, the Longhouse regime remained his peoples' only legitimate government under the Confederacy's Great Law.

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge

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