Haudenosaunee Hereditary Chief Deskaheh Levi General
"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."
Levi General (March 15, 1873 - June 27, 1925), commonly known as 'Deskaheh', was a Haudenosaunee hereditary chief and appointed speaker noted for his persistent efforts to get recognition for his people. He is most famous for bringing Iroquois concerns before the League of Nations in the 1920s.
Deskaheh was raised and educated as a traditional Cayuga, participating actively in Longhouse ceremonies. In addition to his first language, Cayuga, he also spoke the other Iroquois dialects. He worked as a lumberjack in the Allegheny Mountains in western New York and Pennsylvania. An accident forced him to return and he began to farm near Millpond, in the vicinity of Ohsweken on the Six Nations Reserve, where he married and had four daughters.
The Six Nations in Canada faced two levels of colonial administration in the early 1920s because although Canada had its own confederation government since 1867, its military and foreign policy were controlled by the British until 1949. Although some Grand River Indians wanted to become Canadian citizens, others were loyal to Britain; 292 of them had served Britain in World War I, including Mohawk Captain A. George E. Smith, father of Jay Silverheels. It was in this context that Levi General worked to fight for his nation's concerns.
In 1917, General became hereditary chief of the Cayuga with the title "'Deskaheh'", meaning "more than eleven". Deskaheh travelled to London in August, 1921 with attorney George P. Decker, who was hired by the Six Nations as counsel. Because the Canadian government would have denied him permission to travel, the Six Nations Confederacy issued their own passport for Deskaheh at the advice of Decker. Deskaheh appeared at the Hippodrome "in full regalia" and also distributed a pamphlet entitled "Petition and Case of the Six Nations of the Grand River". Winston Churchill, British undersecretary for the colonies at the time, stated the petition should be returned to the Canadian government, so Decker and Deskaheh returned to the United States.
In 1922, the two men went to Washington, DC and gained the support of the Netherlands' minister of foreign affairs, H. A. van Karnebeck, who sent their petition to the League of Nations' Secretary-General's office. They also gained the support of the Swiss Bureau International pur la Défense des Indegenes.
In 1923 Deskaheh, Chief of the Iroquois League, representing the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, leaves Canada to go on a mission to Geneva (Switzerland). He hopes to attend the League of Nations (now the United Nations) in order to have it recognize the sovereignty of the Iroquois:
"The constituent members of the State of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, that is to say, the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora, now are, and have been for many centuries, organised and self-governing peoples, respectively, within domains of their own, and united in the oldest League of Nations, the League of the Iroquois...".
~Deskaheh, Letter to Sir J.E. Drummond, Secretary-General of the League of Nations, on 6 August 1923.
Some partners in The League refuse to hear him. The doors are closed to him. A few months before his death, he goes to Rochester, New York. He delivers his last speech. Stressing that the Six Nations Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy is the oldest League of Nations, he exhorts his people to defend their Iroquois rights, just as the white man defends his own rights.
Deskaheh pressured the government to review the Six Nations’ historical status, specifically their right to recognition as allies, not subjects, of the British crown, and hence to immunity from federal control. When council’s Canadian lawyers failed to obtain Ottawa’s agreement to such an investigation, in 1921 council hired George Palmer Decker, an American lawyer who had worked on legal issues for the Oneida in New York State. With funds raised by a finance committee of council, Deskaheh and Decker made a special trip to England that year. Deskaheh had come only a distant third in the popular vote held by council to select an Iroquois delegate to accompany the lawyer: he obtained 107 votes compared to 293 for Iroquois medical doctor J. A. Miller and 252 for David S. Hill, secretary of the Six Nation Agricultural Society.
Yet, as Hill explained to Decker, council chose Deskaheh since the Longhouse people “are so suspicious of any person not of their faith, we thought it better to give way to one of them.” In England, Deskaheh and Decker learned that the Colonial Office considered the Six Nations to be British subjects, a decision later reinforced by Ontario’s courts. Hope for a federal investigation, however, was renewed following the election in December 1921 of William Lyon Mackenzie King the Liberals.
Deskaheh moved to strengthen his position. The upheaval on the Six Nations Reserve was reflected in the “small riot” that broke out there in April 1922.
In 1923, Canadian officials built Royal Canadian Mounted Police barracks on Six Nations Grand River lands, conducted searches of private homes, and prohibited the Indians from cutting wood for fuel (while allowing others to do so), intensifying the Indians' desire to seek protection from the British crown. Deskaheh travelled to Rochester, NY and began strategizing with Decker to ask the League of Nations to place sanctions on Canada.
On July 14, 1923, Deskaheh and Decker sailed to Geneva, Switzerland. Decker returned to the U.S. after a brief time but communicated with Deskaheh frequently by mail. Meanwhile, Deskaheh remained in Switzerland for eighteen months, lecturing before large audiences in Geneva, Bern, Lausanne, Lucerne, Winterthur, and Zurich. In his lectures, he reminded European colonizers of the new world of their obligations under the two row wampum, the most significant pact made between the Iroquois and Europeans. His eloquence, persistence, and ability to speak French helped win the support of some nations, including Ireland, Panama, Persia, and Estonia. Modern historian Laurence Hauptman wrote that while Deskaheh's lectures generated a warm reception by the Swiss people, they were not effective in changing British or Canadian positions.