Levi General, the legendary Cayuga-Oneida leader and political activist born in 1873, came to prominence during a period when the Canadian government made several bids to erode the sovereignty and independence of the Haudenosaunee nations. Raised in a traditional community (his father was Cayuga and mother Oneida), he was appointed Deskaheh of the Cayuga, a hereditary chief, in 1917. An eloquent orator, he soon became speaker for the Six Nations Council at Ohsweken, Grand River Territory. In September 1923, he traveled to Geneva as part of an appeal to the international community to put a stop to Canada’s attempts to disband the Iroquois traditional governments. We can only speculate about what would have happened had Deskaheh actually been able to speak to assembled diplomats at the League of Nations while in Europe, but it was not to be. Although he did speak to thousands of people in several European cities carrying his message for the preservation of Native independence, often to great applause, he was never allowed to speak at the League due to meddling by Great Britain.
Canada was still the Dominion of Canada, having brokered a confederation of three British colonies into Canadian provinces in 1867, but the United Kingdom of Great Britain still controlled its foreign policy and the military. Canada’s Indian Act was fabricated in 1920 so the Dominion of Canada could legally secure Indian lands into Crown Lands, change Native citizenship to membership, and remove Natives to Reserves from which they could not leave or conduct common cultural practices without permission. The Act also unilaterally declared all Indians citizens of Canada.
Deskaheh had an ally for his mission in New York lawyer George P. Decker, who was hired by the Six Nations as counsel. Decker had advised the Six Nations Confederacy to issue their own passport for Deskaheh, because the Canadian government would deny him permission to travel to present his case to the League of Nations. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided the Six Nations on a trumped-up charges in 1923 to strong-arm the Iroquois, but the raids only increased support for the traditionalist agenda of home rule.
If Deskaheh had been able to state his case at the League of Nations his eloquence may have convinced enough allies to accept the Haudenosaunee as a member state. The idea of the League of Nations was noble, but the process to recognize independence was often subverted by the colonial powers. The Iroquois felt their nations were allies and equals in terms of international statehood, and sought relief via Article 17 of the League’s Covenant. This provision would allow the Six Nations to be accepted as a temporary member to resolve the dispute with Canada. However, Britain and its colony Canada could not afford to allow the Six Nations Confederacy to be recognized as a state, and exerted political pressure.
Deskaheh had support in Switzerland from political groups and individuals who championed the rights of indigenous peoples around the globe. As Britain stalled by maintaining the conflict was an internal issue within its colony of Canada, the RCMP again raided Six Nations, replacing the traditional council with an elective system. Deskaheh had to return home. A cold he acquired from traveling turned to pneumonia; worse, he found he was banished from Six Nations territories in Canada.
Deskaheh stayed at the home of Chief Clinton Rickard on the Tuscarora Reservation in western New York during his final months. The U.S. and Canada had recently imposed absurd, contradictory travel restrictions for Natives and cross-border travel was now extremely difficult. Rickard’s part of this history is told in his autobiography, Fighting Tuscarora. Deskaheh had called for medicine men from Six Nations, and seemed to recover under their care, but eventually they were prevented from crossing the border due to enforcement of the U.S.'s Immigration Law of 1924. On his deathbed, Deskaheh told Rickard to “fight for the line.” He died on June 17, 1925.
Fight for the Line became the motto of the Indian Defense League of America. The IDLA, founded by Chief Rickard and Mohawk activist David Hill, was dedicated to defend “the right of free passage for Aboriginal people.” After IDLA lobbying, a bill was passed in the U.S. Senate on March 29, 1928 and signed into law on April 2 by President Coolidge. Once again the terms of the Jay Treaty of 1794, which had guaranteed free passage for Indians on either side of the border, would be honored. Rickard and Hill then organized the annual Border Crossing celebration. The event is now in its 89th year.
In the contemporary era, Indigenous delegates made several trips to Geneva and other United Nations venues in the 1970s through the 1990s many times using their own Nation passports. Mike Myers (Seneca/ CEO of Network for Native Futures) made several of those trips and provides insight into border and international issues. “At the international level we have suffered heavy setbacks starting with the elimination of the word ‘nations’ from the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). We have been reduced to ‘peoples,’ a move engineered by the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia with the back room support of England, Russia, China and most of Africa,” Myers says. “Today the International Chamber of Commerce is being granted Permanent Observer status at the U.N. They now have a higher level of standing in the U.N. than we do.”
Aside from the border crossing rights in the Jay Treaty, there is legal precedent that these Native rights are inherent and pre-date European settlement. Still, these ‘Aboriginal Rights’ are unclear in Canada as applied to common law and they depend on a local ‘nexus’ of traditional territorial crossing or historical trade to justify any “free rights of passage.”
Today the International Chamber of Commerce is being granted Permanent Observer status at the U.N. They now have a higher level of standing in the U.N. than we do.
Myers says, “Canada has never passed legislation to activate the part of the Jay Treaty that deals with us...we are only mentioned in the treaty, we are not a party to the treaty. England and the U.S. are the treaty parties. The U.S. did pass enabling legislation and attendant policies. That’s why it’s easier for people from the north to come south.”
Deskaheh’s efforts were perhaps the best chance for the Haudenosaunee to attain recognition as a nation in the eyes of the western international states. Like the League of Nations, the U.N. has been vulnerable to political pressures. Indigenous delegations have never been able to break through the colonial pretense of “internal issues of member states.” Clinton Rickard won his “fight for the line,” but the concept of border crossing rights has never been solidified into permanent laws. In the aftermath of 9/11, Canada and the U.S. have sought new interpretations. It may take a new generation of Native children, now being taught in language immersion schools and instilled with a decolonized mindset, to generate the necessary political will to create lasting change.