Six Nations
"The Iroquois chief, Deskaheh"

Six Nations appeals to the League of Nations, 1922-31

E-dossier #2 – The Six Nations (Haudenosaunee or Iroquois) Confederacy appeal to the League of Nations for assistance against an invasion by Canada, 1922-31.

“The Iroquois chief, Deskaheh.” Promotional photograph distributed to supporters in Europe. George Decker papers, St. John Fisher College Library, Rochester NY.

From 1922 to 1931, the Six Nations Confederacy of the Grand River made an international case for its autonomy from the government of Canada. The speaker of the Six Nations, Deskaheh (Levi General) began by appealing Canadian policies such as the Soldiers Settlement and Enfranchisement Acts to the Department of Indian Affairs. Unable to find common ground with the Canadian Government, Deskaheh appealed to the Imperial government in London and then to the League of Nations with the assistance of the Dutch foreign service and the delegates of Panama, Estonia, Ireland and Persia. Throughout Deskaheh’s appeal and a subsequent one led by Six Nations’ chief Jake Lewis, the Canadian government worked diligently to ensure that these Six Nations’ representatives made scant progress towards international recognition of Six Nations’ autonomy. Moreover, the Canadian government undermined the authority of Deskaheh and Lewis by replacing the traditional Six Nations’ council with one that was more amenable to the Canadian government’s objectives.

Following the First World War, Canadian government efforts to “enfranchise” some Indigenous Peoples in Canada by removing their Indian status rights faced resistance from the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois) Confederacy. The Canadian government saw this change as one that would modernize “Indians” and ensure there were no parts of Canada exempt from Canadian sovereignty. The Six Nations of the Grand River, however, asserted that based on a previous unconditional land grant from the British, the Haldimand Proclamation, they continued to be independent allies of the British Crown. Therefore, they argued that Canada had no right to enforce its laws on Six Nations’ territory nor seek the enfranchisement of Six Nations peoples, thereby taking their Indian status rights and facilitating general settlement of the Grand River area.

The Six Nations appealed Canadian policies such as the Enfranchisement Act to several governments. Documents from Library and Archives Canada as well as the League of Nations archives and Deskaheh’s letters to his lawyer (archived at St. John Fisher College special collections) demonstrate tactics used by both the Six Nations and Government of Canada to have their side of this dispute be internationally recognized.

Before the issue came to the world stage, however, the Six Nations appealed their grievances to Ottawa.

Document 1. Deskaheh to Charles Stewart, December 12, 1922. Source: Library and Archives Canada, RG10, vol. 2284, file 57,149-1.

Deskaheh confirms his agreement on the composition of the Royal Commission, the financial arrangements for the tribunal and the binding nature of its decision. The letter contains an addendum voicing discontent on the shooting of a Six Nations member by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer.

There was initial agreement between Chief Deskaheh (Levi General), speaker of the Six Nations Council, and Duncan Campbell (D.C.) Scott, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, on a Royal Commission to address the claims of the Six Nations. However, RCMP action against Six Nations peoples broke Deskaheh’s trust in the Canadian government’s good faith and efforts to resolve the dispute did not materialize.

Deskaheh decided he and the Six Nations had no choice but to appeal to the Imperial government in London, site of many previous journeys by Indigenous nations.

Document 2. Deskaheh to King George V, October 22, 1924. Source: Decker papers, St. John Fisher University Archives.

Deskaheh cites the treaty under which the Six Nations are settled and summarizes the land claims of his people beginning in 1784. He then presents his recent struggle for protection from the League and several challenges his people encountered at the hands of the Canadian government. He next appeals for support and for arbitration assistance from the British crown. Finally, Deskaheh cites his people’s history of support of British foreign policy objectives. The result was a reply from a Mr. Harding on November 4th, 1924 who on behalf of the Under Secretary of State informs Deskaheh that the British Secretary of State has not advised His Majesty to take any action on Deskaheh’s request. 

With no success convincing King George V, Deskaheh and his American lawyer George P. Decker continued their appeal to the League of Nations in Geneva. There, they contended that under the 17th article of the League’s Covenant, the Six Nations’ dispute with Canada could be considered by the Cour International de la Justice to determine its eligibility to be heard by the League Council.

Deskaheh with his lawyer, George Decker. Decker papers, St. John Fisher College Library, Rochester NY.

Document 3: Deskaheh appeals to League Council members and supporters, 29 Jan. 1924. Source: Decker papers, St. John Fisher University Archives.

Deskaheh writes to the President of the Council of the League of Nations, Mr. Hjalmar Branting, to ask that his appeal for recognition of the sovereignty of his country be heard by the Council of the League. Deskaheh states his willingness to appear before the Cour Internationale de la Justice (CIJ) to settle with Canada whether the League is capable of examining his case. Following is a series of four form letters to the ministers of Foreign Affairs of Panama, Estonia and Ireland as well as the Prince of Persia. The letters thank the delegations from these countries for signing a letter asking that the Six Nations case be heard by the CIJ and appeals to them to confirm their suggestion to the League Council. Finally, it re-states the purpose of his appeal.

The Six Nations would have had to be recognized within the League as a distinct nation to have their complaint heard under article 17. As a result, the League required that a current member of the League bring forward the Six Nations complaint and initiate the appeal. Therefore, Deskaheh and Decker attempted to demonstrate the autonomous nature of the Six Nations and the legitimacy of their dispute with Canada to as many members of the League as possible.

Document 4: League debates whether to accept 4-nation appeal as genuine, 24 Jan. 1924

F.P. Walters, League Secretariat, to Swedish foreign minister Bohemann. Sweden’s Mr. Branting was the president of the League Council at the time of this question; the debate was whether Prince Arfa of Persia, who was taking the lead on the four-nation appeal, could place an issue on the agenda without formal notice from Teheran being provided to the League. The letter speaks favourably of Deskaheh’s appeal.

The chief and lawyer employed historical evidence for this purpose. For instance, they cited treaties signed between an autonomous Six Nations and both the Dutch and British monarchies in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. In addition, they highlighted the assistance the Six Nations independently provided to the British armed forces in conflicts leading up to and including the First World War.

Document 5. The Redman’s Appeal for Justice, Six Nations pamphlet distributed in Britain 6 Aug. 1923. Source: DOCIP.

Deskaheh to James Eric Drummond, Secretary General of the League of Nations. Deskaheh presents his authority as the speaker for 42 chiefs of the Six Nations and his case for his people to be accepted into the League of Nations. He argues for the need for impartial arbitration between the Six Nations and Canada on matters such as the breach of the Six Nations agreement with the British Crown from 1784, the violation of the Six Nations’ right to self-government and their disputes with Canadian government policy such as the Enfranchisement Act.

Deskaheh’s public appearance in London in feathers garnered further international support for the Six Nations’ claim to sovereignty. It promoted a romantic appeal to European audiences for the safeguarding of the dying “Indian” race in the New World.

Document 6. “Canada’s Red Indians Appeal,” British press clipping, 11 Aug. 1923.  Source: Library and Archives Canada, RG10, vol. 2284, file 57,149-1.

The Star (London) clip “Canada’s Red Indian Appeal.” This favourable press clipping highlights Deskaheh’s arguments and trip to London. It discusses in detail his intention to take his case to the League. It presents Deskaheh’s argument that the British government did not uphold its promise, through the Haldimand Grant, of the territorial inviolability of the Six Nations’ Grand River settlement. In addition, it presents Deskaheh’s view that the Canadian government was unfairly compensating members of the Six Nations for leaving the band. Finally, the article references the League legislation under which Deskaheh was making his claim.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Indian Affairs officials insisted that anyone born within the borders that Canada claimed for itself was automatically a subject of the Crown, and called any Six Nations claim to the contrary “absurd.”

Document 7. Scott lays out the Canadian government stance, 10 July 1923. Source: Library and Archives Canada, RG10, vol. 2284, file 57,149-1.

D.C. Scott to P.C. Larkin, Canadian High Commissioner in Britain. Scott presents Deskaheh’s plans to visit England to promote his appeal to the League. He describes Deskaheh’s argument for his people’s sovereignty and the steps he has taken to contest the Canadian government. He then presents the government’s efforts to appease the demands of the Six Nations and his arguments for their unreasonableness.

The Canadian government used its close relationship with Britain to ensure that this world power, which had a dominant position in the League, chose to support the Canadian stance. When Chief Deskaheh briefly won the backing of the Netherlands, then of Estonia, Ireland, Panama and Persia, for his appeal to the League, British diplomats accordingly pressured the distancing of these nations from the case. First, the British threatened to raise the case of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) if the Netherlands persisted.

Document 8. British Foreign Office report on meeting with Dutch ambassador, 20 March 1923.

Foreign Office to British Ambassador in the Netherlands, Sir Auckland Geddes. The British Foreign Office alerted Geddes that the Netherlands Minister (ambassador) had called for advice on how to respond to the Six Nations claims and explained that Deskaheh had appealed to them based on the historic relationship between the Dutch and Six Nations. The Dutch ambassador had emphasized the Six Nations’ grievances did not seem to be a threat to world peace as they were within Canada and therefore would be out of the League’s purview. The Foreign Office had emphasized to the Dutch that it was “undesirable” to think that a minority group within a state could have recourse to the League to settle a dispute between it and its government. To illustrate this, the Foreign Office brought up the example of the Dutch East Indies colonies to the Dutch Minister.

British pressure also included telling Panama and other Six Nations supporters that they would not tolerate “impertinent interference in the internal affairs of the British Empire.”

Document 9. British Foreign Office warns Panama, 4 March 1924. Source: Library and Archives Canada, RG10, vol. 2284, file 57,149-1.

Foreign Office telegram for British representative in Panama. Telegram tells the Panama foreign office that the Six Nations case is a domestic concern, was ruled out of the purview of the League and that attempts to raise it further at the League would be interference in the affairs of the British Empire.

Discussing the Canadian government’s approach to the Six Nations’ appeal, Deskaheh wrote: “The officials wished to treat us as children and use the rod. This trouble has been going from bad to worse because we are not children.” In 1924, the RCMP evicted the traditional Six Nations Council from its longhouse soon after the League agreed to “enterrer” (bury) the appeal. From Canada’s perspective, the story was over.

Document 10. Canadian cabinet orders dissolution of traditional Six Nations Council, 17 Sept. 1924.

Privy Council minute. The minute cites a report from Lt. Col. Andrew Thompson on the affairs of the Six Nations and his recommendation that an electoral system be implemented in the Six Nations to select the band council. The Privy Council concurs on the recommendation and submits it for approval.

Still, Six Nations leaders continued to carry their case into the international arena. In 1929, just five years after the failure of Deskaheh’s mission to the League, Six Nations’ chief Jake Lewis and American lawyer Ockleshaw Johnson decided to once again conduct an appeal both to Britain and the League on the Six Nations’ dispute with Canada. The mission was fairly well received in Britain as evidenced by favourable press coverage and meetings between the delegates and British MPs.

Document 11: “Canadian Indians at the House of Commons” – The Daily Mirror, June 24th, 1930.

The Yorkshire Post first discuses the Six Nations delegation’s visit to the British House of Commons in traditional outfits and their meeting over tea on the terrace. It then describes the Six Nations grievances for which they had come to the Commons, their smoking of the Pipe of Peace with British Parliamentarians and the plans for further meetings between them and MPs as well as the Secretary of State for the Dominions. The Daily Mirror presents similar details as does the Daily Mail.

However, due to the Canadian government’s decision to dissolve the Six Nations’ council of hereditary chiefs and replace it with an elected one, it had by 1929 another point of leverage to undermine the objectives of another Six Nations international appeal.

With the cooperation of this elected council, the Brantford Indian agent, Cecil Morgan, and D.C. Scott drafted a resolution for the new band council. This resolution was clearly intended to mobilize members of the Six Nations, who had been provided political legitimacy by the Canadian government, to serve the latter’s aims of quelling another Six Nations’ international appeal. The document sought to undermine the legitimacy of chief Lewis and his lawyer to represent the Six Nations abroad and emphasizes government investments into the Grand River reserve.

Document 12: Morgan to Duncan C. Scott, August 7th, 1929.

Col. Morgan explains deliberations he had with the Six Nations council to pass a resolution and rider he drafted regarding Jake Lewis and Ockleshaw. He then presents the points of emphasis he made in the two documents and asks for permission to release them to the press along with Ockleshaw’s Scotland Yard dossier.

Debates within the Canadian government during this appeal show that it was believed that the Six Nations had no treaty rights to continue to practice their customs free from interference from the British. The belief was also expressed by D.C. Scott that Indigenous Peoples universally felt the need to be civilised which implied that those who resisted this process were an insignificant, backwards minority.

Document 13: Duncan C. Scott to Senator Raoul Dandurand, July 8, 1930.

Scott cites the Haldimand Grant and Simcoe Deed arguing that though they provide for property rights, they do not provide the right for the Six Nations to select their own political system nor do they stipulate that they should keep practicing their traditional customs. He also cites Sero v. Gault as proof that the Six Nations’ land belonged unequivocally to the King of England. Scott explains his belief that Indigenous peoples voluntarily accept to stop practicing their customs due to “pressure of civilisation” and that the British North America act specifically outlines Canada’s legal authority over these peoples. Finally, Scott argues that the International League for the Protection of Native Peoples has not been able to analyze the entire Six Nations history and that the attention of these Europeans flatters the Six Nations’ delegates.

However, continued appeals from members of the Six Nations to Ottawa made the case that Ottawa lacked the legal purview to change the lifestyles of the Six Nations and that the Canadian Government was mismanaging funds owed exclusively to the Six Nations.

Document 14: C. C. Silversmith to R. B. Bennett, April 9, 1931.

Silversmith, a Six Nations member, writes to Prime Minister Bennett asking why the Indian Act has changed the way the Six Nations are governed and increased restrictions on them. Silversmith explains that the treaty signed between the Six Nations and the British government had guaranteed the former ownership over their lands as long as they existed. Finally, Dr. Silversmith comments on the lack of interest funds being transferred to the Six Nations and enquires about the spending of surplus funds allocated to his people.

Document 14: C. C. Silversmith to R. B. Bennett, April 9, 1931.

Silversmith, a Six Nations member, writes to Prime Minister Bennett asking why the

Document 14: C. C. Silversmith to R. B. Bennett, April 9, 1931.

Silversmith, a Six Nations member, writes to Prime Minister Bennett asking why the

Nothing was improved by the change, even from Ottawa’s point of view. In 1938, from the office of the Secretary of the band council, William Powless wrote as a spokesperson of the “progressive” Haudenosaunee.

Document 14: William Powless to Gilbert Monture, July 4, 1938. Trent University Archives,
Gilbert C. Monture fonds, 97–017,vol. 1, file 1.

Writing in confidence to a Mohawk working for the federal government, Powless seemed unimpressed with the process of “enfranchisement” that turned Six Nations citizens into British subjects. Of the “approximately 300 heads of families, who have been enfranchised, not a single one has made good and there is not one who would not return to the Six Nations if that were possible.” Despite being “loyal,” Powless wrote that “that the land we occupy is a sore spot with the politicians and ways and means are constantly being sought by them whereby they may acquire those lands.”

The memory of Deskaheh and his successors in taking their campaign international is forgotten in Canadian history. One history of Canada and the League of Nations calls the Six Nations appeal a “bizarre affair” that was “merely absurd,” not serious. Yet it mattered, and it lives on in Haudenosuanee collective memory. The final document is merely one instance. The classic Basic Call to Consciousness published by Awesasne Notes by Haudenosaunee traditionalists in 1977 cites Deskaheh’s appeal and final speech as touchstones. Basic Call was a foundational document in the campaigns that led eventually to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Deskaheh must be seen as a father of that Declaration.

Document 16. Deskaheh: An Iroquois Patriot’s Fight for International Recognition. Published in A Basic Call to Consciousness (Akewasasne Notes, 1977)

Compiled by Duncan Crabtree and David Webster