Six Nations

Deskaheh and the wampum belts

E-dossier #3. In the 1890s, more than eleven valuable Wampum belts belonging to the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) of the Grand River were stolen from their territory. Around 1899, eleven were sold to a Chicago collector who brought them to his own collection. The Department of Indian Affairs of the Canadian Government then worked intermittently to secure their return to Canadian soil from 1900-1915. The belts, however, remained in the Heye Museum’s collection in New York City. In 1921, Chief Deskaheh of the Six Nations found some of the stolen belts in the Heye collection, including one that signified the Six Nations’ autonomous relations with Dutch settlers in North America in the 1770s. They formed, in other words, an important historical document on Dutch-Haudenosaunee relations.

Deskaheh took these Six Nations Wampum belts to Europe to help him make an international appeal for the recognition of Six Nations autonomy (discussed in e-dossier #2). After Deskaheh passed away in 1925, Matrons of the Six Nations asked for the assistance of the Canadian government in having the Wampum belts, still in Europe, returned. The government, however, did not secure their return until over 60 years later.

Written documents differ in some accounts from oral history accounts. According to some oral histories,the DIA encouraged the deposit of such belts with the Heye Museum as part of Canadian government efforts to extinguish Six Nations self-government. This e-dossier presents the written record but is conscious of the ways archival documents impose certain narratives that may not reflect the truth in all aspects. Further information is more than welcome.

E-dossier compiled by Duncan Crabtree. Documents from Library and Archives Canada, Department of Indian Affairs fonds, and The Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive.


Wampum belts and strings have for centuries been a sacred cultural heritage of the Six Nations Peoples of the Grand River and continue to form an important part of their culture today. These intricate belts, originally handmade of quahogs and later from glass beads, frequently symbolized important events in Six Nations’ history. In addition, the Six Nations used them to demonstrate their joining into treaties with foreign powers. Therefore, they served as physical evidence that the Six Nations had negotiated independently with settler governments before the Canadian state claimed sovereignty over them. Although wampum belts were often considered by Indigenous peoples as under the collective stewardship of the nations that had originally created them, settlers who came to possess belts through various means could illicitly assert their title to these items of cultural significance and profit from selling them. For instance, there seems to have been a high demand for these belts from museums which wished to display “Indian relics” in their collections – a commodification of the belts.

A few years before 1900, more than eleven wampum belts belonging to the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) were stolen. Fortunately, some were recovered from Toronto by the Six Nations chiefs and an American author and historian who had ties to the Six Nations, Harriet Maxwell Converse, was aware of the location of another eleven. On February 23rd, 1900, she informed the Indian Superintendent at Brantford, Ontario, E.D. Cameron, that the belts had fallen into the hands of “a dealer of Indian Relics” named T.R. Roddy who had taken the belts back to his private collection in Chicago.

When the theft of the belts was brought to the attention of the Canadian government, it acted promptly to try to secure their return to Canadian soil. This swift response, however, seems to have been for reasons other than having the culturally significant belts returned to their owners, the Six Nations. On more than one occasion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government sought to have Six Nations wampum belts displayed in prominent museums located in large Canadian cities. For example, the Department of Indian Affairs reached out to Six Nations chiefs in 1917 to ask them to lend some of their wampum belts to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for display. The chiefs, however, expressed that the Six Nations’ Council House was the rightful place for the belts. If the government could have recovered the stolen belts stolen from the United States, however, it might have provided it with more leverage to show them in a museum before they were returned to the Six Nations. Therefore, when E.D. Cameron wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs emphasising Roddy’s intent to sell the belts to the Buffalo Historical Society for $2000, a hefty sum in 1900, the department asked Cameron to notify Roddy that he should not sell the belts as he would be selling property that did not belong to him.

In 1909, Chief William Sandy of the Six Nations wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs to ask what had become of the search for the belts. The department asked E.D. Cameron’s successor, Gordon J. Smith, if Roddy had responded to Cameron’s message from 1900. Roddy had not. On Dec. 31, 1909, the department itself wrote to Roddy and again no reply was received.
In 1914, the Head of Division of Anthropology of the Department of Mines Geological Survey, Edward Sapir, gave news of the Six Nations’ Wampum belts to Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of the Department of Indian Affairs and the key figure in federal government “Indian policy.” Sapir told Scott that all eleven belts had been located within American George G. Heye’s private collection at the University of Pennsylvania. It was to Heye that D.C. Scott and the department would now turn in their effort to recover the belts.

After confirming with Heye that the belts he possessed were indeed the property of the Six Nations, D.C. Scott and he came to an impasse. While Heye acknowledged the original source of the belts, he argued that he had paid for them in a legitimate sale and had no proof that they were stolen. Therefore, he refused to return the belts which, at that point, he seems to have had relocated into in his collection at the Heye Museum in New York City.

In 1921, a Six Nations Chief named Deskaheh (Levi General) became President and Speaker of the Six Nations council. Deskaheh decided to appeal to the Canadian government for recognition of the autonomy of the Six Nations because of a number of grievances his people had with their treatment under Canadian control. For more information on Deskaheh’s appeals to Canada and internationally, please see e-dossier #2.

Once the Canadian government refused to acknowledge any territorial independence for the Six Nations’, Deskaheh appealed to the British Crown. To do so, Deskaheh used wampum belts as proof of the historical autonomy of the Six Nations. For instance, Deskaheh used the Six Nations Wampum Belt that had been created to confirm his nation’s participation in the Haldimand treaty: the original Grand River land grant from the British Crown to the independent Six Nations following the Revolutionary War.
The appeal to the British Crown also came to no avail and not without influence from the Canadian government. Its Department of Indian Affairs argued to the British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill against the validity of the appeal. This helped convince him to affirm that the matter was of solely Canadian jurisdiction.

Deskaheh was then motivated to seek further physical evidence of his people’s independent bilateral relations with the British Crown such as more Wampum belts or Peace Pipes (other cultural heritage items used as emblems of treaties). Already based in New York State near his American lawyer, George P. Decker, Deskaheh and he searched for this evidence in the George G Heye collection at the Heye Museum in New York City. After searching for days, Deskaheh found evidence that helped him internationalise his campaign for the recognition of Six Nations’ autonomy from Canada. One of the belts in Heye’s collection, those the Canadian government had been seeking to recover eight years earlier, provided important evidence of Six Nations autonomy. As explained in the December 22nd, 1922, edition of the Globe and Mail, Deskaheh had found a “condolence” belt shared between the Six Nations and a Dutch settler showing sympathy for the death of the latter’s daughter in 1775. This belt evidenced the bilateral relations the Six Nations conducted with the Dutch two decades before the Haldimand treaty was signed with the British.

After Deskaheh obtained this historical evidence, he engaged the Dutch embassy in Washington D.C. and internationalised his appeal for recognition of the Six Nations’ autonomy. Deskaheh’s request of the Dutch embassy to bring the Six Nations’ case to the League of Nations was the first step in a two-year campaign he would lead to have the case considered by the League.

In 1924, Deskaheh’s appeal to the League came to no avail. Much as during the Six Nations’ appeal to the British government, the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs had exercised its influence on prominent members of the League to ensure this outcome. Deskaheh then went back to London to continue to petition King George V. He had with him at this time the original Haldimand Grant and its corresponding Pipe of Peace and Wampum, adding British textual documentation to the documentation of the wampum belts. But, also in 1924, the Canadian government had replaced the Six Nations’ hereditary council which had chosen Deskaheh as its Speaker in 1921. In its place was an elected council. This, according to Ottawa, voided Deskaheh’s title as representative of the Six Nations. In addition, with the support of the council that the Canadian government had instituted, the Department of Indian Affairs sought to reclaim the items of cultural heritage Deskaheh had with him in Europe. For instance, the Department proposed sending information to law enforcement in England to re-capture the items Deskaheh had with him and a resolution to do so was passed by the Six Nations’ elected council. Once recaptured, it was proposed that the items be put on display at the Canadian National Museum in Ottawa.

This strategy was, however, ultimately seen as too costly and was abandoned.

After Deskaheh’s passing in 1925, the Six Nations continued to seek to recover their Wampum Belts. On May 18th, 1926, two matrons of the Six Nations, Mrs. Charles Davey and Mrs. Julia Jamieson, the latter of whom became a founding member of the Six Nations Teacher’s Organization, sought to have the belts used by Deskaheh returned. With the help of their attorneys, they wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs to ask for its assistance. The Acting Deputy Superintendent General, J.D. McLean, responded on behalf of the Department. He explained that because it was a faction of Six Nations peoples who took the belts and that the belts were believed to be in Europe, there was no action his department could take.

Wampum belts must be understood as diplomatic documents. The journey and uses of these belts serves as a case study of a different type of international diplomacy.