Meddling with the Great Law was and still is standard practice for Indian Affairs agents, developers

One of the first colonizers that wanted the Great Law to be written down and the Confederacy system to be “modernized” was Indian Affairs Superintendent for Grand River, Colonel Jasper T. Gilkison.

As early as 1862, historical records show that Gilkison and other Indian Affairs officials were frustrated with the consensus decision making process of the hereditary chiefs.

Gilkison was given a voice at council and he used that voice to exploit divisions in the community in order to get the political ends he was looking for — that the council would be reduced to a body of 6 leaders.

Historical records show Gilkison routinely made recommendations to the hereditary chiefs to go against thousands of years of Haudenosaunee protocol and remove authority of the Women to dehorn a chief — instead giving that duty exclusively to the council.

Further to that, he wanted the council to vote instead of working toward consensus.

Meanwhile, Gilkison was also stoking fear that if significant changes to the number of chiefs in council was not made voluntarily, that the incoming Indian Act would force elected leadership upon them anyway.

Eventually the superintendent was successful in his quest to change the functioning of the confederacy’s operations. By April 1880, historical records show the councils first soft launch of voting was on whether or not to accept the Indian Act.

The names of the 23 Chiefs in favour of the Indian Act were: David Thomas, Timothy Burning, John Hill, John Buck, John Gibson Sr., Jonas Froman, Elizah Lickers, John General, Nicodemus Porter, Henry Clinch, Joseph Porter, Abram Charles, Joseph Henry, William Wedge, Jacob Jamieson, David Jacket Hill, Gehaze Carpenter, Thomas Isaac, Moses Hill, Richard Hill, Josiah Hill, William Bomberry and William Jamieson.

The names of the 11 chiefs opposing were: John Carpenter, Abram Lewis, John Frazer, Peter Powless, Daniel Doxdater, George Key, George Buck, William Buck, Charles Sky, James Monture and David Frazer. Those opposed were vocally in opposition of other changes, including policies that allowed the Indian superintendents to transfer Six Nations money without the review or consent of the council.

Put a star here: we’ll circle back to that in a moment.

Those in favour of accepting the Indian Act outnumbered those in opposition and the chiefs in council directed Gilkison to draw up Indian Act bylaws to govern the Six Nations community.

In direct contrast of bylaws being made by the Indian Agent — Seth Newhouse was an Onondaga Pine Tree chief who had dedicated his life to collecting the various accounts of the Great Law. Newhouse interviewed elders from throughout the Haudenosaunee world starting in the 1860s and transcribed their accounts by hand, word for word.

At that time there was another situation playing out among the people of Six Nations.

Letters were written to the council by a collective identifying themselves as “the Women and Warriors”. Under the Great Law, these Women and Warriors are also referred to by the Peacemaker, Deganawida as the “Nieces and Nephews”.

They were protective over the hereditary Haudenosaunee laws and customs and wanted them to be recognized and restored.

The Women and Warriors petitioned both the federal government to smarten up and recognize the treaty relationship in the Two Row Wampum — and asked the chiefs council to remove leaders who were improperly claiming hereditary titles.

They began work to do genealogy and identified some of the acting chiefs were illegitimately on council.

Seth Newhouse was eventually involved in those efforts. His manuscripts include letters and petitions from the Nieces and Nephews, along with genealogy for those illegitimate chiefs.

Under the traditions of the Great Law, the Women and Warriors have distinct responsibilities including the installation and removal of hereditary leaders.

Perhaps one of the most critical offices in the Great Law is the role of the war chiefs.

For each of the five nations — a war chief title is established. These are hereditary titles that are installed by the women of the families that carry that title. Newhouse documented all of this from the elders he interviewed throughout the course of his research.

The reinvigoration of public participation by the Women and Warriors at council was in direct conflict with what Gilkison and others at the Indian department were planning. In particular, the Women and Warriors of the day, along with some of the chiefs, spoke against the right of the Indian agents to use Six Nations money without the consent of the people.

You can put another star here to remind you that at the same time the decision making process was being eroded by the Indian agent — the people were opposed to agents being able to use our money without our consent.

In 1897, minutes of the Six Nations council show that a copy of the Newhouse great law was certified by the hereditary council. This is shown in a reproduction that was distributed across the Haudenosaunee communities by Chief Jake Thomas.

“Ohsweken Council House, Ohsweken, Ontario

Nov. 15th, 1897

We the undersigned chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy in an open council do hereby approve, certify to the accuracy of the draft in writing, collected by Mr. Seth Newhouse (Dayodekano) of the ancient and Original Constitution of the League of the Five Nations as a true and correct embodiment of the fundamental principles of that instrument, sometimes symbolized by wampum strings and belts.

Signed by Nicholas Gibson, Johnson Williams and David Sky.”

However, even with this certification — Newhouse could not secure funding from the Indian department to pay for printing his work. Instead, he pursued private funding and produced two copies in 1885 and 1910.

The Great Law that Chief Jake Thomas shared in the 90s is similar to the Newhouse version and talks specifically about the war chiefs by name, one for each nation, as hereditary titles installed by Dekanawida to protect the peace. They are: Ayonwaehs under the Tekarihoken family; Kahonwahdironh under Odatshedeh; Ayendes under Adodarhoh; Wenenhn under Dekaenyonh and Kanenootonh under Skaniyadariyoh.

The responsibilities of these hereditary leaders are critical. They are the accountability offices of the Confederacy. The Great Law tradition says the war chiefs have specific duties. Among them they are to take up arms and lead warriors into battle if ever the Confederacy is under threat by a foreign entity. War chiefs are also called to watch the internal activities of the council and alert the clans if their speakers are acting outside of protocol or agreement.

In the early days of Six Nations at the Grand River, the war chiefs were sitting among those at council, several decades before Newhouse had any involvement in recording the Great Law to paper.

In July 1839, minutes from the Six Nations council shows 15 war chief leaders attended a condolence at the Onondaga Council House on the north side of the Grand River, near Middleport. Some of those in attendance were installed as war chiefs.

This photo is said to be of the first Onondaga Council House of the Six Nations. It was on the north side of the Grand River, just outside Middleport.

The primary duty of a war chief was explained during the condolence by speaker Peter Williams, who took a string of black wampum, and told those gathered that the job of the war chief is to look to all the people and take care of them, young, old, women and children.

The speaker went on with specific instructions — that if a chief takes any action that is contrary to the law, the chiefs, war chiefs and clan mothers have to council together and follow the clan mothers advice in resolving the matters at hand — bringing the accountability of chiefs to a collective of three representative voices.

If a chief commits an overreach he is warned three times through this process — and if he does not correct his course of action — the chief may then removed, aka dehorned.

But despite having a historical record of the war chiefs here at Six Nations — the erasure mission has persisted.

Several versions of the Great Law are out there entirely written by white men. Many of them challenging the stories coming from actual Haudenosaunee elders, as written down by Newhouse.

An early “chiefs version” of the Great Law was produced by a committee of chiefs in 1900. This version had been scrubbed of all references to the War Chiefs and completely redefines the process of hereditary chiefs being held accountable.

Instead of having War Chiefs and Clan Mothers working together to keep hereditary chiefs in check — the chiefs version instead vilifies objection at council — threatening dissenting chiefs who challenge or question decisions made by the council.

This, in combination with a move toward decisions made by majority vote, effectively silenced any opposition or hereditary chiefs could and would risk being dehorned.

This version was drafted and accepted by a committee of ten chiefs — half of whom had voted in favour of the Indian Act: Peter Powless, J.W.M. Elliott, Nicodemus Porter, Thomas William Echo, William Wedge, Abram Charles, John A. Gibson, Josiah Hill, John Sanford and Isiah Sickles.

That version was published with a few minor edits by none other than the notorious Duncan Campbell Scott.

History has not been kind to Scott, and with good reason. In his day he was a poet and politician of renown and character among the elite colonizer families of Canada. He started with the Department of Indian Affairs in 1879 and worked his way up to the top as Deputy Superintendent where he famously reinforced the Indian Residential School System, pledging to continue the work of Indian assimilation until there is not a trace of “Indian” left in any Indigenous child in Canada.

The year that he published the chiefs sanctioned and final version of the Great Law it appeared in a 1911 publication of the Royal Society of Canada called “Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada”

At that time, Scott was the Secretary of that organization and rubbed elbows with several other colonizer elites within the Royal Society’s membership — including the leadership folks from McGill University, the Welland Canal, Montreal Turnpike Trust, District of Niagara, Desjardin Canal Company, the Law Society of Upper Canada and more.

If those names look familiar it is because the Royal Society included many of the heads of organizations that were in receipt of the missing Six Nations trust fund dollars.

Remember that move by Gilkison to get the Indian Act voted on and the concerns of the chiefs about money being transferred without the consent of the council?

History is 20/20 as they say. Why would the Royal Society of Canada care about the story of the Peacemaker? And why would Duncan Campbell Scott agree to fund and publish this version of the Great Law to that audience?

It is interesting to say the least — that the Department of Indian Affairs refused to publish a version of the Great Law that included traditional accountability measures, and instead funded a version that scrubs those duties in favour of a system that silences questions.

Could that have anything to do with silencing hereditary chiefs from being able to challenge decisions made by the council about the Indian Act? Or to scrub their ability to challenge moneys transferred out of the trust and into the hands of colonizing developers — including those that were members of the Royal Society.

Campbell Scott would, a decade later, be promoted to President of the Royal Society of Canada.

Perhaps it’s a conspiracy theory. Perhaps not. But one thing is for sure — the mention of war chiefs sure gets the caucasity going in the colonizing world.

Take for example a later publishing of the Newhouse Great Law by A.C. Parker. Parker was a Seneca ethnologist who included both the Newhouse Great Law and the Chiefs 1900 version in his book “The Constitution of the Five Nations or The Iroquois Book of the Great Law” from 1916.

Parker had exclusive access to the Haudenosaunee knowledge base on the ground as well as materials from everyone within the Haudenosaunee community to vet and verify each version of the law. His book caused white anthropologists everywhere visceral pain. So much so that two white anthropologists of the day — A.A. Goldenweiser and J.N. B. Hewitt both wrote book reviews looking to rip a strip off Parker for daring to give merit to the Newhouse version of the Great Law.

It didn’t work.

In claiming that the Newhouse version was invalid, Hewitt ended up admitting that he took efforts to insert things in Newhouse’s work that came from a Jesuit historian and admitted that he instructed the chiefs to alter translations of certain names.

Goldenweiser goes on to say “The Constitution of the Five Nations is a figment…It does not exist…either written or unwritten.”

Anyone who is interested in the Great Law and its various versions should read the criticisms and Parker’s reply. It is a beautifully written mic drop where he says every version of the Great Law has merit and should be shared.

The work of refining and defining who and what make up the Haudenosaunee world did not stop with Duncan Campbell Scott’s version of the Great Law. When the Haudenosaunee Development Institute was first being formed, documents from early meetings in 2008 show that the first order of business was to get one singular version of the Great Law accepted and printed in mass quantities, distributed to all Iroquoian communities.

Again, call me a conspiracy theorist but I don’t know? There is a historical record that shows any time someone wants to limit the knowledge base surrounding the Great Law — there are specific intentions around that limitation. To date those have not been good intentions and were usually connected to making sure the ambitions of developers were being protected.

It’s an interesting thought. And something that deserves to be examined. Everyone who was on the ground during the 2006 land reclamation in Caledonia knows that the power of the Six Nations unifying to assert our boundaries naturally brought together the Women and the Warriors, scaring the you know what out of police and governments. It also drew the attention of developers who continue to profit off of Indigenous lands.

With limited access to the Haudenosaunee Development Institute’s doings unless you drink the Kool-aid and unquestionably hop on board for the ride — Six Nations may never know the answer. But if the desire is there, and there is another natural reinvigoration of the Women and the Warriors, who knows? Maybe answers and accountability could come sooner rather than later.

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