OHSWEKEN ‑ Perhaps one of the most misunderstood Six Nations heroes of the past might be Lieutenant Frederick Loft. To some he was a zealot for Native rights, but to others, he was seen as a compromiser. To make any attempt to know which label is closer to the truth, perhaps a look back at contemporary news articles of the pre and post WWI era of Six Nations, and a conversation with the Loft family may be in order to help separate myth from fact.
When Robert “Rope” Loft found that he was related to Lieutenant Loft, he began researching the life and times of his relative.
Loft has been counted amongst the “Dehorners” of the post WWI period, who pushed for Ottawa’s intervention to help Six Nations move into the modern era with a representative British style government.
Amidst allegations of pre-war corruption amongst some of the traditional Chiefs and Clans at the turn of the last century, some began seeking intervention to help fix the problem. These dissenters wanted to ensure all Six Nations people were equally cared for with financial transfers from Ottawa, and not only certain well-situated families.
Until that time the Canadian government did not interfere with the long existent traditional system of government and was unable to directly intervene within another government’s affairs. The tool of choice was to control legislation through the Indian Act and its predecessors.
Fred Loft was a tall, well educated, well-built and strikingly handsome Mohawk man, respected in many corners of the reserve.
The debates between those supportive of the traditional government of sitting chiefs and overseeing clan mothers, and an elective system began – surprisingly enough, not so much on political grounds as religious.
Until the mid-1800s, religion played a minor role in the administration of Six Nations, Grand River Territory. In fact, it is said that as many as 80% of those who came with Brant to receive the Haldimand Tract were Christian, including Brant. Those who came were primarily Mohawks and Cayugas but also included what could be called “other nations” — those under the protection of the Six Nations Confederacy. Many Mohawks, Cayugas, and Oneidas were already converted Christians, while most Onondaga and Seneca refused and adhered to the old traditional religion.
But in around 1799, a Seneca Chief and half-brother of the great Corn Planter (whose name in Seneca was Sganyodaiyoˀ) while recovering from extreme alcoholism at the home of neighbourly Quakers, received a series of visions which he codified into what became known as the Code of Handsome Lake — the Gaihwi:io.
Even though some of the ethics and elements of the Christian Bible seemed to be woven into this new morality being put forth by the 64 year-old Handsome Lake after he recovered, there were enough differences to separate it from Christianity as accepted by most Six Nations arrivals to the Grand River Valley.
Once introduced to the Longhouse, Handsome Lake’s teachings were fully adopted by those rejecting classic Christianity. Religion was never a bone of contention as people were free to believe whatever they wished until the advent of Handsome Lake’s Code.
It was also at around this time that the Mohawks began to pull away from the Gaihwi:io religion, which is was viewed as a revision to the ancient longhouse statutes as established by the Peacemaker and Hiawatha.
There was residue tension between the two factions at the end of the 19th century because of these religious differences.
According to an interview in 1938 made by Frederick’s brother Chief William Loft (then 80 years old), which was published in the Buffalo Courier-Express, the Loft family (although Christian) were deeply involved with the traditional governance long before coming with Brant’s Mohawks.
According to Loft family tradition passed down through six generations at the time of the news article, during the American Revolution, a Mohawk scout named Ga-ron-ya-gego-wah, was William and Frederick Loft’s great-great-grandfather. He was dedicated to the British general he served under. After four years of service in the colonies, this general’s commission ended and he returned to England and as a token of their mutual respect, the two friends exchanged names. General Loft went home with a Mohawk name, and Ga-ron-ya-gego-wah began using the surname Loft.
That friendship began in earnest after an American raid in which General Loft was seriously wounded. Ga-ron-ya-gego-wah stayed with him and protected him from further injury or death. He stayed with the general and nursed him back to health following the battle.
“The two became fast friends and when parting, exchanged names as a token of their affection,” William Loft told the Courier-Express.
Chief W. Loft, spoke five Iroquois languages fluently and was an artisan of some repute, well known for his woodworking and leather burnings. The framed hand-written Haldimand Deed on display at the Elected Council Chamber was created by Loft in the early 1900s.
William’s younger brother Fred Loft was named as “one of the great Indian activists of the first half of the 20th century, whose struggles laid the groundwork from which recent activism emerged,” according to the Star article.
Although fighting for the same basic cause — equality for the Indigenous, and an accounting of land and funds presumed stolen by the settler government — he and fellow activist of the day, Chief Levi “Deskaheh” General, did not like each other much and were quite critical of each other’s style and motive.
Deskaheh lobbied Britain and European members of the League of Nations for recognition and acceptance as an independent, sovereign nation, under the protection of the Crown. Loft was more akin to Joseph Brant’s school of philosophy, which recognized the inevitable white tide crossing the land and sought ways for his people to prosper in this new paradigm. Loft advocated adapting and adopting some of the white man’s ways, while still holding onto the history and greatness that was once the Mohawk Nation and the Five Nations League of Peace.
Loft, like Brant of the 1780s, was well educated in the ways of the white man. Loft volunteered for the Canadian Army when war broke out in 1914. At that time, it was necessary for an Indian to sign off all their rights as Indians and become an enfranchised Canadian citizen before they could fight in the Canadian military.
Loft was unaware that by doing so, when he returned from the front, he would no longer be Onkwehonwe in the eyes of the Crown, nor would he be afforded the same rewards of service and acceptance as a Canadian citizen.
Once Loft returned to civilian life, he saw the British style of government as more representative of the people than the Confederacy system of clans and chiefs.
He can be criticized for how it all unfolded in 1924 with the armed raid and illegal takeover of the sitting Six Nations traditional government. But letters and communications at the time show that Loft never intended to see he or his people disenfranchised from their culture and heritage in the process.
He became aware of the depth of poverty and despair amongst his people while on recruiting tours across Canada directed to reserves, big and small. Following the war, he decided to do something about it.
A Grand Council of Chiefs was called in January of 1919 at Ohsweken at which Haudenosaunee and Ojibwa attended, and the plan for a national body of Onkehonwe leaders was formed to fight the government for equality at many levels, including education.
The League of Indians, Canada’s first Indigenous organization of its kind, which eventually morphed into today’s Assembly of First Nations was formed that day and grew very quickly to thousands of members from across Canada.
In Loft’s own words he explained the purpose and scope of the League. “For the expressed purpose of seeing what we could do to raise ourselves above ourselves,” he told the Toronto Star in 1936. “It’s time there was a distinguishing national policy for the advancement of our race to a higher standard, and education is the only way to do it.”
Loft knew Duncan Campbell Scott’s residential school system wasn’t working after attending a year at the Mohawk Institute. The 11 year old begged his parents not to make him go back. The trade-off was, a long walk to and from school in Caledonia, which he did faithfully through public and high school.
At the time, there was one doctor at Six Nations to handle the needs of 5,000 residents. The League of Indians lobbied for better nutrition and education on reserve and a system of on reserve day schools as opposed to the residential school system.
He was also critical of the voting process, although he referred to himself as a voter.
Canada was trying to put through a forced enfranchisement bill but with the united strength of the League of Indians, it did not pass. Instead, Loft and the League called for the education of Indians to be taken from the Dominion government and put into the hands of the province where equality of education would be better monitored.
Even in his willingness for compromising, he did not approve of the forced assimilation or forced citizenship on sovereign Native people. He suggested that education should come before all else, but the decision to become a Canadian or not should be the decision of the individual Onkwehonwe man or woman, and not the government of Canada.
Loft put his requests and demands in the hands of Minister of the Interior Sir James Lougheed for a standing House Committee on Indian Affairs, taking the dictatorial hammer out of the hands of the federal Indian Department. When Duncan Campbell Scott, who was Minister of Indian Affairs, heard of it in a letter to Lougheed, he called Loft a “shallow, talkative individual,” who “ought to get a good snub.”
In 1920, Loft told the Toronto Star that education off reserve is not a good thing for his people noting that when they return from residential schools, they are “denationalized, estranged and can scarcely speak their native tongue.”
In 1921, at the YMCA building in Brantford, Loft had the same message of change but not in the form of a colonial takeover.
“For the sake of the vote, the Indian is to renounce his nationality — to be an Indian no more,” he complained.
Loft was a good communicator and worked for a time as a Brantford Expositor news reporter, but the majority of his working life, more than 40 years, he worked as bookkeeper at Toronto’s Asylum for the Insane.
Lieut. Frederick Loft was a man that walked in two worlds, as Brant did, and by doing so was sometimes ostracized and sometimes strongly criticized by both. Loft was made an honorary Chief and was given the title of Onondeyoh in 1917, at the Council House.
Frederick Ogilvie Loft died at age 72 on July 7th, 1934 and although he did not see frontline, his advocacy for equality for his people earned him much respect and honour from both the Crown and the Confederacy.
The land that became the Council House and today’s Veterans Park in downtown Ohsweken was once part of a farm that belonged to the family and was donated in 1863.
Robert “Rope” Loft is a relative of Frederick Ogilvie Loft and his brothers Chiefs William and Harry, but he is not exactly sure what his exact family connection is. Since 2014, Rope has been doing extensive research on the life and times of Frederick Loft and is organizing it for a book he hopes to write sometime in the future.
“Although Frederick Loft died 80 years ago, I feel as if I knew him,” says Rope Loft. “2014 marks the 100th anniversary of WWI and as a descendant of the Loft family, I pay respect and homage to an incredible benefactor among the Native people,” he says.
We thank Mr. Loft for sharing his research with us for this article.