The Remarkable Life of Levi “Deskaheh” General: friends and foes

SIX NATIONS – The Remarkable Life of Levi General began in 1872. He was stood up as a royaner (hereditary chief) of the Cayuga nation under the name and title of “Deskaheh” in 1917, a pivotal time in Canadian and Haudenosaunee history.

He died June 27, 1925, of pleurisy, in Rochester, New York after being denied entry back into Canada following his extended visits to England and Holland. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had been embarrassed on the world stage by the revelations brought to members of the League of Nations by Deskaheh.

Prime Minister King would not honour the Jay Treaty when Deskaheh returned, which allows Haudenosaunee and all American Indians free and unhindered crossing of the border between Canada and the U.S. His family and friends were also prohibited access to the sick and weakening Deskaheh as he lay at the home of Tuscarora Chief Clinton Rickard.

After the death of Deskaheh, the Jay Treaty was honoured once again. Levi General’s remains were then brought back to his beloved Six Nations Grand River Territory and buried at the Cayuga Longhouse on Third Line, not far from his family home.

Despite all the noble words of politicians and poets alike, the prime reason for the formations of League of Nations in the early 1920s was not as much humanitarian as it was political. It was a way to organize the post-war world map and divided up as spoils of war following the Frist World War. All eyes were turned towards the east and dealing with Canada and its “Indians” was pretty low on their priority list to begin with.

It only took a little manipulation of scheduling to prevent Deskaheh from making his address to the League until at least their next session, which opened the following year. That gave Britain, Canada, Australia and the U.S. time to pressure Deskaheh’s League member nation allies, Estonia, Ireland, Panama, and Persia to withdraw their support from him along with their invitation to be heard when the League met again.

The Persian delegate sent a telegram requesting the League Council’s special consideration—a request that was rejected on the basis that no Canadian delegate was present.

Many contemporary authors who have looked back at this piece of history can see the obvious manipulation tactics employed by the powers of that day.

“However, that these ideas were ignored is not surprising when one stops to consider that Indian land claims were being denied by the same political actors endeavouring to bolster their own territorial claims as part of a protracted effort to promote economic reform through the extant system of recognized states and sovereignty,” writes author Yale Belanger.

He and lawyer J.P. Decker’s work in Europe was not confined to meeting with diplomats, they also connected with the common man through impromptu lectures, interviews and speeches. In 1924 they upped the anti and had handbills printed, called, “The Redman’s Appeal for Justice” which they would even hand out wherever they went or even on street corners. In it, the Six Nations case is methodically and carefully laid out, including documentary evidence.

Among his many documents he carried with him, was a quote from a 1912 address to the Six Nations people by Great Britain, which states in part:

“…The Documents, Records, and Treaties between the British Governors in former times, and your wise Forefathers, of which, in consequence of your request, authentic copies are now transmitted to you, all establish the Freedom and Independency of your Nations.”

A London publication, Freeman’s Journal portrayed General as a “… born fighter, the strong man who knows his strength and believes in it, whilst his shining eyes speak of enthusiasm and idealism.”

In the fall of 1924 the Mayor of Geneva took it upon himself to convene a meeting of friendly states at the City Hall, to give Deskaheh a chance to deliver his address, “albeit to an impromptu forum devoid of any other authority than the power of publicity.” (Ronald Niezen – The Origins of Indigenism)

Niezen also states, “The Canadian government further took advantage of Deskaheh’s absence and implemented the course designed to dismantle the Six Nations Hereditary governance system.”

With Deskaheh detained in Rochester, the old Council House was raided by the RCMP in 1924 and declared “off limits to further political activity.  Wampum belts representing intertribal treaties, history, symbols of formal Six Nations relationships with both the British and Dutch governments, were taken as well as other historical documents and money from the safe.”

In the 1980s a string of wampum hidden behind the wallboards of the old Council house, built in 1863, was discovered during renovations and returned to the Confederacy Chiefs by the Elected Chief, Bill Montour.

Prior to leaving Geneva in 1924, Deskaheh professed his sorrow: “It is the heart broken that I am against the most cruel indifference,” adding that “… my appeal to the Society of Nations has not been heard.”

At one point, Deskaheh had the Canadian Anti-Slavery League in his corner. There are several correspondence letters between Deskaheh and the League, however they become darker and darker until they declare their organizations would no longer pursue the case of Six Nations. The reason was made clear. They advised strongly against Deskaheh taking the case to the League of Nations, predicting what would happen. They had another plan they thought would gain more traction. But, when General ignored their advice, the director of the Anti-Slavery League cancelled their involvement in the case.


This series in no way is intended to be a definitive look into the life and times of Levi “Deskaheh” General. It is presented only to tweak your own curiosity about a man that literally burned out and died young, fighting for justice for Six Nations. Today, in 2017, many things have changed, but far too many things remain the same. Please send me any other input you may have on the “Remarkable life of Levi “Deskaheh” General. We hoped you enjoyed this series.

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