The remarkable life and times of Deskaheh

SIX NATIONS – In 1917, Levi General became hereditary chief of the Cayuga with the title “Deskaheh”, meaning “more than eleven”. He worked as a lumberjack, and a farmer.

George P. Decker was a New York lawyer who, at an early age became fascinated with the Iroquois and its laws and practices through the writings of fellow attorney Lewis Henry Morgan.

He became a student of Haudenosaunee history and a staunch defender of Indigenous Rights, especially among the upstate New York and Ohio tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy.

“The Canadian government…is trying to imitate the ruthless imperialism of Congress in its treatment of American Indians,” Decker is quoted to have said. “Americans at one moment make wonderful phrases about the rights of small nations, and justice, and at the next totally ignore the wrongs done to small groups of Indians whose tribal existence is threatened. Some tribes allow their right to be invaded and soon intermarry and are dispersed and they have committed race suicide. But the Six Nations do not intend to do this.”

But it is his work, helping Chief Levi “Deskaheh” General in his search for justice for his people in the early 20th century that Decker is most noted for.

After meeting Deskaheh at Six Nations and being brought up to speed on the plight of the “Red Man”, and especially that of the Six Nations in its search for recognized nationhood amongst the world’s nations.

According to The New York Times, “…called at the London office of the League [of Nations] to give notice of his intention to submit a complaint about, what he felt was, the ‘subjugation by Canada, the Imperial Government having refused the Indians’ plea for protection against this subjugation.'”

General and Decker’s first trip to England was in 1921. In 1921, 44-year-old Deskaheh was not an especially impressive looking figure. He was short, thick and strong from years of farming and lumberjacking in Pennsylvania as a youngster. But when he wanted to make an impression, he was splendid in his traditional dress and attracted professional painters seeking his permission to be the subject of a portrait, which he did from time to time to help raise money to help sustain his stay in Europe. Two portraits of Deskaheh were raffled in June of 1924, in Geneva and raised $1,000.

Most of time he wore a standard business suit of European style, casting an almost humourous shadow when walking with Decker who was a much taller and bigger man of the two.

A French Associated Press reporter’s description of Deskaheh states, “Unadorned with feathers, beads or moccasins, and wearing a sack suit and slouch hat, the big chief, although without tomahawk or war paint, is just as earnestly on the war path as his ancestors who fought the British red coats and French regulars in the American forests.

“Standing at the main entrance of the Paris City Hall, where the League’s Council meets, Deskaheh has been indefatigably button-holing the delegates, some of whom have lent a receptive ear, while others hurried away…”

When he gave interviews, he was measured in his words but powerful in his understated delivery.

“My tribe sent 400 men to fight in the late war, 40 of whom were killed,” Deskaheh would tell the European press. “I will pursue this claim relentlessly until it is recognized.”

Behind the scenes, however, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Minister of the Interior (Indian Affairs), Duncan Campbell Scott and a young and ambitious Winston Churchill conspired to deny Deskaheh and Decker’s call for recognition as a “state” for the Iroquois on the world stage following the First World War.

Their hopes were further dashed when he and Decker were denied a seat in the gallery to watch the proceeding of the Society of Nations in Geneva.

Decker and Deskaheh left England bound for New York aboard the Titanic’s sister ship, the White Star Line’s Olympia. He was barred from entry into Canada

Out of spite, Prime Minister King barred Deskaheh’s reentry into Canada forcing him to stay in Rochester with friend and Tuscarora Chief Clinton Rickard, who started the Indian Defense League shortly after Deskaheh’s death from complications from pleurisy. His last recorded message was made on March 10, 1925, from a local Rochester radio station. Part of that message shows the depth of his disappointment and frustration.

“Over in Ottawa, they call that policy ‘Indian Advancement’,” he said. “Over in Washington, they call it ‘Assimilation’. We who would be the helpless victims say it is tyranny. If this must go on to the bitter end, we would rather that you come with your guns and poison gases and get rid of us that way. Do it openly and above board.”

Deskaheh died days later of his illness, stranded from his family who the Prime Minister would not allow to cross the border to visit and care for him. Levi “Deskaheh” General is buried at the Cayuga Longhouse in Sour Springs.

It is through personal letters between Deskaheh and Decker and government officials in Canada and Europe between 1921 and 1924 that the toll on his life is exposed.

Many, including this write, consider Levi Deskaheh General, one of Six Nations greatest heroes despite not succeeding in his mission. Due to political and social biases of the day, Deskaheh and Decker failed in their mission, but gained great international support, spreading the culture and the great service of Six Nations to the British Crown.

He and Decker’s presentation was never made in Geneva before the League of Nations, but has been printed and reprinted and used in courts of law since.


More next week on the life and times of Deskaheh


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