Warmth was rising into his face, and his cheeks flush with the success of knowing that after all of these days he had been here in Geneva, that it at last might come to something. A nation, he knew, was more than a word to be used in meetings. It had to be carried by its people, in their hearts and minds, and so much of their hope lay with him.Read Sara General's Going the Distance
There are several moments in Six Nations history that require the attention of various forms of art, including literature, to ensure that they live on and continue to be celebrated as cornerstones of our culture. I chose this particular moment, that of Chief Deskaheh's petition of the League of Nations for a few reasons. Firstly, it was an inspiration to Indigenous Nations across the world and secondly, because it is an ideal catalyst for intertwining other important periods in the Haudenosaunee history, as well as our present circumstances.
Anyone who is alert to the current situation at Six Nations as of May 2006, understands that history has become the defining medium for understanding how to work out the conflicts of the present. The current political situation at Six Nations, is not unlike the mid 1920s. At least two political systems are in place at Six Nations, and one of them came into play in 1924 (the only one recognized by the Canadian government). There are scholars who believe that the Elected Council was imposed by Duncan Campbell Scott to discredit Deskaheh's position in international politics, and others believe that it was brought by the Confederacy to put an end to corruption. Historical documents like the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the Haldimand Deed and subsequent Jarvis and Simcoe documents are also being reviewed and distributed.
While these documents certainly have a place, it is my belief that educational research should be employed to create a historical narrative using them, to better understand how we have arrived in our current circumstances. It does take a certain expertise to make sense of legalistic texts. And it has to be a narrative that all concerned parties can agree upon. To that extent a careful examination and then inclusion of the history of Aboriginal peoples in Canada within the educational curriculum is of utmost importance to solving land disputes in a timely and sophisticated manner.
The challenge is real, but not impossible. It has been recommended by various studies, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), and it is to that need that I attempted to construct my story. Education is the greatest tool we have at our disposal, not only politically, but also traditionally, for the perseverance of our traditions flourishes if we can preserve our languages as well. Most of our people are willing to go the distance, as Deskaheh did, and it is my hope that it can be done in a peaceful and rational manner-however long it might take.
“Are you certain?” his voice shook.
Decker nodded, and his face broke into a smile. Deskaheh turned from him and looked out across the city, where the moon reflected off the windows of quiet houses.
Warmth was rising into his face, and his cheeks flush with the success of knowing that after all of these days he had been here in Geneva, that it at last might come to something. A nation, he knew, was more than a word to be used in meetings. It had to be carried by its people, in their hearts and minds, and so much of their hope lay with him.
“Good morning! Happy Birthday sweetie.”
She smiled wearily and sat down at the table. A birthday card had already been set down next to her place, and she poured some coffee into her cup, eyeing it with interest.
“One year older-it’s all downhill from here.” Her father cautioned her, his eyes still absorbed in a pile of papers.
“Yeah, I suspect it is - this is a little thick... money?” She asked, grasping the card and rubbing her fingers across it.
“Oh, yeah right.” Her mother joked, appearing with a steaming pan of eggs and throwing some down on her plate.
She shrugged and opened the card. She knew it wasn’t money, but this had been their little joke over the years anyways. Her parents had made a bit of a tradition out of collecting interesting little facts about the day their children had been born and setting them in their birthday cards. One year, her sister’s birthday had fallen on the same day that Nelson Mandela had been freed. She suspected that they might be saving that one till Anya was a little bit older to appreciate it.
She scanned the card, and thanked them, then proceeded to open the paper that had accompanied it.
September 4, 1923
Chief Deskaheh of the Six Nations presents ‘The Redman’s Appeal’ to the president of the assembly of the League of Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland
She bit into her eggs and considered the paper. “What’s this?” she asked. “I’ve never heard of this.”
Her father shrugged as her mother set some toast down next to her. “I don’t know. I wanted to put that it was the season finale of Gilligan’s Island-but I picked last year.”
“Oh yeah, that painting that was auctioned off in 1875 or something after being missing for a hundred years.”
“And who was the painting of?”
“Georgiana Spencer – an ancestor of Princess Diana,” (Her mother beamed at the name). “It was stolen by Adam Worth, which was cool because he was the inspiration for Dr. Moriarty!”
“Who’s that?” her mom asked.
“Sherlock Holmes’ eternal enemy, of course! Anyways, I’ve never heard of this guy.” She said, looking to her dad for an explanation.
Her dad smiled as he looked flipped his page. “Well, now you do. Go sleuth it out.”
The room had grown almost bitterly cold and still the Minister had not so much as poked at the fire. His desk was piled heavily with letters, maps and reports. He flipped through them quickly and not at all gently.
“They called the King their lord, they used those words-it’s all in the language they use. You can do this, Duncan, it’s all in their words and how you present it. If you present it in just the right way, it will work” he muttered. Endlessly he repeated those words. The door creaked open, and he glanced up startled.
“Good evenin’ Minister. Just came in to tidy but if your not done, I’ll just check on your fire and be on my way. Won’t be disturbing you.” The evening staff had already arrived, which must mean it was hours since everyone else had gone home.
“Not at all, Mr. Evans.” He replied curtly, and turned back to his work.
Evans added several pieces of wood and poked at the coals. “Working late this evening, Minister?”
“That’s right.” He glanced at the clock and sighing, he turned to the window.
“And every night” he murmured, “until this situation has been brought to hand. It won’t do-it just won’t do to let him remain there. He has to be brought down-but how?” He rubbed his forehead, contemplating his options.
“I just wanted to say sir, my wife and I, we read your recent poem. And she was touched, sir, by your experiences with the Indians. You really do them an honour Mr. Scott.”
Louise entered the house and pulling some papers out of her bag, she flung it to the floor.
“Just thought you’d give me a nice cheerful birthday, huh?” she accused, throwing the papers down on her dad’s desk.
“Nonsense. I thought you’d be pleased with the connection.” He looked up, surprised.
“Pleased! Pleased? How could I be? The whole thing came to nothing didn’t it? Deskaheh stayed there for a year and for what? To be told that the affairs of his nation were a domestic concern of Canada. You know he died shortly after.”
“And not only did he die, in the United States nonetheless, he couldn’t even come back-but the whole time he was there this Duncan Campbell Scott man-was working to discredit everything he was doing.”
“This man was the Minister of Indian Affairs for like 50 years! How is that possible that someone so cruel could stay in office that long! He was terrible, he concocted the residential school system with that Ryerson guy. He even wrote poetry! Ha! Have you read his poems?” She stopped to take a breath.
“Propaganda’s what they are!” She cut in, her oxygen restored. “And I won’t even get started on the elected council.” She stopped abruptly and glanced at the floor, fully aware that the frustration her research had created was not in any way directed at her father.
Sensing her guilt, he smiled at her and gestured for her to sit down.
“Ahh, it’s good to get a little angry once in awhile. But it can’t last. Nothing can be done well that’s done in a temper. But you’re right, at least partially. We came to this territory in 1785, after the Confederacy had a difference of opinion over which side to take in the war, American or British. We surrendered some land to make money to sustain us. Some people say that that never happened, they just can’t see it. In some cases they were right-it was fraudulent. But I can imagine that the hunting wasn’t all that good, and we had to do something to feed our families. Our lifestyle was changing. Decisions were made Louise, actions were taken. We were influenced by the Europeans in some ways-and in others we weren’t. This all happened even before Deskaheh went to the League of Nations to insist that we were in trouble, and that we needed our own ways to see us through it.”
He said this all very calmly.
Louise stared at the ground. “I get that history is biased. I get that there has to be some kind of agreement over what really happened and how to deal with it now-but I don’t get why haven’t I heard about this before? Any of this.”
“Because they don’t teach this in schools, Louise. And they should. A lot of foolish things happen amongst people when they don’t understand all the facts. Imagine if everyone felt differently about what to do at a stop light? I’m sure some of your friends don’t understand what makes you a First Nations person.”
She nodded. “And I haven’t known enough of this history to explain to them.”
“Right-but it isn’t your responsibility entirely. You have one-don’t get me wrong. But if you want a nation of people who are understanding and not racist or discriminating, then you have to provide them with the tools to live that way. Which I need hardly point out to you-means sharing a lot more history than you are getting now.”
She nodded again. He smiled at her. “I didn’t choose this piece to ruin your birthday. I myself, think it was pretty remarkable to go all the way to the League of Nations in 1923. The first bit of international activism for our people. I always like to think that we were the first league of nations, you know. Six independent nations coming together after being at war with one another for so long. We formed the Great Good together and I think there is something to that. Or should I have let your mother pick the Gilligan’s Island thing?”
She smiled. “No, this was fine. Now where’s my real present?”
I learned that day that it takes a great deal of strength to admit that your people are weak without giving up altogether. I have seen firsthand, the effects of years of oppression on my people. It has not only made them victims, but aggressors as well. Which I suppose follows some sort of pattern of violence.
A few months after that birthday a situation emerged from a land claims dispute on my reserve and we were thrown back into the past to contemplate over 200 years of history. We have become divided in our understanding of the past. Some of our people aren’t always able to grasp the Great Good. And their anger has brought out centuries of accumulated hurt and a great deal of that anger has been misdirected and downright pointless. It has had effects on our non-Native neighbours as well, and not all of it good, nor bad. But it made me writhe to know that for years this information had been available, and that no one had made use of it. How much easier would it be to solve our issues if everyone was educated in them? Because we aren’t just arguing about history with the government, we are arguing with ourselves. It reminds me of Question Period.
It has been especially hard watching everyone scramble for information, for the ever dangerous word, the ever confirming document that will settle what we are forever trying to build-a future where our children speak our language, the people fill the longhouses on all the ceremonies not just the big ones, and no one questions their identity as Haudenosaunee. Because they know they belong and they can feel it. It will be hard because we have adopted many practices that aren’t our own, that come from a different way of reasoning than our own-and I am not sure if we are willing to give them all up.
We have hung in that balance for a long time-Deskaheh knew it. And standing here by the Grand River, wondering what it must have looked like to him, a thousand times cleaner, no doubt-I wonder if he could have the hope now that he had then. We still had our languages when he was here-we still had a chance in that way. But our only chance now is to accept what is done, to decide what we want for the future, what we can save and how to achieve it together.
They say that Deskaheh died of a broken heart, the dream of freedom and sovereignty still glistening in his eyes. But dreams do not die with us, and the power of a nation does not disappear because a leader passes. It doesn’t disappear because the boundary lines change. It is an ever changing thing that is carried by the hearts and minds of its people. By men and women with peace and a good mind who use words to communicate not sting, who create ideas not conflicts, who choose life over survival. As long as there is even one chance to have this kind of dream, I think I can believe in it, because it is one that I don’t have to achieve on my own-even if those who had it first, have long been gone.