Haudenosaunee sovereignty

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Jan 7 09:22:45 MST 2001

NY Times Book Review, January 7, 2001

Treaty of Canadaigua 1794: 200 Years of Treaty Relations Between the
Iroquois Confederacy and the United States, Edited by G. PETER JEMISON and


First Chapter: 'Treaty of Canadaigua 1794':


Indian land-claims cases in the federal courts typically generate
substantial news coverage but little real understanding. Everybody knows
that native peoples were dispossessed of lands by means that included
coercion, violence, theft and fraud. And no one doubts that when courts
order millions of dollars paid to Indian tribes, they compensate the
descendants of Indians long dead for the misdeeds of equally long-dead
whites. But many Americans find that curious. Slavery, after all, was also
wrong, yet courts haven't ordered that African-Americans be compensated for
their ancestors' sufferings.

The legal reason is simple enough. Long ago, the United States government
dealt with Indian nations not as wards but as equals, maintaining
diplomatic relations with them by treaty agreements. Since treaties
represent contracts between nations, modern tribes presumably retain the
right to insist that the government perform its obligations, or pay damages
if it does not. The larger context to this straightforward legal
relationship is, however, much more complicated.

Anyone interested in the legal and historical issues at stake in current
Indian land-claims cases would do well to start with ''Treaty of
Canandaigua 1794,'' edited by G. Peter Jemison and Anna M. Schein. (Jemison
is a Heron clan member of the Seneca Nation and the manager of Ganondagan
State Historic Site; Schein is the university librarian of the West
Virginia University libraries.) Reading their book takes perseverance,
though, for this is not a conventional history but an assemblage of
ceremonial recitations, speeches, photographs, scholarly essays and
18th-century documents, all of which emerged from a bicentennial
commemoration of the Treaty of Canandaigua, on Nov. 11-12, 1994. In place
of a narrative, this volume offers a mosaic of tradition, religion,
scholarship, polemic, law and history that tends to dissolve conventional
distinctions between past and present and invites readers to contemplate
what Indian treaties mean.

The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua was the first diplomatic agreement executed
by the United States under its new Constitution. It was by no means the
first treaty negotiated by the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois League, an ancient
confederacy of six nations (the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas,
Mohawks and Tuscaroras). Iroquois spokesmen at Canandaigua were more
experienced negotiators than the United States' envoy, Secretary of War
Timothy Pickering, and the heirs of a far richer diplomatic tradition. Two
centuries earlier, their ancestors had negotiated a treaty with the Dutch,
recording its provisions in the Guswenta, or Two Row Wampum Belt. The
principles embodied in that sacred object created the basis of subsequent
Iroquois relations with Dutch, French, British and American colonizers.

The documents included in the appendix testify to the Iroquois's bargaining
acumen. Unrepresented at the peace negotiations that ended the
Revolutionary War in 1783, they found themselves, over the following
decade, neglected by the British, pursued by American land speculators,
invaded by squatters and besieged by the governments of New York and

Yet at Canandaigua, Iroquois diplomats induced the United States to
recognize the League's sovereignty over tribal territories, define the
bounds of its landholdings in New York expansively, provide a $10,000
payment, promise annual delivery of $4,500 in trade goods as tokens of a
perpetual alliance and affirm that only the federal government could
negotiate for future land sales. In return the Haudenosaunee promised peace
with the United States, surrendered all claims to land outside New York and
agreed that American citizens could pass freely through their territories.
In short, the League walked away with a terrific deal.

Why did Pickering offer such terms? In part it was because the government
needed Iroquois cooperation. Since the 1780's Indians farther west had
thwarted American expansion militarily. Three years earlier, warriors of
the Miami tribe under Little Turtle had handed the Army the worst defeat it
would ever suffer at Indian hands, killing far more soldiers than would die
a century later at the Little Bighorn. Meanwhile, Britain maintained forts
in the United States' Northwest Territory; an armed taxpayers' revolt, the
Whiskey Rebellion, was in progress in western Pennsylvania; foreign trade
was suffering severely at the hands of the British and the Spanish; and the
treasury was sliding headlong into insolvency.

But weakness alone does not explain the treaty. Washington and his fellow
Federalists, who essentially conceived of themselves as a ruling class,
believed that the national government could -- and should -- protect
minorities' rights. Most important, they were willing to stipulate the
sovereignty of native peoples, and deal with them as honorably as they
would any foreign power.

In the two centuries following the Canandaigua treaty, the Indian policy of
the federal government changed dramatically. The willingness to negotiate
with native groups as diplomatic equals waned, and was finally ended by
Congressional action in 1871. Although the United States still delivers
cloth worth $4,500 annually to the Iroquois, courts and presidents have
never paid significant attention to protecting Iroquois lands from
encroachments. As a consequence, the Haudenosaunee have lost most of their
lands to fraud and irregular sales.

This book presents a brief for the Iroquois understanding of their
confederacy as a sovereign nation, not a ward of the United States. The
Haudenosaunee maintain this position by refusing American citizenship,
insisting on self-government according to traditional forms and issuing
their own passports. Above all, they cling to the Canandaigua treaty.

The academic essays in this volume make plausible arguments for the
continuing legal validity of the agreement. But in the end it is the faith
-- invoked in the speeches of the confederacy's chiefs -- that the treaty
represents a moral obligation as real today as it was two centuries ago
that carries the greatest weight. Will the United States fulfill its
promises and make reparations for its failure to abide by the terms of the
treaty? Time, and the courts, will tell. Meanwhile, the Haudenosaunee wait.

(Fred Anderson is the author of ''Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and
the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.'' )

Louis Proyect
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