Haudenosaunee marks 100th anniversary of Deskaheh’s bid to speak before the League of Nations

Nabil Anas
Nabil Anas

Global Courant

One hundred years ago, the chief of Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Cayuga), Deskaheh, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to defend the rights of indigenous peoples.

He was not allowed to speak to the League of Nations – the forerunner of the United Nations – and now a century later his successors continue the fight for recognition.

“As Deskaheh, I will not address the United Nations until the Haudenosaunee is recognized as a government,” Deskaheh Steve Jacobs said last week at the United Nations’ 16th Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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Deskaheh is a title – one of the 50 chieftains in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, historically known as the Six Nations or Iroquois Confederacy. Jacobs is the current titleholder and was part of a 20-member Haudenosaunee Confederation delegation in Geneva to commemorate his predecessor’s journey.

Deskaheh’s petition to the League of Nations

In 1923, Deskaheh Levi General was sent as spokesman to Geneva to petition the League of Nations, having exhausted all avenues for justice in Canada.

An archive photo of Deskaheh in Geneva in 1923. (City of Geneva / Geneva Library)

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was concerned about Canada’s encroachments on the authority of the Haudenosaunee government, the loss of land along the Haldimand tract, and the rights of Haudenosaunee women and children.

However, Deskaheh was never allowed to speak at the League of Nations, and his petition led to a catalyst for indigenous sovereignty rights at the international level. The United Nations replaced the League of Nations in 1945.

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“He’s become a symbol,” says Kenneth Deer, a member of the Haudenosaunee Committee on External Relations from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal.

“The name Deskaheh has been used, has been spoken in the UN for years.”

Joe Deom and Kenneth Deer, both Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) from Kahnawà:ke, were part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy delegation in Geneva last week. (Francine Compton/NAJA)

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Today, the Haudenosaunee Confederation is still unable to address the United Nations as government. The confederation, along with other indigenous nations, is only eligible to address the UN as a non-governmental organization.

“It’s been a struggle,” Deer said.

“There has been some movement by the United Nations, but not enough.”

Deer is on a committee for strengthening indigenous peoples’ participation in the UN that has lobbied states to create a special status that recognizes indigenous peoples as governments so that they can participate at a high level in the UN.

“We won’t have the right to vote, only members will, but we will be able to influence resolutions, speak at the word or participate in committee work,” Deer said.

“That’s the kind of level we’re fighting for.”

Steve Jacobs (center) is the current Deskaheh title holder. Both he and Brennan Ferguson (right) addressed the United Nations last week about the fact that indigenous governments cannot speak in the international body. (Cathy Richard/Facebook)

It’s something that Brennan Ferguson, a member of the Tuscarora Nation who also sits on the Haudenosaunee committee on external relations, addressed the UN last week. He argued that the Human Rights Council is implementing modalities to allow indigenous peoples to participate “with the recognition they deserve”.

“We have treaties with at least four states in this room,” Ferguson told the UN.

“NGOs do not sign treaties. This is the responsibility of governments alone. Indigenous peoples such as the Haudenosaunee should be able to address the Human Rights Council through their own representative bodies.”

Relationship with Geneva

While Deskaheh never spoke to the League of Nations in Geneva, his visit has sparked a bond with the city. The mayor, Jean-Baptiste Pons, invited him to address the people of Geneva.

The relationship continues today. In February, the city planted a peace tree. Last week, they teamed up with the Indigenous Peoples’ Center for Documentation, Research and Information (Docip) and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to celebrate the 100th anniversary.

“For us, this is very important because we are a Geneva-based organization and we have been supporting the work of indigenous peoples for 45 years,” said Rémi Orsier, director of Docip.

“The centenary is also a way to let people who know less about this historic period know about it.”

Levi General held the title of Deskaheh in 1923. (Cleveland General collection courtesy of Richard Hill)

The Haudenosaunee flag was raised over the Mont-Blanc bridge and there were receptions, a march through the city and the opening of a new photo exhibition illustrating Deskaheh’s story along Quai Wilson.

“Support for indigenous peoples is part of the City of Geneva’s commitment to the human rights and self-determination of peoples,” Alfonso Gomez, mayor of Geneva, said in a statement.

The photo exhibition, with 30 large panels along Lake Geneva, is curated by Jolene Rickard.

From July 3 to August 16, the photo exhibition ‘Deskaheh in Geneva 1923-2023: Defending Haudenosaunee Sovereignty’ is set up at Quai Wilson in Geneva. (Submitted by Remi Orsier)

Rickard, who is Skarù ręʔ (Tuscarora) and a professor at Cornell University in upstate New York, said it was important to include a mix of contemporary and historical photographs.

“While it focuses on the historical aspects of this relationship, it also provided an opportunity to focus on the work that is currently underway and continues to be done,” said Rickard.

“The exhibition shows our perseverance, that we as a people are in it for the future.”

Haudenosaunee marks 100th anniversary of Deskaheh’s bid to speak before the League of Nations

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