The Canandaigua Fire must be preserved

By Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country 12-09

The annual commemoration of the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty is one of the most important gatherings of the Haudenosaunee. It reminds us of a time when our concerns were paramount in the US which, in response to our complaints about the massive theft of our lands, sent Timothy Pickering to negotiate a treaty of peace and friendship.

The Americans were not acting out of a genuine concern for the Iroquois but in their own self interests. The US was involved in a military campaign against the native nations in the midwest and wanted the Confederacy to stay out of the conflict. But even as Canandaigua was being negotiated land speculators were scheming to defraud the Iroquois out of millions of acres of land.

We must not forget who those men were: Philip Schuyler, Alexander Macomb, Robert Morris, Caleb Benton, David Ogden, Theophile Cazenove, George Scriba, DeWitt Clinton, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Jonas Platt, Rufus King, Rev. Samuel Kirkland, James Dean, John Livingston, Oliver Phelps, Peter Smith, Abraham Wemple.

These men, in concert with state and federal officials conspired to undermine the Confederacy then alienate us from our lands. They sought to become rich at our expense and used every device at their command to do so including the manipulation, bribery and intimidation of Iroquois leaders.

Among those who signed land cession deals were Joseph Brant, John Deseronto, Skenandoa, Red Jacket, Handsome Lake, Cornplanter and Fish Carrier.

The Iroquois were under crushing pressures after the Revolution. New York had systematically parceled out Native lands before the war was concluded by the 1783 Treaty of Paris and made it clear that any attempt by the Iroquois to expel the thousands of settlers invading Native territory would be met with force.

Other factors in the land sales included the use of alcohol during negotiations so some of those who affixed their marks to these “treaties” were drunk. Others such as Brant took bribes and payoffs while some, like Louis Cook of Akwesasne, were given lucrative concessions to assess road tolls or fees for river ferries.

No Iroquois nation or community was immune from these tactics which makes the Canandaigua treaty remarkable for it is the singular instance when the Confederacy acted in concert to protect what they had left and to insure their exclusive jurisdiction over our remaining lands.

A drive through New York State today is a painful reminder to the Iroquois of what we have lost. Counties, towns, parks and schools are named in “honor” of those who would, under current laws, face criminal charges for the blatant manner in which they bribed officials to secure their land purchase options.

We have to endure this shame whenever we pass through Schuyler Falls, Cazenovia, Deansboro, Dewitt, Ogdensburg, Morrisville, Kirkland, Scriba, Plattsburgh or Phelps. It is as if the mapmakers and politicians of that time were determined to elevate greed, obscure our presence and create the myth that these “entrepreneurs” deserved to have a permanent legacy as founders of the “empire state”.

Given this perversion of history it should come as no surprise that the current administration in Albany has elected to adopt the same tactics in dealing with Native people.

Confrontation, misinformation, intimidation and bribery are used today just as they were seven generations ago. Now the state wants us to surrender the last shreds of our aboriginal sovereignty for gambling compacts which it uses as bait to have us compromise on our land claims. When that does not work the state creates and empowers its own Iroquois puppets to foster internal divisions and place our lands in federal “trust” which amounts to the death of our independence.

By rallying around Canandaigua we can tell New York State we will not stand by and allow this most important of treaties to be broken. By marching in support of Canandaigua we affirm our freedom, our independence and our exemption from New York jurisdiction.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He is the author of "Iroquois on Fire" and a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian.