Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Deepest Roots of the Six Nations Sovereignty Debate

The perception by most Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) in Canada (e.g., Six Nations of Haldimand and Brant Counties, Ontario) and the United States (e.g., Onondaga of Syracuse, NY area) is that they are a sovereign people.  This means that they should have their own passports and representatives at the League of Nations (now United Nations).  The debate is long standing, and often acrimonious when descendants of the Six Nations must come to terms with a wall of facts that do not support their interpretation of events.


The earliest purported evidence of a "sovereignty agreement" dates to 1613, and is composed of three items - each of which underpin the concept of sovereignty that exists to this day.  There is the Two Row Wampum (Kaswentha), the Tawagonshi Treaty, and Haudenosaunee oral tradition relating to agreements between the Dutch and the Mohawk.  While I have addressed this matter in earlier postings, a summary will help here as the Two Row Wampum is intimately intertwined with the more formal Covenant Chain agreement with the British Colonies in 1677.  It should be noted that whatever version of the truth one wishes to accept, the British Crown took New Netherlands from the Dutch in 1664 by conquest and established their own administration.  At that point any agreements that had been made with the Dutch, formal or informal (the latter applying to the supposed 1613 agreement) were terminated and would need to be renegotiated.  This is particularly so because the 1613 document, even if it was valid, was only between Dutch Colonists and the Mohawk - the Dutch Crown was not involved.

I discussed the Two Row Wampum in a previous posting (see here), and an entire issue of  the 2013 "Journal of Early American History" (see here) was devoted to this subject.  In summary, the use of the Two Row Wampum cannot in any way be construed as supporting Haudenosaunee sovereignty.  This will not stop "believers" from perpetuating their viewpoint in public forums where the solemnity and conviction of the speakers will continue to convince the audience of the validity of the claim.  Just the way it is.  The fact that the Crown neither ratified nor recognized the Two Row Wampum, including the Tawagonshi Treaty, is what is most important.


However there is a second, related, concept that is trotted out to bolster the Two Row Wampum.  Here in 1677 the British did indeed establish a "Covenant Chain" between them and the Mohawk (to later include the Five then Six Nations) that symbolized their relationship.  At this time there were two groups who recognized agreements between sovereign parties - but these are European powers, in this case the British and French (the English Crown and the French Crown).  Never was there any concept in England of a sovereign Native America, or a sovereign Five Nations.  The latter were subjects of the Crown.  The British as well as the French instituted various agreements and treaties between themselves and those of their subjects who were their military allies, generally mutual aid agreements.  There was never any illusion of equality, the arrangements were made with "our Great Father the King" and other such expressions clearly indicating that the Crown retained suzerainty over all the proceedings, and over all of the lands which they claimed for the King - including the lands occupied by the Five Nations.  The Two Row Wampum and the Covenant Chain are conflated by some authors, as seen here.

The Covenant Chain was conceptualized as an agreement between the peoples of the British Colonies and the Five Nations whereby the British wished to ensure peace, the support of the Five Nations against the French, and trade.  A good general article on the Covenant Chain can be found here.  Thus the treaties beginning in 1676 and 1677 were between for example the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and New York; and the Mohawk or the Five Nations.  The metaphor used was a linked chain connecting the British ships in the harbour of New York and the Great Tree of Peace near the Onondaga Council Fire and Longhouse.  The links were conceived as being made of silver (although iron was sometimes brought into the picture along with rust), which needed to be "brightened" from time to time (e.g., yearly).  This was usually done via a meeting where copious "presents" were distributed to the Five Nations Chiefs - then all was well.  On one occasion however, in 1753, the chain was broken by a very frustrated Mohawk Chief Henry Peters Thoyanguen.  This created quite a stir and Colonial officials did all in their power to repair the chain and renew the friendship.  Damage control was attempted by the Colonies at the Albany Conference of 1754 where every Six Nations individual of any consequence attended.  Nothing was really settled however until Sir William Johnson took the reins of the British Indian Department (reporting to the Crown), and his diplomacy skills, along with family connections to the Mohawk (via children from liaisons with a number of Mohawk women, the most notable being Molly Brant), were able to re-establish the Covenant Chain, with the metaphor being of attached to "immovable mountains", and let the Six Nations know that he intended to brighten and strengthen the Covenant Chain of friendship (by a liberal distribution of presents).

There is nothing in the concept of the Covenant Chain that can in any realistic way be interpreted as being a successor to the Two Row Wampum, and an agreement between two sovereign peoples.  The British Crown did not recognize sovereignty within its realms, or sovereign subjects.  The Crown claimed all of North America between the French and the Spanish possessions.  There was no room for sovereignty involving those who were regarded as subjects in the same way as the Colonists were subjects - although the specifics of the relationship was obviously different. 

To this day, despite the insurmountable evidence, the Six Nations see themselves as a sovereign people, but are no more so than the descendants of the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and early Celtic Britons are sovereign peoples within England.  This is not even an idea that can be adequately conceptualized in this day and age, any more than Six Nations sovereignty can be envisaged in this day and age.  That will not deter those determined to put forward this agenda in any way and any where they can.  In reading the above Wikipedia reference for the Covenant Chain, here follows the very last paragraph in an otherwise objective and referenced account:

In June 2010, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain renewed the Covenant Chain Treaties by presenting 8 silver hand bells each to Band Chiefs from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and Six Nations of the Grand River in commemoration of 300 years of the Covenant Chain. The bells were inscribed "300 Years" + "of Peace and Friendship" (which was a common term often used throughout history when the Chain was renewed). This marks the most modern renewal of the Covenant Chain Treaties between the Haudenosaunee and the Crown of Canada and provides a legal basis recognition of Haudenosaunee sovereignty and international trade between the 2 nations.

Here it is evident that someone with an agenda did an unreviewed edit.  There is no reference given here and the statements do not meet the standards expected of a Wikipedia article.  So wherever we turn, we will continue to see false claims of sovereignty with evidence that only the naive would accept - but that is sufficient to keep the issue in the public eye and meet the political agenda.


The present author maintains that these sovereignty matters will simply never go away, they will always resurface as long as the Indian Act of 1876 and successors are in force.  The goverment of the day does not want to create civil disobedience by telling the truth, and laying out the facts, so will attempt to come to some accommodation that will ensure that the Crown never relinquishes that which is its natural right.  It is the Courts that will ultimately decide the issues of sovereighty.  The terms sovereignty, self determination, inherent rights are really those which reference to historical fact, and legal presedence, can settle.  The bottom line is that the Crown is sovereign across the length and breadth of Canada, but that "arrangements" can be made to accommodate Native self governance withinCrown sovereignty the framework of .  A recent article (Peach, 2011, see here) provides a good perspective on matters as they stand to date, written by a law professor who appears to be well versed in the subject.


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