Coming to the Cross-Roads

The United States forms one element of a broader and more abstract polity known as America. While the term, America, has been appropriated to identify the most powerful country in Americas, the word should be reclaimed so that it applies equally to all citizens of the Western Hemisphere. The idea of America remains as elastic and as subject to revision as ever. Throughout much of its history America has been seen by many beyond its shores as a symbol of hope, as a promised land for those yearning to breath free? But what is to be made of the experience of the Indigenous peoples who were pushed aside or eliminated to make room for wave after wave of immigrants? Will freedom for some in America continue to be purchased at the expense of others? Will America look outward to the world with confident humility or is the idea of America to be henceforth associated with the corrosive xenophobia that brands all those who do not conform to imposed norms as deviants and possible terrorists?

A striking icon embodying some of the key choices to be made in the ongoing process of inventing America is the Six Nations protest camp set up in 2006 on the site of a suburban real estate project. The site’s developers, Henco Industries, named their luxury housing project Douglas Creek Estates. This development at Calendonia near Hamilton Ontario was to have been identical to many thousands of others of its type that proliferate around towns and cities all over North America. The contested development lies just outside the Six Nations Iroquois Reserve but well within the territory six miles on either side of the Grand River that was transferred by the British imperial government to the King’s most loyal Indian allies during the American Revolution. The transfer took place in 1784 to compensate its recipients for the loss of their Longhouse League’s heartland. Without Indian consent the British government transferred title to the US government of the Six Nations’ Longhouse territory in what is now upper New York state. To compensate the Six Nations for what they had lost, Sir Frederick Haldimand, the top military commander in what remained of British imperial Canada, gave them the Grand River Valley north of Lake Erie. The resulting Haldimand Deed is especially clear, succinct and unequivocal. It can be cited in full.

Whereas His Majesty having been pleased to direct that in consideration of the early attachment to his cause manifested by the Mohawk Indians, and of the loss of their settlement which they thereby sustained– that a convenient tract of land under his protection should be chosen as a safe and comfortable retreat for them and others of the Six Nations, who have either lost their settlements within the Territory of the American States, or wish to retire from them to the British — I have at the earnest desire of many of these His Majesty’s faithful Allies purchased a tract of land from the Indians situated between the Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron and I do hereby in His Majesty’s name authorize and permit the said Mohawk Nation and such others of the Six Nation Indians as wish to settle in that quarter to take possession of and settle upon the Banks of the River commonly called Ours [Ouse] or Grand River, running into Lake Erie, allotting to them for that purpose six miles deep from each side of the river beginning at Lake Erie and extending in that proportion to the head of the said river, which them and their posterity are to enjoy for ever.i

Throughout the nineteenth century the Six Nation settlers in the Grand River Valley were stripped of much of their lands through the usual array of unsavory and possibly illegal tactics. They were left with a reserve embodying only a small percentage of the territories transferred to them in the Haldimand Deed. The Six Nations community is the midst of Ontario’s urban and industrial heartland. The community’s rich heritage of treaty making forms one part of the history that makes Ontario the North American jurisdiction with the most diverse array of treaty agreements with Indigenous peoples. The Six Nations community is the most heavily populated reserve in Canada, with slightly more than twenty thousand inhabitants. It has many Indian-run businesses, including a radio station and Grand River Enterprises, a cigarette manufacturing enterprise that exports its products globally. This tobacco company pays its full share of taxes to the provincial and federal governments. Many of the men in the community have worked as high steel workers, a Mohawk specialty it seems. The Six Nations reserve is almost certainly the world’s main nurturing ground for lacrosse players, an ancient Aboriginal game that for a time was Canada’s national sport.

The Six Nations community is by no means a place of poverty and destitution, as are, tragically, many hundreds of other Indian reserves and reservations throughout Canada and the United States. Nevertheless Six Nations citizens continue to be faced with constant pressures to give ground to the non-Indian society pressing in around them. In 2006 a group of concerned individuals took action in an attempt to prevent yet another round of dispossession. They set up their camp on the Douglas Creek Estates construction site in order to call attention to the continuing injustices they face as well as the unbroken force of the Haldimand Deed. They attempted to organize their protest in ways that reflected the structures of their clan system at the basis of their traditional Longhouse League. Until 1924 the Longhouse Council, the decision making body of the Longhouse League, was recognized by Canadian officialdom as the functioning government of the Six Nations community. Then the Longhouse Council was forcefully removed from the community’s seat of government by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The Mounties acted on the orders of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. King’s decision to terminate the governing role of the Longhouse Council came in response to the embarrassment inflicted on the Canadian government by Levi General, also known as Deskahe. Deskahe had been sent to Europe by his Longhouse sponsors in order to inform the member governments of the League of Nations in Geneva that the Canadian government was not living up to the terms of treaties made in the course of Great Britain’s colonization of North America. Prime Minister King ordered that the Longhouse system must be replaced by the regime of Indian rule created by federal legislation known as the Indian Act. In those years the Indian Act was amended and administered in an especially repressive way with a particularly close eye to preventing Indians in British Columbia from bringing forward any legal case involving assertions of their Aboriginal title.

Earlier in his career Mackenzie King worked for the Rockefeller oil conglomerate in New York giving his employer advice on how to undermine and co-opt trade unions in the era leading up to the so-called Red Scare. King’s assault in 1924 on a significant living embodiment of the long history of treaty alliances between the Six Nations Longhouse government and the makers of British North America was entirely consistent with this Canadian prime minister’s more general tendency to nudge Canada away from its constitutional moorings in the British Empire. As his employment history with the Rockefellers would suggest, King was inclined to favour Canada’s deeper integration into the informal commercial, political and cultural empire of the United States.

The role of the Longhouse League changed significantly after 1924 when it continued a sort of underground existence as a religious institution frequented by the more conservative members of community.ii The reality that a substantial number Six Nations people continue to see the Longhouse League and its attending Great Law, the Kaianerekowa, as the legitimate source and expression of their own unbroken sovereignty became increasingly clear in the second half of the twentieth century. This attitude was displayed in 1959, for instance, when a group of traditionalists tried to take back control of the Ohswegan Council House, the building where the Longhouse Council had conducted its meetings until 1924.iii This same tenacity was displayed in the mid-1970s when the Mohawk Warriors Society tried to express the sovereign character of the Longhouse League’s Great Law by asserting jurisdiction over a territory in upper New York state known as Ganienkeh. This heritage of the Longhouse League’s most militant branch was renewed in 1990 when a dispute over the expansion a golf course at Oka Quebec exploded into an armed standoff between the self-declared Mohawk Warriors and about 4,000 Canadian soldiers.iv

This history helped inform the actions initiated by Janie Jamieson and Dawn Smith, two Six Nations women in their early twenties. They began the process of mobilizing their clan mothers and other Longhouse adherents who wanted to express their opposition to the building of the nearby real estate development. In spite of Smith’s and Jamieson’s decision to eschew violence and to employ peaceful ways of making their case, the Indian stand generated serious outbursts of anger, fear and dismay in the local non-Indian population. Many of the non-Indians organized politically and empowered their own leaders to make impassioned pleas calling on the Ontario government and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to enforce the law and remove the protestors. The developers sought and obtained an injunction from a local court, the OPP made various shows of force, but season after season the protestors persisted. They refused to be bullied or intimidated into leaving the base they had established at Douglas Creek Estates.

Little by little the depth of the protestors’ case preempted the mass of glib condemnations pointed their way. Who could disagree that the laws should be enforced? But what was the substance of the law in the Grand River Valley? Is not the Haldimand Deed part of the rule of law that the police are professionally obligated to enforce? What is the status of this important legal instrument embedded into the proprietary structure of Canada at the crucial moment when its governors had to adapt to the establishment of the United States of America? The Indian stand at the Douglas Creek Estates began to force these deeper issues upward towards the light of day. Underlying much of the Ontario government’s uncertain reaction was a genuine desire on the part of its leaders not to create the basis of a scandal similar to the one that had grown from an investigation into the killing of an unarmed Ojibway protestor, Dudley George. An OPP officer shot George during an Ojibway demonstration in 1995 involving the status of an Indian burial ground.v

The Six Nations stand led to negotiations with the governments of Ontario and Canada on the future of the contested lands. Significantly the Six Nations side of the process is being led not by officials whose positions are derived from the Canadian Indian Act but by a council of elders who assert their identity as the contemporary extension of the Longhouse Council that was displaced from its governing role by Canadian authorities in 1924. With good faith on all sides, these negotiations hold the potential for enlightened compromise. Such a compromise would have to recognize the continuing legal status of the Haldimand Deed and the Longhouse government even as it would have to recognize concurrently the legitimacy of the kind of land tenures and jurisdictional regimes that developed throughout the Grand River Valley during the centuries since Joseph Brant first led his people across the Great Lakes to plant a new white pine of Such a compromise might be expressed in the sharing of local tax revenues as well as the responsibility to provide government services to the all the citizens of the Grand River Valley. Such compromises would require sufficient changes to give Six Nations citizens who do not adhere to the spiritual dimension of Longhouse traditions sufficient confidence that their own rights of religious freedom will be respected by their own representatives. Similarly some specific adjustments might be required to acknowledge the special role of the Mohawks as referred to in the Haldimand Deed without undermining the egalitarian character of a multinational federation that has long made the civics of the Longhouse League and its Great Law the subject of much respectful international investigation and scholarship.

A contemporary treaty to make the Grand River lands the site of a new prototype of intercultural cooperation and combined jurisdiction could serve as a beacon in a world hungry for some signals of enlightened good sense in the sharing of Earth’s abundance. Such an innovation might qualify as being both original as well as a conservative restoration of the ingenuity displayed in the making of both the Longhouse federation and its extension in the Covent Chain of treaty relations allying the Iroquoian nations with New York colony and the some of the other Anglo-American jurisdictions. Here is a chance to build on the heritage of the teachings of the Peacemaker and Hiawatha, on the Royal Proclamation’s prohibition on empire building through conquest, on the Indian New Deal’s embrace of community building, and on the Atlantic Charter’s promise to advance the rule of law as the basis of collective security in the international community. Here is a chance to move towards the Fourth World and away from the American Empire. If it proves impossible to apply the principles of treaty federalism even in North America’s Grand River Valley, what chance is there to find acceptable compromises between antagonists in many other parts of the world where sovereignty, jurisdiction and ownership of natural resources are contested– in relations, for instance, between Russia and some of the Soviet Union’s former republics, between ethnic groups and nation-states in Africa, between India and Pakistan, and between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people.


 Charles M. Johnson, ed., The Valley of the Six Nations (Toronto: The Champlain Society and the University of Toronto Press, 1964), 50-51

ii Annemarie Anrod Shimony, Conservatism Among the Iroquois at Six Nations Reserve (Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press, 1994)

iii Ella Cork, “The Worst of the Bargain” Concerning the Dilemmas Inherited from their Forefathers along with the Lands by the Iroquois Nation of the Canadian Grand River Reserve (San Jacinto California: Foundation for Social Research, 1962)

iv Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera, People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka (Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1991)

v Peter Edwards, One Dead Indian: The Premier, the Police and the Ipperwash Crisis (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2003)

vi Isabel Kelsay, Joseph Brant, 1743-1807, Man of Two Worlds (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986)

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