The last speech of Deskaheh

Levi General was selected in 1917 to fill one of the positions on the traditional Cayuga council and given the ancient title name of Deskaheh. After WWI, he journeyed to the League of Nations in Geneva to file the grievances of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people. The following is the text of his last speech.

Excerpted from “Basic Call to Consciousness”, pp. 25-33, edited by Akwesasne Notes.

(On the evening of March 10, 1925, suffering from a serious attack of pleurisy and pneumonia, he made his last speech. It was before a radio microphone in Rochester. Once more, and more forcefully than ever, he hurled defiance at big nations who disregard the claims of smaller peoples.)

“Nearly everyone who is listening to me is a pale face, I suppose. I am not. My skin is not red but that is what my people are called by others. My skin is brown, light brown, but our cheeks have a little flush and that is why we are called red skins. We don’t mind that. There is no difference between us, under the skins, that any expert with a carving knife has ever discovered.

My home is on the Grand River. Until we sold off a large part, our country extended down to Lake Erie, where, 140 winters ago, we had a little sea-shore of our own and a birch-bark navy.

You would call it Canada. We do not. We call the little ten-miles square we have left the “Grand River Country.” We have the right to do that. It is ours. We have the written pledge of George III that we should have it forever as against him or his successors and he promised to protect us in it.

We didn’t think we would ever live long enough to find that a British promise was not good. An enemy’s foot is on our country, and George V knows it for I told him so, but he will not lift his finger to protect us nor will any of his ministers. One who would take away our rights is, of course, our enemy.

Do you think that any government should stop to consider whether any selfish end is to be gained or lost in the keeping of its word?

In some respects, we are just like you. We like to tell our troubles. You do that. You told us you were in great trouble a few winters ago because a great big giant with a big stick was after you. We helped you whip him. Many of our young men volunteered and many gave their lives for you. You were very willing to let them fight in the front ranks in France. Now we want to tell our troubles to you.

I do not mean that we are calling on your governments – we are tired of calling on the governments of pale-faced peoples in America and in Europe. We have tried that and found it was no use. They deal only in fine words – we want something more than that. We want justice from now on. After all that has happened to us, that is not too much to ask. You got half of your territory here by warfare upon redmen, usually unprovoked, and you got about a quarter of it by bribing their chiefs, and not over a quarter of it did you get openly and fairly. You might have gotten a good share of it by fair means if you had tried.

You young people of the United States may not believe what I am saying. Do not take my word, but read your history. A good deal of true history about that has got into print now. We have a little territory left – just enough to live and lie on. Don’t you think your government ought to be ashamed to take that away from us by pretending it is part of theirs?

You ought to be ashamed if you let them. Before it is all gone, we mean to let you know what your governments are doing. If you are a free people you can have your own way. The governments at Washington and Ottawa have a silent partnership of policy. It is aimed to break up every tribe of Redmen so as to dominate every acre of their territory. Your high officials are the nomads today – not the Red People. Your officials won’t stay home.

Over in Ottawa, they call that Policy “Indian Advancement.” Over in Washington, they call it “Assimilation.” We who would be the helpless victims say it is tyranny.

If this must go on to the bitter end, we would rather that you come with your guns and poison gases and get rid of us that way. Do it openly and above the board. Do away with the pretense that you have the right to subjugate us to your will. Your governments do that by enforcing your alien laws upon us. That is an underhanded way. They can subjugate us if they will through the use of your law courts. But how would you like to be dragged down to Mexico, to be tried by Mexicans and jailed under Mexican law for what you did at home?

We want none of your laws and customs that we have not willingly adopted for ourselves. We have adopted many. You have adopted some of ours – votes for women, for instance. We are as well behaved as you and you would think so if you knew us better.

We would be happier today, if left alone, than you who would call yourselves Canadians and Americans. We have no jails and do not need them. You have many jails, but do they hold all the criminals you convict? And do you convict or prosecute all your violators of the thousands of laws you have?

Your governments have lately resorted to new practices in their Indian policies. In the old days, they often bribed our chiefs to sign treaties to get our lands. Now they know that our remaining territory can easily be gotten from us by first taking our political rights away in forcing us into your citizenship, so they give jobs in their Indian offices to the bright young people among us who will take them and who, to earn their pay, say that our people wish to become citizens with you and that we are ready to have our tribal life destroyed and want your governments to do it. But that is not true.

Your governments of today learned that method from the British. The British have long practiced it on weaker peoples in carrying out their policy of subjugating the world, if they can, to British Imperialism. Under cover of it, your lawmakers now assume to govern other peoples too weak to resist your courts. There is no three-mile limits or twelve-mile limits to strong governments who wish to do that.

About three winters ago, the Canadian Government set out to take mortgages on farms of our returned soldiers to secure loans made to them intending to use Canadian courts to enforce these mortgages in the name of Canadian authority within our country. When Ottawa tried that, our people resented it. We knew that would mean the end of our government. Because we did so, the Canadian Government began to enforce all sorts of Dominion and Provincial laws over us and quartered armed men among us to enforce Canadian laws and customs upon us. We appealed to Ottawa in the name of our right as a separate people and by right of our treaties, and the door was closed in our faces. We then went to London with our treaty and asked for the protection it promised and got no attention. Then we went to the League of Nations at Geneva with its covenant to protect little peoples and to enforce respect for treaties by its members and we spent a whole year patiently waiting but got no hearing.

To punish us for trying to preserve our rights, the Canadian Government has now pretended to abolish our government by Royal Proclamation, and has pretended to set up a Canadian made government over us, composed of the few traitors among us who are willing to accept pay from Ottawa and do its bidding. Finally, Ottawa officials, under pretense of a friendly visit, asked to inspect our precious wampum belts, made by our Fathers centuries ago as records of our history, and when shown to them, these false-faced officials seized and carried away those belts as bandits take away your precious belongings. The only difference was that our aged wampum-keeper did not put up his hands — our hands go up only when we address the Great Spirit. Yours go up, I hear, only when some one of you is going through the pockets of his own white brother. According to your newspapers, they are up now a good deal of the time.

The Ottawa government thought that with no wampum belts to read in the opening of our Six Nations Councils, we would give up our home rule and self-government, the victims of superstition. Any superstition of which the Grand River People have been victims are not in reverence for wampum belts, but in their trust in the honor of governments who boast of a higher civilization.

We entrusted the British, long ago, with large sums of our money to care for when we ceded back parts of their territory. They took $140,000 of that money seventy-five winters ago to use for their own selfish ends, and we have never been able to get it back.

Your Government of the United States, I hear, has just decided to take away the political liberties of all the redmen you promised to protect forever, by passing such a law through your Congress in defiance of the Treaties made by George Washington. That law, of course, would mean the breaking up of the tribes if enforced. Our people would rather be deprived of their money than their political liberties — so would you.

I suppose some of you never heard of my people before and that many of you, if you ever did, supposed that we were all long gone to our Happy Hunting Grounds. NO!! There are as many of us as there were a thousand winters ago. There are more of us than there used to be and that makes a great difference in the respect we get from your governments.

I ask you a question or two. Do not hurry with your answers. Do you believe — really believe — that all peoples are entitled to equal protection of international law now that you are so strong? Do you believe — really believe — that treaty pledges should be kept? Think these questions over and answer them to yourselves.

We are not as dependent in some ways as we were in the early days. We do not need interpreters now. We know your language and can understand your words for ourselves and we have learned to decide for ourselves what is good for us. It is bad for any people to take the advice of an alien people as to that.

You Mothers, I hear, have a good deal to say about your government. Our Mothers have always had a hand in ours. Maybe you can do something to help us now. If you white mothers are hard-hearted and will not, perhaps you boys and girls who are listening and who have loved to read stories about our people — the true ones, I mean — will help us when you grow up if there are any of us left then to be helped.

If you are bound to treat us as though we were citizens under your government, then those of your people who are land-hungry will get our farms away from us by hooks and crooks under your property laws and in your courts that we do not understand and do not wish to learn. We would then be homeless and have to drift into your big cities to work for wages, to buy bread, and have to pay rent, as you call it, to live on this earth and to live in little rooms in which we would suffocate. We would then be scattered and lost to each other and lost among so many of you. Our boys and girls would then have to intermarry with you, or not at all. If consumption (tuberculosis) took us off or if we brought no children into the world, or our children mixed with the ocean of your blood, then there would be no Iroquois left. So boys and girls, if you grow up and claim the right to live together and govern yourselves — and you ought to — and if you do not concede the same right to other peoples — and you will be strong enough to have your own way — you will be tyrants, won’t you? If you do not like that word, use a better one, if you can find one, but don’t deceive yourselves by the word you use.

Boys, you respect your fathers because they are members of a free people and have a voice in the government over them and because they helped to make it and made it for themselves and will hand it down to you. If you knew that your fathers had nothing to do with the government they are under, but were mere subjects of other men’s wills, you could not look up to them and they could not look you in the face. They would not be real men then. Neither would we.

The Fathers among our people our people have been real men. They cry out now against the injustice of being treated as something else and being called incompetents who must be governed by another people — which means the people who think that way about them.

Boys — think this over. Do it before your minds lose the power to grasp the idea that there are other peoples in this world beside your own and with an equal right to be here. You see that a people as strong as yours is a great danger to other peoples near you. Already your will comes pretty near to being law in this world where no one can whip you. Think then what it will mean if you grow up with a will to be unjust to other peoples, to believe that whatever your government does to other peoples is no crime, however wicked. I hope the Irish Americans hear that and will think about it — they used to when that shoe pinched their foot.

This is the story of the Mohawks, the story of the Oneidas, of the Cayugas — I am a Cayuga, of the Onondagas, the Senecas, and the Tuscaroras. They are the Iroquois. Tell it to those who have not been listening. Maybe I will be stopped from telling it. But if I am prevented from telling it over, as I hope to do, the story will not be lost. I have already told it to thousands of listeners in Europe — it has gone into the records where your children can find it when I may be dead or be in jail for daring to tell the truth. I have told this story in Switzerland — they have free speech in little Switzerland. One can tell the truth over there in public, even if it is uncomfortable for some great people.

This story comes straight from Deskaheh, one of the chiefs of the Cayugas. I am the speaker of the Council of the Six Nations, the oldest League of Nations now existing. It was founded by Hiawatha. It is a League which is still alive and intends, as best it can, to defend the rights of the Iroquois to live under their own laws in their own little countries now left to them, to worship their Great Spirit in their own way, and to enjoy the rights which are as surely theirs as the white man’s rights are his own.

If you think the Iroquois are being wronged, write letters from Canada to your ministers of Parliament, and from the United States to your Congressmen and tell them so. They will listen to you for you elect them. If they are against us, ask them to tell you when and how they got the right to govern people who have no part in your government and do not live in your country but live in their own. They can’t tell you that.

One word more so that you will be sure to remember our people. If it had not been for them, you would not be here. If, one hundred and sixty-six winters ago, our warriors had not helped the British at Quebec, Quebec would not have fallen to the British. The French would then have driven your English-speaking forefathers out of this land, bag and baggage. Then it would have been a French-speaking people here today, not you. That part of your history cannot be blotted out by the stealing of our wampum belts in which that is recorded.

I could tell you much more about our people, and I may some other time, if you would like to have me.


One by one, Deskaheh told of the agreements solemnly made on the sworn good faith of each of the two big governments that had guaranteed the Indian his own land, fair treatment, independence.

Sick, fever-ridden, despairing, Deskaheh raised his voice to speak his last proud message.

The next morning, Deskaheh was in a Rochester hospital. Eight weeks later he knew he was dying, and asked to be taken back to Clinton Rickard’s home on the Tuscarora Reservation.

While he made ready for his journey along the Milky Way to the Spirit World, his brother, wife and children tried to cross the border at Niagara Falls to be with him, and were refused permission to do so.

On June 27, 1925, alone and with his eyes set toward the Six Nations Land he had tried to serve, he died.

White Americans and white Canadians have done little to keep the story of Deskaheh alive. Few have seen the small stone that marks his grave in the burial grounds of the Cayuga Longhouse. Fewer still care to remember his words. They make the white man uncomfortable because they bear so emphatically on contemporary thinking about the native people, on proposed laws in the legislative bodies of the states and the nations that would still, despite their agreements to (in Deskaheh’s words) “protect little peoples and to enforce respect for treaties,” regard Indians as incompetents to be governed for their own good by wiser neighbors.

But the Iroquois remember. And when they speak of Deskaheh, the white men who know his story grow troubled, wondering if they and their governments could by some unlikely chance have dealt unjustly with a great man.”

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