Scholars in Residence hope to find truth in historical documents

February 24, 2021 by Nicole Bergot

In 1924 the spokesperson for the Six Nations council wanted to bring international attention to the plight of his people. Cayuga Chief Levi General requested to speak at the League of Nations about Canada’s actions against the sovereignty of the Grand River Haudenosaunee. He was not allowed to speak at the international forum, however, and the Canadian federal government staged a hostile takeover of the government at Grand River, confiscating important items from the traditional council. Relatives of Chief Levi General hid his letters and personal writings, and they have remained out of public view ever since. Now, Kevin White, assistant professor in the Department for the Study of Religion and Susan Hill, director of the Centre for Indigenous Studies, are leading a Jackman Humanities Scholar in Residence Program to transcribe these historically important papers. 

White and Hill spoke with the Department for the Study of Religion about the project and its significance.

Tell me about the focus of this Scholar in Residence project

SH: Working with a number of Haudenosaunee scholars, student RAs will look at and transcribe historical primary source documents that are currently housed at Deyohaha:ge Indigenous Knowledge Centre in Six Nations of the Grand River. The textual documents are mostly related to the work and the historic impact of the late Cayuga Chief Levi General. Many of these documents are not part of the larger archival record outside of the community, and most people in the community have not ever seen or had access to them. So it's really exciting to have this opportunity to interact with these documents. 

Who is Cayuga Chief Levi General? 

KW: Cayuga Chief Levi General is a significant figure that, outside of the field of Indigenous studies, is relatively unknown. In 1924, he attempted to speak at the League of Nations in order to gain recognition for the Six Nations, by seeking international review of Canada’s actions against the sovereignty of the Grand River Haudenosaunee. Today, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recognizes him as the first Indigenous person to seek recognition at the International Forum, and he is recognized by folks who do that work today around the world. The average Canadian, however, knows little about him. 

What is it about him that makes him an exciting historical subject?  

SH: Cayuga Chief Levi General brought a domestic issue within Canada to the international stage. At first he went to England to try to get the Crown to recognize their treaty obligations. The feedback he received was that this was a domestic matter, and it was up to Canada to address it; the Crown wasn't going to get involved. And that's why he then chose to escalate it to the League of Nations. 

It was such a radical action, I'm sure, at that time.  

SH: Right. And England and Canada stopped him. They would not agree to allow him to speak to the League of Nations. As a result of that action, Ottawa made it illegal for First Nations to hire lawyers. People could be fined and removed from their communities for trying to hire a lawyer without the permission of the Indian Department. That was a law until 1951. 

So there is a whole body of writings and records from Cayuga Chief Levi General that this project will examine. Why have these documents been inaccessible? 

SH: Shortly after he first started his work in the international arena, there was, what could be described as, a hostile takeover of the government at Grand River. The Canadian federal government enforced provisions of the Indian Act that imposed an elected system of government. They sidestepped the authority of the traditional government, for which Cayuga Chief Levi General was the lead spokesperson. On behalf of the federal government, the Northwest Mounted Police, now known as the RCMP, searched for documents and other aspects of material culture, confiscating items that were used by the traditional council. Because of that, many family members and other community people who had these documents went underground.  A lot of material related to his work, and to the work of the Confederacy Council, went into hiding. There was great concern, and good reason to be concerned, that if the documents fell into the hands of the Canadian government it would be destroyed, and the community would no longer have access to that information. As a result, a lot of these materials are not widely known, and they are often held by members of the family or by family members of the leadership at the time.  

KW: And that is what I think is one of the most important parts of this project; people in the community will get to see with their own eyes what these documents are, what they say, and what it was that he was trying to do with his work. It's about returning that information to the community, so community members can make up their own minds. This is exactly what Cayuga Chief Levi General was advocating, that we have these documents. It is knowledge that shows that we have a right to chart our own history and path.  

SH: The vast majority of the documents are letters, at least of the ones that we have seen so far. There will undoubtedly be other materials as well, but a lot of it will be correspondence between Levi general and his lawyers, and different government officials, including folks connected to the League of Nations.  

Do you have any inklings that there may be some surprising items that you'll discover? 

SH: Something the community has a lot of questions about is what went on behind the scenes in terms of the Canadian government's work to disenfranchise the traditional government at Grand River? What things were done to try to discredit Levi General as a means of furthering Canada's plans to take over the community? 

What do you think the outcome will be once these materials are made public and are made accessible to the community? 

SH: One thing I know for sure is that the community will feel better informed about how things got to be where they are. Certainly I see giving people the information they haven't had access to before as a kind of historical empowerment.  

It's not about making Canada look bad, it's about trying to uncover the legacy that exists because of these actions of the past. Canada talks a lot about reconciliation, but you can't actually reconcile until you have truth.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on bringing forward the truth. In that context it was about residential schools. But it speaks to a broader approach. You can't actually repair the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state if you don't have all the information about what transpired.  

KW:  It’s interesting to look at what is said, versus what is done, behind closed doors, and in secret. That is where it will raise the awareness for our community and Indigenous communities around the world.  

Who are you looking for to make up your Scholars in Residence team? 

SH: We're looking for people who like to read because they're going to have to do a lot of reading! We are also looking for students who are intrigued by the mysteries of the past, who want to be proactive partners in finding information, and helping to disseminate that.  


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