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Chief Deskaheh, First Indigenous Person Brings His Case to International Arena

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Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh’s 100th anniversary in Geneva commemorates his 1923 speech defending people’s rights to their own laws, land, and faith.

Image of Deskaheh from The Graphic (a newspaper), 1922. (courtesy Wikimedia CC)

Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh was a remarkable leader who sought to protect the sovereignty and rights of his people in the face of colonial oppression. He was the first Indigenous person to bring his case to the international arena, and he inspired generations of Indigenous activists and advocates around the world.

Deskaheh was a proud leader of the Cayuga nation, one of the six nations that formed the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. He was chosen by his people to be their speaker and representative in the world. He had a vision of peace and justice for his people, who had suffered from the encroachment and oppression of the Canadian government.

Deskaheh knew that the Haudenosaunee had a treaty with the British Crown, which recognized their sovereignty and land rights. He also knew that the League of Nations, a new organization that was formed after the First World War, had the power to uphold international law and protect the rights of nations. He decided to take his case to the League of Nations, hoping to find allies and support for his cause.

He hired a lawyer named George Decker, who advised him to get a passport from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, since the Canadian government would not issue him one. He also prepared a document called “The Red Man’s Appeal for Justice”, which outlined the history and grievances of his people.

In August 1921, Deskaheh and Decker sailed from New York to London, where they hoped to meet with British officials and present their petition. However, they were met with indifference and hostility. The British government refused to acknowledge Deskaheh as a diplomatic envoy, and told him to deal with the Canadian government instead. Deskaheh was disappointed, but not discouraged. He decided to appeal directly to the public opinion. He gave speeches at various venues, such as the Hippodrome1, where he appeared in his traditional regalia. He also distributed pamphlets and leaflets to raise awareness about his cause.

Deskaheh soon gained the attention and sympathy of some influential people, such as Lord Robert Cecil, a former British foreign minister and a supporter of the League of Nations. Cecil helped Deskaheh to get in touch with the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Herman van Karnebeek, who agreed to sponsor his petition to the League of Nations. Deskaheh also received support from the Swiss Bureau International pour la Défense des Indigènes, an organization that advocated for the rights of indigenous peoples.

In 1922, Deskaheh and Decker returned to New York, where they waited for an opportunity to go to Geneva, where the League of Nations was based. They also kept in contact with their supporters in Europe, who urged them to come as soon as possible.

In 1923, Deskaheh received an invitation from van Karnebeek to attend a meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva. He was overjoyed, thinking that he finally had a chance to speak for his people. He and Decker boarded a ship in New York on July 14, 1923, and arrived in Geneva on July 28.

However, when they got there, they faced another obstacle. The Canadian government had protested against Deskaheh’s petition, claiming that he had no right to speak for the Haudenosaunee, and that his case was an internal matter that should be resolved within Canada. The Canadian delegation also pressured other countries to reject Deskaheh’s petition, arguing that it would set a dangerous precedent for other indigenous groups to challenge their colonial rulers.

Deskaheh was frustrated and angry. He felt that he was being denied his voice and his rights. He tried to lobby other delegates and persuade them to support his cause. He also wrote letters and articles for newspapers and magazines, explaining his situation and appealing for justice.

He stayed in Geneva for eighteen months, hoping for a breakthrough. He also traveled to other cities in Switzerland, such as Bern(( , Lausanne2 , Lucerne(( , Winterthur3, and Zurich((, where he gave lectures and met with various groups and individuals who were interested in his cause.

He made many friends and admirers during his stay in Switzerland. He was impressed by the beauty and culture of the country. He also learned some French and German words. He enjoyed hiking in the mountains and visiting museums and churches. He even celebrated Christmas with a Swiss family.

However, he never forgot his mission and his people. He longed for his home and his family. He missed his wife Mary and his four daughters. He also worried about the situation on his reserve, where the Canadian government had intensified its interference and repression.

He never gave up hope that he would be able to address the League of Nations someday. However, he never got that chance. In 1924, the League of Nations decided to postpone Deskaheeh’s petition indefinitely, without giving any reason or explanation.

Deskaheh was heartbroken and disillusioned. He felt that he had failed his people and himself. He decided to return home, but he was too ill to travel. He had contracted pneumonia, and his health was deteriorating rapidly. He was taken to a hospital in Geneva, where he died on June 27, 1925. He was 52 years old.

His body was shipped back to his reserve, where he was buried with full honors. His people mourned him as a hero and a martyr. His name and his legacy lived on in the hearts and minds of his people and of all those who believed in his cause.

Deskaheh was a visionary and a warrior. He fought for the dignity and sovereignty of his people. He challenged the injustice and oppression of the colonial system. He inspired generations of indigenous leaders and activists around the world. He was one of the first to bring the voice of indigenous peoples to the international arena. He was a pioneer of human rights and a champion of peace.

After Deskaheh’s death, his family continued to live on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. His wife Mary died in 1936, and his children grew up and had their own families. Some of his descendants are still active in the Haudenosaunee community and culture today. For example, one of his granddaughters, Audrey General Bombery, was a well-known Cayuga language teacher and advocate. She passed away in 2017 at the age of 93(( Another granddaughter, Louise Hill, is a respected elder and historian who has written and spoken about Deskaheh’s legacy(( Deskaheh’s family is proud of his achievements and his contributions to the Haudenosaunee and indigenous peoples around the world.

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