A True Iroquois Hero
©by Doug George-Kanentiio
Throughout the long history of the Iroquois there have been many women and men who have become heroes because of their courage, dedication and compassion for their people.
Traditional Iroquois place a high value on community service, humility and generosity; they view with contempt those who devote their lives towards the accumulation of material things at the expense of these ancestral values.
In this century few Iroquois sacrificed as much for the people as Levi General, a Cayuga man who lived as a farmer on the Six Nations Grand River territory west of Hamilton, Ontario.
General was a noted linguist among the people of the Grand, speaking not only his native language but the other five dialects of the Iroquois as well as English. He was born in 1872 and labored for some time as a lumberjack before turning to the land.
An honest man, he was blessed with a supportive wife and nine children. Because of his natural patience, stable domestic life and natural skills as a speaker he was selected in 1917 to fill one of the positions on the traditional Cayuga council and given the ancient title name of Deskaheh.
It was not a peaceful time to become a spiritual and political leader for the Iroquois of the Grand. World War One had been tearing Europe apart for three years with the weary Canadian army demanding ever more young men to risk their lives on the blood soaked battlegrounds of northern France.
Many of the soldiers were recruited from the various Iroquois communities with a particularly large contingent coming from the Grand River territory. Those who survived the trenches returned to their reservation homes with new ideas as to how the affairs of the residents should be governed.
With the active support of the Canadian government they sought to replace the traditional Confederate council with a system rooted not in sovereignty but defined by a set of alien rules called the Indian Act.
Deskaheh was adamantly opposed to any attempt to undermine the authority of the Confederacy. His determination to preserve the treaty rights of the Iroquois compelled him to seek the intervention of the highest British authorities. Accordingly, he traveled to England in 1921 to appeal to King George V directly only to be denied an audience with the monarch.
His efforts drew considerable press attention which in turn resulted in the Canadian government targeting him as a particularly troublesome man. He was harassed by the authorities yet refused to be intimidated.
Like many leaders Deskaheh took the actions of US President Woodrow Wilson to heart when he created the League of Nations in part to give a voice in international affairs to the smaller nations of the world.
After being forced to abandon his farm and chased out of Canada by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Deskaheh decided he would return to Europe to seek the intervention of the League.
Using an Iroquois passport he arrived in Geneva, Switzerland in September of 1923, the home of the League of Nations. He spent over a year in Geneva, preparing petitions, seeking meetings with foreign delegates and speaking out about the injustices Canada had committed against their former Iroquois allies.
Isolated, improvershed and largely ignored, Deskaheh persisted with his efforts to secure a hearing for the Iroquois until the stress began to undermine his health. He left Geneva in January, 1925 weakened, defeated.
The Cayuga chief tried to return to his family and farm but was denied entry into Canada by an embarrassed and vengeful government. He was compelled to take refuge on the Tuscarora Reservation across the Niagara River from Ontario.
“The fathers among our people have been real men. They cry out now against the injustice of being treated as something else.”
It is said he died of a broken heart on June 25, 1925, his face turned towards his beloved Grand River.