A hundred years ago, Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Cayuga) chief Deskaheh travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
He was prevented from speaking to the League of Nations — the predecessor of the United Nations — and now a century later, his successors continue the fight for recognition.
“As Deskaheh, I will not address the United Nations until the Haudenosaunee is recognized as a government,” said Deskaheh Steve Jacobs last week to the United Nations’ 16th session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Deskaheh is a title — one of 50 chieftains in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, known historically as the Six Nations or Iroquois Confederacy. Jacobs is the current holder of the title, and was a part of a 20-member delegation from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in Geneva to commemorate his predecessor’s journey.
Deskaheh’s petition to League of Nations
In 1923, Deskaheh Levi General was sent as a spokesperson to Geneva to petition the League of Nations after exhausting all avenues for justice in Canada.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was concerned about Canada’s encroachments on the authority of the Haudenosaunee government, loss of land along the Haldimand tract, and the rights of Haudenosaunee women and children.
However, Deskaheh was never allowed to speak at the League of Nations and his petition sparked a catalyst for Indigenous sovereignty rights at the international level. The United Nations replaced the League of Nations in 1945.
“He has become a symbol,” said Kenneth Deer, a member of the Haudenosaunee external relations committee from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal.
“The name Deskaheh has been used, has been spoken in the UN for years.”
Today, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is still unable to address the United Nations as a government. The confederacy, along with other Indigenous nations, is only eligible to address the UN as a non-governmental organization.
“It’s been a struggle,” said Deer.
“There has been some movement by the United Nations, but not enough.”
Deer sits on a committee for enhancing the participation of Indigenous Peoples in the UN that has been lobbying states to create a special status that recognizes Indigenous Peoples as governments so that they can participate at a high level in the UN.
“We won’t have a right to vote, only members have that, but we will be able to influence resolutions, speak on the floor, or take part in committee work,” said Deer.
“That is the kind of level that we’re fighting for.”
It’s something that Brennan Ferguson, a member of the Tuscarora Nation who also sits on Haudenosaunee external relations committee, addressed at the UN last week. He argued that the human rights council implement modalities to allow Indigenous Peoples to participate “with the recognition that they deserve.”
“We have treaties with at least four states in this room,” Ferguson said to the UN.
“NGOs do not sign treaties. This is only the responsibility of governments. Indigenous Peoples like the Haudenosaunee should be able to address the human rights council through their own representative institutions.”
Relationship with Geneva
Although Deskaheh never got to speak to the League of Nations in Geneva, his visit did spark a relationship with the city. The mayor, Jean-Baptiste Pons, invited him to speak to the people of Geneva.
The relationship continues today. In February, the city planted a tree of peace. Last week, they worked with the Indigenous Peoples’ Center for Documentation, Research and Information (Docip) and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to mark the centennial anniversary.
“For us, this is very important because we’re a Geneva-based organization and we’ve been supporting Indigenous Peoples’ work for 45 years,” said Rémi Orsier, director of Docip.
“The centenary is also a way to show people who know less about this historic period, to learn about it.”
The Haudenosaunee flag was erected along Mont-Blanc bridge and there were receptions, a march through the city, and the opening of new photo exhibition illustrating Deskaheh’s story along Quai Wilson.
“Support for Indigenous Peoples is part of the City of Geneva’s commitment to human rights and the self-determination of peoples,” said Alfonso Gomez, mayor of Geneva, in a statement.
The photo exhibition, which features 30 large panels along Lake Geneva, is curated by Jolene Rickard.
Rickard, who is Skarù·ręʔ (Tuscarora) and a professor at Cornell University in New York state, said it was important to include a mix of contemporary and historic photographs.
“Although it focuses on the historic aspects of this relationship, it also provided an opportunity to focus on the work that is currently going on and continues to be done,” said Rickard.
“The exhibit demonstrates our persistence, that as a people we are in it for the future.”