Every fall, people gather at the Canandaigua Elementary School in the early afternoon and march to the lawn of the Ontario County Court House to commemorate the signing of a peace treaty between the United States and the Iroquois Confederacy or Haudensaunee.
There, in the former heart of the Seneca Nation, a ceremony takes place by two rocks; one signifying the date the treaty was signed (November 11) and the other commemorating the treaty’s 200th anniversary in 1994. Each year, the terms of the treaty are read, their meaning is acknowledged, and beaded wampum belts are shown. When the reader of a belt holds it in his hands, it helps him remember the idea the belt signifies.
In the evening there’s a feast (it’s free), and last year about 400 meals were served. The day ends with speakers and social dancing.
The Canandaigua Treaty was a treaty of peace and friendship that Peter Jemison, a renowned artist and cultural specialist, works to maintain today. Jemison is a Heron clan Seneca from Cattaraugus who manages the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor where a Native American community thrived long ago.
Jemison recognizes the many important aspects of the 217-year-old treaty. “It was signed nation to nation,” he said. “You have the fledgling United States and you have our nations signing this as two sovereigns. At the same time, within this treaty is recognition of what land belonged to [which
people]. It spelled it all out. It affirmed that our original territory remained our territory.”
The need for a treaty
When the Haudenosaunee were asked to choose sides during the Revolutionary War, some Tuscarora and some Oneida sided with the colonists, while others – some Mohawk and some Seneca – sided with the British. When the British pulled back to Canada, the Haudenosaunee found its land opened to settlement by American colonists. Tensions mounted as the Haudenosaunee fought to protect their property.
George Washington realized that if the warriors from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy joined the Northwest Confederacy in the Ohio region (the Huron, Ottawa, Miami, Shawnee, Ojibwa, Cherokee, Potowatami and the Wabash) their strength would overpower all of the current 15 states.
He called upon Colonel Timothy Pickering to act on his behalf in forging a treaty between the Iroquois and the U.S. government. Pickering and his council began negotiations in the fall of 1794 in Canandaigua, then a principal Seneca Indian village named “Kanandarque” or “the Chosen Spot.” It was far enough away from the British at Fort Niagara and in Canada to discourage their meddling. The Haudenosaunee traveled there on foot from their respective locations, with the Oneida arriving first. They were followed by the Cayuga, Onondaga and Tuscarora. The Senecas, 800 of them, arrived last on October 14. The pro-British Mohawks stayed in Canada, but sent one representative. All told, 1,600 Haudenosaunee assembled for the treaty.
It was signed on November 11, and a year later the treaty was signed by President George Washington and ratified by Congress. The first line reads, “Peace and friendship are hereby firmly established, and shall be perpetual, between the United States and the Six Nations.”
The Haudenosaunee people would describe the relationship between their nations and the United States as a three-link silver chain of peace, friendship and respect.
Chinks in the chain
More than 200 years later, land issues remain a critical concern for the Six Nations and the 60,000 Iroquois people who live in the United States and Canada. “Although the treaty has been violated a number of times, it has never been broken,” wrote Jemison in a paper entitled, “The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua.” “The Congress of the United States would have to abrogate that treaty… or we Six Nations would have to discontinue observance of the treaty in order to break it. ”
One violation occurred in 1964, when the Kinzua Dam on the Allegany River was constructed. The dam flooded 9,000 acres of Seneca land on the Allegany Indian Reservation in western New York, causing the residents and even the cemeteries to be relocated. Then in 1967, the Niagara Power Project flooded Tuscarora land. Efforts to tax people of the Six Nations on their land are ongoing.
“The treaty says free use and enjoyment,” said Jemison. “It says we are sovereign, meaning we have our own government and can make our own decisions within our territories. There are always efforts either on the part of the United States or the state of New York to erode those treaty rights and to enforce laws that are really the laws of the [state or the country].
“It’s been a constant struggle for us to maintain our sovereignty and to protect our treaty rights,” Jemison continued, “but that’s one of the reasons we gather every November 11 in the city of Canandaigua to commemorate the treaty, and to remind people that we formed this treaty of peace and friendship – and for us, that treaty is still in place.”
When he was younger, Peter Gerbic, a town councilman from Middlesex was not a fan of history. He didn’t fall asleep in class, but it was not the most riveting experience of his scholastic career. However, when he moved to the Finger Lakes Region in the mid-1960s, he found something that piqued his interest. More than 40 years later, it keeps Gerbic wide awake and on the edge of his seat.
“I always tell people it’s either the history lesson you fell asleep in or the one you never got,” said Gerbic about the Canandaigua Treaty. “It’s living history.”
He remembers reading about the treaty commemoration in the Canandaigua newspaper the day after it happened. “I’d see a picture of native elders in front of the courthouse and I’d think, ‘Ah, nuts! I missed it again!’” One year, Gerbic cut out the picture and tacked it to his bulletin board. The next year he remembered to go. “I went with my daughter who was five years old. I’ve gone every year since then, and my daughter is now 29.”
Gerbic has twice been the chairman of the Canandaigua Treaty committee. He always feels privileged to be a part of the celebration.
In 2010, a special painting was commissioned depicting the signing of the treaty and was unveiled on the ceremony day. “It’s not a photograph,” said Gerbic. “It came out of someone’s mind, but it gives a very good feeling of actually being there.
“I’ve met some very wonderful people through this – native people who I might not otherwise have been able to meet.”
He calls himself a “newcomer,” since he is not a member of the Six Nations. “When you see the two hands shaking, I’m the other hand.” He feels that newcomers have not listened to the native people. “We have taken over,” Gerbic said. “We should not forget that our native people have always been here. This is really their land and they welcomed us here. They have a lot to teach us about how we can live well here.”
He concluded: “I feel we have an amazing obligation to support the treaty and make sure we hold up our end of the chain of peace.”
For more information or to volunteer during Canandaigua Treaty Day, visit www.ganondagan.org.
by Kimberly Price