Treaty of Canandaigua Remains a Powerful Symbol of Native Sovereignty
Darlene Whitetree is about to enact a vital component of a 217-year-old agreement between the United States and the people of the Six Nations, but to the unknowing observer, it’ll look like she’s doing nothing more than merely chatting on the phone. Sometime this August, she’ll be able to tick a seemingly prosaic item off her to-do list by simply making a phone call and placing an order for bolts of muslin cloth to be delivered to Indian nations scattered throughout western New York state. She will then move on to her other tasks as acting superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Eastern Cherokee office in North Carolina. No big deal, right?
Yet that seemingly insignificant transaction—arranging for the shipping of that cloth—is the mandated annual fulfillment of an agreement made in 1794, in the small town of Canandaigua, New York, that dictates how relations between Indian nations and the U.S. government are handled to this day—that is, nation to nation, with states, counties, and other lesser U.S. government agencies falling to the wayside.
The Treaty of 1794, also known as the Treaty of Canandaigua, established land boundaries and declared “peace and friendship” between the newly established United States of America and the tribes of the Haudenosaunee, also called the Six Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga and Tuscarora. (The united front of the Six Nations served as a model for Benjamin Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union, a forerunner of the U.S. Constitution.) In the 1790s, the newly established United States was still struggling to establish firm boundaries between those states, and U.S.–Indian relations were rocky: During the Revolutionary War, some tribes had sided with the British, others with the colonies, or the “13 Fires” as some tribes called them. The Oneida became known as the “First Allies” of the U.S., providing food and supplies at the General George Washington’s Valley Forge camp, taking up arms alongside colonists during critical battles at Oriskany and Saratoga, and protecting settlers from attacks.
When the Revolutionary War ended, the Six Nations could muster more warriors than the United States Army would be able to control, which concerned Washington, who was now the first U.S. president. It wasn’t a phantom worry, either: When the Seneca people received the invitation to negotiate a treaty, it was initially rebuffed, and some leaders argued they should go to war instead. But Seneca women had veto power over such matters, and they intervened.
Throughout the Northeast, the need to keep peace was growing, and there were a several deadly clashes between whites and Indians along the Ohio River. (There were plenty of nonviolent protests, as well: A few months before the treaty was negotiated, a council meeting in Fort Franklin, Pennsylvania began with a group of young Seneca men sitting in the rafters “saluting” a surveyor occupying newly acquired Seneca lands with what was described by one observer as “a universal roar, vulgarly called farting,” a strong indication of how the Seneca felt about the terms of the treaty.)
Fear of skirmishes coupled with the ever-American push of capitalism made a treaty seem like urgent business to George Washington: The Seneca lands were clustered around Buffalo, and although Buffalo was a small town at the time, prescient U.S. lawmakers understood that it would become increasingly important as a port city serving the Great Lakes, and everyone knew that the Euro-Americans sorely longed for developmentally crucial waterway usage and free passage through these lands.
In the spring of 1794, President Washington sent an envoy, the Postmaster General, and eventual Secretary of State Timothy Pickering to Haudenosaunee land to research and eventually draft a treaty that would establish “peace and friendship,” land rights and transport development by the U.S.
Approximately 1,600 Haudenosaunee came to the Seneca town of Canandaigua for the proceedings, along with Pickering’s staff, settlers and a handful of Quakers entrusted by the Haudenosaunee to aid them in this transaction. Various tribal members addressed the council, often with plaintive pleas. “The white people had been the cause of all the Indians’ distresses,” reads a summation. “They had pressed and squeezed them together, until it gave them great pains at their hearts, and that the whites ought to give them back the lands they had taken from them.”
Haudenosaunee patience, an integral part of their diplomatic method, dictated that no proceeding should move forward until all parties agreed that the next step should be taken. As a result, these negotiations lasted roughly six months until, on November 11, 1794, the treaty was signed by 50 Haudenosaunee leaders and Pickering. Later, Washington signed a piece of paper sewn to the bottom of the treaty, ratifying it.
The United States received not only peace and friendship, but its citizens were granted “free passage through [Haudenosaunee] lands, and the free use of the harbors and rivers…for the passing and securing of vessels and boats, and the liberty to land their cargoes where necessary for their safety.” In return, the U.S. agreed to supply the Six Nations with $10,000 in goods—plus a $4,500 annual in-kind payment “which shall be expended yearly, forever” in the form of animals, “implements of husbandry” and other goods, including the cloth that Darlene Whitetree now orders with a phone call.
At the time, the most pressing concerns were keeping peace and demarcating Haudenosaunee lands. For the U.S., the next priority was to find ways that those lands could be used by its burgeoning population. The greater impact of the treaty, however, was to affirm what had been imbedded in the 1790 Nonintercourse Treaty, namely that indigenous nations were to deal with the federal government, not the states, in bureaucratic and legislative affairs. “We were recognized as a sovereign nation,” says G. Peter Jemison, a Heron Clan member of the Seneca nation and co-editor of the book Treaty of Canandaigua 1794. “That recognition—and the agreement that we are to deal directly in matters that concern us with the president of the United States, with the executive branch of the federal government—gives us this opening to continue to press our interests. The idea that we’re sovereign is extremely important to contemporary Indian people, the ability to make decisions that affect your nation and to act upon those decisions.”
Yet sovereign governance hasn’t fully protected the lands from encroachment. In 1960, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on the Kinzua Dam, which is in Pennsylvania but which resulted in flooding 10,000 acres of land protected by the treaty. Despite pleas from the Seneca nation, President Kennedy allowed the land to be seized in 1961. “We were nowhere near as organized as we would be today,” says Jemison. “But we understood the issues, we understood the implications, and we did seek all kinds of support.”
Six hundred were displaced. The federal government provided more than $15 million in compensation, but ethical compensation was another matter: At the dam’s groundbreaking ceremony, then-Pennsylvania governor David Lawrence said, “[Kinzua Dam] will someday stand as a living, useful reminder of the first lesson of good government—the needs of human welfare come first.” The treaty violation didn’t go unnoticed, though. The New York Times ran pro-Seneca editorials, and Buffy Sainte-Marie and Johnny Cash both performed songs testifying to the burden placed upon Seneca people by the dam. Because of Cash’s song, “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow,” he was adopted by the Seneca Turtle Clan in 1966, and christened Ha-goa-ta, or Storyteller. (One version of the story behind Cash’s all-black wardrobe has it that he refused to wear any other color until all Seneca land had been returned.)
The Kinzua Dam may have been the most egregious violation of the treaty, but it’s far from the only one. The completion of the
Erie Canal made the protected lands even more valuable, and the Ogden Land Company deceived Seneca leaders into signing an 1838 treaty—seen as notoriously fraudulent even at the time—granting development rights and banishing many Seneca to Kansas. General Motors and Reynolds built plants that polluted the St. Lawrence River, which flows through the lands, marking parts of Mohawk Nation an official “Area of Concern” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Sometimes the violations became encoded into law. When railroad companies began to lay tracks through the area in the middle of the 19th century, white settlers negotiated illegal leases with some Seneca in order to build shelter for railroad workers. But it wasn’t until well after the railroad communities had become too established to simply vanish that anybody questioned the leases’ legality, and in 1875 Congress validated the leases. To this day, the New York town of Salamanca is actually on lease from Seneca nation.
Though the treaty has been bent repeatedly, it hasn’t been entirely broken.
Compared with state-versus-federal disputes, plus intentional floodings facing off against environmental stewardship, a bolt of muslin cloth may seem a quaint by-product of the treaty. But under the treaty’s terms, the federal government must annually supply the Six Nations with goods equal to $4,500. Animals and implements of husbandry have faded from this annual payment, leaving only bolts of cloth. When the treaty cloth, or annuity goods (“As kids we pronounced it ‘nudie goods’—we didn’t know about the treaty,” says Jemison), arrives at each of the Six Nations after the order Darlene Whitetree placed at the North Carolina BIA offices has been fulfilled, the work begins.
Toward the end of each summer, Cayuga Nation administrator assistant Anita Thompson knows to keep an eye out for the cloth’s arrival. In the 23 years she has worked for Cayuga Nation in Seneca Falls, New York, she has witnessed the steady decline of how much cloth $4,500 will fetch. No stipulation was made in the treaty for inflation, so over the past 217 years the U.S. has gone from providing enough flowered calico for tribal members to sew their own clothes to sending enough cotton to make a pair of drapes, to today’s allotment, which provides roughly one foot of muslin cloth per citizen.
When the cloth arrives, Thompson and the executive administrator take to it with a pair of scissors, ripping along the grain of the thread, dividing it up for each member. Cayuga nationals are notified of the allotments’ arrival via newsletter; they can come into the office to receive their share, have it mailed to them, or swing by the annual community picnic to pick it up.
“Most people do get their cloth,” Thompson says. “I don’t really ask what they do with it. Some do embroidery on it, some make pillows or whatever. Sometimes families will request the children’s share along with the parents for a lump sum, so they can make something with it. Right now I save mine, and my son’s—just in case I want to whip up something. I don’t know what.”
While the cloth’s utility has faded over the years, its significance is stronger than ever. It reflects that a treaty signed 217 years ago is a contemporary agreement, not merely a blood-brother arrangement that ceases to be valid once both parties have grown up. “The most vociferous critics of treaties made with Native Americans wish to view them all as invalid because they were made a long time ago,” writes Jemison in the introduction to Treaty of Canandaigua 1794. “If we accept that logic, it can be as easily said that the United States Constitution is invalid because it was made so long ago.”
But perhaps the most fitting—and most poignant—use of the cloth today lies with not living American Indians, but with those who have come before. Used in repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, swaths of treaty cloth now cradle the displaced remains of tribal members that are returned to the original Haudenosaunee lands to rest in peace. It may not be the kind of “peace and friendship” that was initially envisioned in the terms of the treaty signed in a tiny town 217 years ago, but it’s a peace that may yet prove more everlasting.