September 1992

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


George P. Decker and

Chief Deskaheh


Robert G. Koch

George P. Decker was a lawyer often in opposition to the local Establishment and a man for Causes. During the Presidential election of 1892, the tall, angular young attorney and a handful of local Democratic lawyers took on the rock-ribbed Republicanism of Monroe County by making speeches throughout the area in favor of free trade espoused by Grover Cleveland in opposition to the McKinley Tariff backed by his opponent. Cleveland won his second term in New York State and the nation, but lost in Monroe County.

Henry Clune writes, in The Rochester I Know that, "As a Democratic politician, well favored by the party's hierarchy, [Decker] was once appointed Collector of the Port of Rochester and another time made Deputy Attorney General of the state of New York…" In a Monroe County Bar Asociation memorial at his death, he is credited with making "the first codification of the Game Laws in the State of New York." Along the way he was also a sacrificial Congressional candidate on the Democratic ticket. But the Cause that employed his legal energies and crusading enthusiasms thoughout his life and carried him onto the international stage was that of the American Indians.

Spurred on by his teenage reading of local attorney Lewis Henry Morgan's classic writing on the Iroquois, Decker became a lifelong student of the Iroquois in New York state and their spillover onto the Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario, Canada, after the American Revolution. "He was outraged, " adds Clune, "as Morgan had been, by the manner in which these native Americans had been decultured and impoverished by the frauds and peculations of white men. After he was admitted to the bar, he appeared, often without fee, as counsel for Indians who sought in courts of law redress of [their] grievances…He established legal precedence in some of these cases…" Early in the century he actively defended all the way to the Supreme Court Oneida attempts to keep ancestral lands. In 1921 the New York Times also reported his efforts to invoke U. S. government treaties with the Iroquois against New York State plans to develop hydropower at the Niagara River. A generation later, under Robert Moses, a similar plan of course succeeded.

In The Iroquois Struggle for Survival, historian Laurence Hauptman writes: "Iroquois of diverse backgrounds had been making [Rochester] their home since World War I…[e]ncouraged by employment opportunities and the presence of the prominent attorney George Decker, who had defended their legal interests and pursued their land claims…" Hauptman's reference is Oneida Indian spokesman, Keith Reitz, of Henrietta, whose family were among Decker's clients.

In 1921 Decker was attorney for the Iroquois in Canada. Their Six Nations Reserve near Brandford, Ontario, was embattled with the Canadian government over funds in a large escrow account accumulated by sale of treaty lands and over government efforts at ending tribal independence. According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the interest on that account had been sufficient over the years to pay for various government services on the Six Nations Reserve. The government claimed that inflation during World War I had devoured the fund but would not give the Six Nations an accounting. Now the Iroquois fought to maintain their autonomy under the original Royal Patent granted by King George III, through the Haldimand Treaty, for their services during the American Revolution. The Canadian government further alienated the Iroquois by addressing communications exclusively to their men, disregarding the Iroquois tradition of female suffrage, and by putting restrictions on women's rights to inherit property. (Six Nations chiefs were ELECTED by the women.) In response, Decker declared:

"The Canadian government…is trying to imitate the ruthless imperialism of Congress in its treatment of American Indians. Americans at one moment make wonderful phrases about the rights of small nations, and justice, and at the next totally ignore the wrongs done to small groups of Indians whose tribal existence is threatened. Some tribes allow their right to be invaded and soon intermarry and are dispersed and they have committed race suicide. But the Six Nations do not intend to do this."

The Six Nations proposed a "joint commission of Indians and Canadians if duly approved on behalf of the British Crown, with whom their…compact [ran]. What this commission [was] unable to settle, the Indians [proposed] to submit to the [International Court of Justice, at The Hague]"

The Canadian government hardened its stand and took aggressive actions, including armed invasions of the Reserve and the jailing of several Iroquois. Such acts threatened the autonomy of the Six Nations, so Decker broadened the maneuvers mounted in their behalf.

"Taking advantage of a provision of the League of Nations covenant [that permitted] a friendly nation to act as intermediary in settling disputes which may bring on hostilities between two other nations, Mr. Decker," the Democrat and Chronicle reported, "has besought the aid of the Netherlands government:" Why the Netherlands? Because of decades of amity between the Dutch and the Iroquois in the Mohawk Valley. Decker and Iroquois sachem and spokesman, Chief Deskaheh had located a wampum belt in the Museum of the American Indian in New York City that reflected those friendly relations.

The New York Times followed the story and appeared especially struck by wampum belt verification of the formation of the Iroquois Five Nations centuries before, "a compact," as the Times editorialized, "for the 'establishment of the Great Peace,' a confederacy in which should reside the 'power to abolish war and robbery between brothers' and to 'bring peace and quietness.'" Recalling a major holdout in the formation of the League of the Iroquois, the Times editorial drew an analogy to the American refusal to join the new League of Nations.

In the aftermath of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson had made a spirited argument for self-determination of nations, including small ones, and a cogent plea for a League of Nations to guarantee the peace, but the U. S. refused to join. The Iroquois Six Nations hoped that the new international body could be used to preserve and reassert Indian rights against encroachment by the Canadian government.

A remarkable Cayuga Indian farmer, Levi General, was chosen to lead the fight, as Chief Deskaheh. George Decker was their legal counsel. The New York Times reported that "the Council of the Six Nations [had] formally reiterated their claim to home rule…" Incidentally, while refusing to be drafted into the Canadian armed forces during the recent war, hundreds of them had volunteered. "Several weeks ago," the Times continued, "…while the controversy was going on, Canadian troops invaded the tribal groups 'on the theory of Crown sovereignty,' seized several men and put them in jail, after breaking into a number of homes.

"'The Iroquois warriors are lying low,' declared…[Deskaheh], 'to give their sachems one more chance to save the life and Six Nations sovereignty through peaceful effort.'

"Mr. Decker," the Times concluded, "as attorney for the Council of the Six Nations tribes, had made a collection of important documents to be used in support of the validity of various treaties between the Indian tribes and the British Government since their first peace pact more than 258 years ago."

Incidentally, a remarkable collection of Decker's papers from 1913-1925 has been organized by Bob Gullo, Director of Lavery Library at St. John Fisher College.

In September 1923, according to Laurence Hauptman in The Iroquois Struggle for Survival, "Deskaheh had traveled [to London] on an Iroquois Confederacy-issued passport…to protest Canadian Indian policies. Accompanied by George P. Decker…Deskaheh tried [unsuccessfully] to bring the Indian position before the British Secretary of State of the Colonial Office [and]…King George V…"

Having failed to get satisfaction from the Canadian and British governments, Deskaheh, according to The New York Times, "…called at the London office of the League [of Nations] to give notice of his intention to submit a complaint in the Assembly against 'subjugation by Canada, the Imperial Government having refused the Indians' plea for protection against this subjugation.'"

He was then quoted as saying. "We are very willing to remain allies of the British as against days of danger, as we have been for 200 years, and peaceful allies too; but we wish no one-sided alliance, nor will we ever be subjects of another people, even of the British, if we can help it."

Referring to the League of the Iroquois as a pattern for the League of Nations, he continued: "We helped to make possible the League of Nations, and did our full share in the great war. Now we must look to the destruction of our government and the obliteration of the Iroquois race which would soon follow.'

In defense of the sovereignty of the Iroquois Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, Canada, Chief Deskaheh, a solidly built farmer-turned-statesman, was approaching the League of Nations in 1923. An Associated Press reporter in Paris reflected stereotyping characteristic of the time:

"Unadorned with feathers, beads or moccasins, and wearing a sack suit and slouch hat, the big chief, although without tomahawk or war paint, is just as earnestly on the war path as his ancestors who fought the British red coats and French regulars in the American forests.
"Standing at the main entrance of the Paris City Hall, where the League's Council meets, Deskaheh has been indefatigably button-holing the delegates, some of whom have lent a receptive ear, while others hurried away…
"'My tribe sent 400 men to fight in the late war, forty of whom were killed,' Deskaheh says. 'I will pursue this claim relentlessly until it is recognized.'

"The big chief," the story concludes, "threatens to take to the lecture stand throughout Europe if the Council fails to hear him."

If that reporter had probed a bit, he would have found, as the Democrat and Chronicle reported, that when the 47 year old Deskaheh was chosen to defend the Six Nations, he had transformed himself for his new role. "He left his farm, became a public speaker in the English language…he learned to operate the typewriter with facility. After going abroad, Deskaheh soon acquired enough French to be quite at home in the French side of Switzerland and he moved about Paris with the ease of a world traveler. Before he left his country home for foreign capitals, he had mastered the six languages of the Iroquois. In English, he had an eloquent style that was simple, direct and forceful…"

In September, 1923, Deskaheh arrived at League headquarters in Geneva and "had succeeded in having the delegates of Ireland, Panama, Persia, and Estonia [sympathetic but marginal members of the League] [to] intervene on behalf of the Iroquois." British and Canadian opposition to the petition continued. All through the winter Deskaheh labored to win support. The original $5000 with which his mission was financed by a National Defense Fund Bond issue was running out. In June 1924, two portraits of Deskaheh were raffled in Geneva and raised another $1000. By November he wrote of his despair to a Swiss journal. "My appeal to the Society of Nations has not been heard, and nothing in the attitude of Government… leave[s] me any hope." The Secretariat of the League now also "denied both Deskaheh and [his legal counsel, from Rochester] George Decker seats in the gallery to observe deliberation."

Deskaheh and Decker hired the Salle Centrale for a widely publicized presentation of their case. The giant hall was packed, but no League of Nations official attended. Deskaheh presented the case for Iroquois sovereignty, buttressed by treaties and wampum. He received a tumultuous standing ovation. "Then, still expressionless, he left the platform." By the end of the year, in exile from his home and family in Canada, he was staying with another embattled American Iroquois leader, Clinton Rickard, on the Tuscarora reservation near Niagara Falls.

In March, 1925, Deskaheh addressed the annual meeting of the Morgan Chapter of the State Archćological Association in Rochester and radio station WHAM broadcast the speech. Speaking at length with great dignity and clarity, he outlined the Iroquois case for sovereignty and made particular appeals to the newly enfranchised American women and to American youth to inquire into the justice of the Iroquois claims, for they were hardly a Canadian question alone. "Over in Ottawa," he said, "they call [the] policy 'Indian Advancement.' Over in Washington, they call it 'Assimilation.' We who would be the helpless victims say it is tyranny."

The following day, suffering from pleurisy and pneumonia, he was taken by his friend, George Decker, to the Homeopathic (now Genesee) Hospital. According to one account, "his brother, wife and children tried to cross the border at Niagara Falls to be with him, and were refused permission to do so." Three months later, on his way back to the Tuscarora Reservation, he was stricken on the train and died shortly after. He was 52 years old. His friend, George Decker, lived eleven years longer, dying in 1936. An editorial at the time spoke of Decker as, "A man of varied capacities and useful sympathies…" and as having rendered "more than ordinary public service."

"The enduring legacy of Deskaheh [and Decker]," concluded historian Laurence Hauptman in 1986, "was not in what he did, but in the way he attempted to change non-Indians' policy. His words, metaphors, and tactics are still emulated by Iroquois leadership in their determined effort to conserve and protect their existence. Iroquois delegates of the league in 1977 and after have retraced Deskaheh's path to Geneva, Switzerland. Under Iroquois-issued passports, they have appealed to the United Nations on behalf of all native peoples, or have taken part in international convocations… in their activist determination to publicize their grievances against both the United States and Canadian governments."

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR