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Deep roots in land claims

The origins of the native claims and protests in Caledonia are found as far back as the American Revolutionary War

William Newbigging
The Hamilton Spectator
(Apr 24, 2006)

[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only, as an example of how mainstream media treats indigenous resistance to genocide. Mainstream media often presents biased and distorted information, lacking pertinent facts and/or context. Inclusion of this article on our site should not be considered an endorsement by SISIS.]

Like many First Nations issues, the problems at Douglas Creek in Caledonia have deep roots. Before we can hope to understand what seems to be an ill-conceived fiasco, it must first be necessary to examine the history of the Six Nations people.

The best introduction to that history is The Valley of the Six Nations by McMaster University historian Charles M. Johnston. Published as a part of the Champlain Society's Ontario Series, The Valley of the Six Nations is a carefully edited collection of documents relating to the history of the Six Nations people from the time of their settling the Haldimand Tract in 1784 to the surrender of the land to the authority of the Crown in 1841. The Valley of the Six Nations has been a staple on reading lists for Canadian history courses since it was first published in 1964.

It sheds light on the current problems and also on the issues that many of us find so upsetting about First Nations land claims. In many ways the story of the settlement of the Six Nations in the so-called Haldimand Tract along the Grand River resonates with some of the critical themes of Canadian history: settlement; the clash of cultures between the Europeans and the Aboriginal People; the clashes between French and English; and worries over American expansionism. At the heart of the story is one of our very own local heroes, Joseph Brant -- or, his Mohawk name, Thayendanegea.

In 1701, after being worn down by the so-called "Mourning War" against the Anishinaabe peoples of the Upper Great Lakes, delegates of the Five Nations went to Montreal to forge the "Great Peace" with the Anishinaabek and their allies the French. After the treaty, the Five Nations returned to their ancestral homeland in the region to the south of Lake Ontario and to the east of the Niagara River. In 1722 the five (Mohawk, Onandaga, Oneida, Seneca and Cayuga) were joined by the Tuscaroras, the sixth nation in the confederacy.

When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776 the Six Nations Iroquois first chose to pursue a policy of neutrality. They made a treaty with the newly formed Second Continental Congress to formalize this arrangement. The colonists pledged to protect the Six Nations from encroachment on their lands in exchange for this neutrality. Events soon made it evident that the Six Nations had misjudged the Americans.

With its energies devoted to the epic struggle with the British, the Continental Congress had no time to spare to see that the niceties of the Treaty were respected. Thousands of Anglo-Americans soon began to occupy Iroquoia -- what we now call the Finger Lakes region. After being let down by the Continental Congress the Six Nations turned to the British for help against the land hungry colonists.

The leading figure in this drama was Joseph Brant. A longtime ally of the British, Brant had been made "Interpreter for the Six Nations Language" by the British agent to the Iroquois, Sir William Johnson. After Sir William's death in 1774, Joseph Brant continued to work for the British and in particular for Sir William's successor, Colonel Guy Johnson. In the autumn of 1775 Johnson and Brant travelled to London on a mission of goodwill to the British government. Brant used this extraordinary opportunity to express his concerns about the intentions of the American settlers and land speculators to the Secretary of State for the American Colonies, Lord George Germain. Brant warned that the settlers wanted to cheat the Iroquois out of the small territory that remained to them. Lord George listened sympathetically and promised Brant, "every support England could render" as soon as the disputes with the Americans were resolved.

This meeting convinced Brant that the interests of the Six Nations were best served by allying with the British. Even while they were talking in London the problem in Iroquoia was growing much worse and by the time of Brant's return the situation was desperate.

When Brant arrived back in North America he went to see Six Nations leaders. They were skeptical of an alliance with the British; Brant was still relatively young and had little influence with his own people. In Iroquois culture, age and tradition carried a huge amount of authority and Brant was young and too closely associated with the British for some of his compatriots. His claims that a British alliance was in the Six Nations' interest were met with suspicion. Eventually however, the actions of the Americans became increasingly hostile and the entire Six Nations force sided with the British.

The struggles of 1777 and 1778 were hard fought. Gradually the Americans' superior numbers wore down the British and their allies. Brant and his men fought with Major-General John Butler and won a number of battles but like the rest of the British and allied forces the tide of the war turned against them. By 1779 Butler and Brant had been forced as far west as the Genesee River by the American forces under Major-General John Sullivan. Sullivan's forces destroyed every Iroquois village they took. They burned the longhouses to the ground and set fire to the cornfields. Iroquoia was destroyed forever.

Brant and his small force had little choice but to continue. They fought hard along the Niagara frontier for the remainder of the war. By 1782, however, the British commanders instructed their Iroquois allies to abandon the fight as peace negotiations were announced.

For the natives' loyalty to the British Crown, and their courage on the battlefield, the British government informed Brant that the Six Nations people would be accommodated as soon as possible with a new home.

Such a home had a number of very specific requirements. First the climate and soil had to be right for growing corn, beans, and squash, the "Three Sisters" that formed the staple of the Iroquois diet. Second, Iroquois hunters would need good access to deer, their main prey. Third, second growth forests - forests which were not yet fully mature - were necessary to provide Six Nations builders with the raw materials they would need to build longhouses and other structures and equipment. Finally, the Six Nations required an uninhabited area, one that would not bring them into conflict with an established group.

The Grand River region, from its source to its mouth, fit the bill perfectly. The soil and climate of the region were nearly identical to old Iroquoia. The "Three Sisters" crops would thrive just as they had further east. Deer and other game were abundant, all the more so because the region had not had many human visitors since the end of the seventeenth century. Second growth forests were plentiful and there was a lot choice for village sites close to these forests.

The area had stood as a kind of no man's land for about a century. The "Mourning War" between the Iroquois and the Anishinaabek had driven the ancestral inhabitants (Eries and the oddly named Neutrals) out of the region. Far too dangerous to settle, until the end of the century the land between the Niagara and Lake Huron remained uninhabited. The land was purchased by the British from the Mississaugas, an Anishinaabe nation from northern Lake Huron, but they had a lacustrine fishing economy and wanted no part of the farmland of the Grand River and had only claimed possession. In fact, the only problem with the Grand River was its proximity to the frontier and to the American colonists.

Accordingly, on the Oct. 25, 1784, the Governor of Quebec, Sir Frederick Haldimand, made the so-called Haldimand Proclamation. Acting for the Crown, Haldimand conveyed to the Mohawks "and such others of the Six Nations Indians as wish to settle in that quarter" the Grand River Tract of land as restitution for their losses in the Revolutionary War. Haldimand's grant was quite specific and the Six Nations were authorized to settle along the banks, from its head to its mouth "six miles deep from each side" of the Grand River.

In the early spring of 1785 Brant led a group of 1843 Six Nations people from Lewiston, across the Niagara to their new home. The Cayugas (and a few of their Delaware compatriots) built a village on the northeast side of the river just upstream from Lake Erie. The Onandagas and Senecas built villages a little further upstream and still on the northeast side of the river. Just along from them the Tuscaroras built a village.

Closer to the present city of Brantford, the Mohawks, Oneidas, and another group of Cayugas (called Upper Cayugas to distinguish them from the group near Lake Erie) built their villages.

What appears to be a clear and unequivocal document, however, soon gave rise to a set of controversies that are still raging today. There were two problems with the Haldimand's proclamation from the outset. In the first place the region was largely unknown at the time of the proclamation and not properly surveyed. The Six Nations never went beyond the vicinity of present-day Brantford and the region beyond was never clearly delineated.

Much more serious however, was the divergence in the interpretation of the meaning of the grant. The agents of the British Crown asserted from Haldimand forward that the land granted was not transferable and that Haldimand's Proclamation did not recognize the political sovereignty of the Six Nations Confederacy. Understandably, Joseph Brant interpreted matters differently. He argued that the Proclamation was a de facto recognition of Iroquois sovereignty and that the title to the land was, therefore, held in what the British law called "an estate in fee simple." To prove this he quickly sold and leased huge sections of the Grand River to British settlers.

These actions alarmed the Crown. In 1793 the lieutenant governor of the new province of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, drafted the "Simcoe Patent" a document which stipulated that all land transactions in the Haldimand Tract had to be approved by the Crown. Brant simply ignored Simcoe, and his "Patent" and continued to invite British settlers into the Haldimand Tract. Somewhere between Haldimand's grant and Simcoe's action, Brant and other Iroquois leaders had changed their minds about the presence of British settlers. In the early days they had been invited in as a means of demonstrating Iroquois sovereignty but as time went by Brant came to realize the extent of the huge changes that were sweeping across the region.

Brant seems to have realized that the days of the longhouse and the traditional economy of the Iroquois were numbered. He felt the presence of British farmers would serve as a good example for the Iroquois people and that the Iroquois would learn to farm like the British. The Crown continued to oppose Brant's actions and interpretations but Brant was by this time a wise and skilled politician and the newly formed Indian administration was not equipped to handle him.

In 1834 the first inquiry into the situation in the Haldimand Tract was held. The Crown determined that Brant had acted illegally, but by this point it would be too costly and difficult to move all of the British settlers from their farms. The only option open to the Crown at this juncture was to confirm the legality of Brant's leases. At the same time the inquiry raised a number of concerns about the rapid growth of Brantford and the other communities within the Haldimand Tract.

In response to the ongoing problems, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Samuel Peter Jarvis, went to the Onandaga Council House in January 1841 and suggested the Iroquois voluntarily surrender their lands (save some reserve lands and the areas of the villages, a total of about 20,000 acres) back to the Crown so that the Crown could administer the Haldimand Tract "for their exclusive benefit and interest." Jarvis argued that one contiguous reserve would allow for more economical construction of schools, churches, and other public buildings. The chiefs agreed, but the agreement did little to alleviate the confusion that resulted from Brant's interpretation of Haldimand's Proclamation.

After Jarvis got the Six Nations to surrender their lands the ownership question of most of the land that had been sold and leased was resolved, at least in the eyes of the Crown. Various interests in the Six Nations continued to maintain a different point of view.

Following the Order in Council of 1843 that affirmed the surrender, a delegation of Iroquois chiefs appealed to the government to grant an additional 35,000 acres. This was granted and in 1847 the reserve was formally granted at approximately 55,000 acres but subsequent surrenders reduced the size of the reserve to 44,900 acres. The government also forced squatters off the reserve land, but many of them simply returned.

The history that Charles Johnston recorded so faithfully in The Valley of the Six Nations does help us to understand the issues that are now confronting the developers and the members of the Six Nations protesting the development at Douglas Creek. Understanding is one thing, however, and resolution is another.

In this way Douglas Creek is no different than any other land claims case in the country. The documents are readily available and the experts and lawyers are ready and willing to take the matter to court. This, of course, is where it must inevitably be resolved. It is unfortunate that the developers are losing so much money. It is unfortunate that those hired to work on the project are losing income. It is unfortunate too that friends and neighbours are finding themselves arguing.

If there is a silver lining to this, however, it is that it has raised the profile of the plight of First Nations peoples across Canada. It is to be hoped that the issue has got the rest of us thinking about ways to find more fair and permanent solutions to these problems.

William Newbigging lives in Hamilton. He is chair of the department of history, and an associate professor of Anishinaabe-mowin (language and culture of the Anishinaabek people) at Algoma University College in Sault Ste. Marie.

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