The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua

From the October 2011 PNL #808

by Peter Jemison

I want to talk about our original treaties. Not only did we make treaties with the United States, we also made treaties with other foreign countries. The first one was made with the Dutch. We used a wampum belt with two parallel lines on a field of white. Wampum belts help us to commemorate and remember our treaties.

The two-row signifies that we travel in our canoe down the river of life and in a parallel line in their boat are the Euro-Americans. I am not going to get into your boat and try to steer it, and I ask you not to get into my canoe and try to steer it. We allow one another to exist. This is the basis for all other treaties.

How It Came To Be

On November 11 each year, Indian and non-Indian come together to polish the silver chain of peace and friendship, the Treaty of Canandaigua, signed over 200 years ago.

After the Revolutionary War, the Haudenosaunee found its land opened to American colonists. In 1779, on orders of George Washington, Major General Sullivan led an attack into the Finger Lakes region, destroying upwards of forty towns and the croplands that would feed them.

In 1791, a confederacy of nations in the Ohio region won a stinging victory over the US Army. Tension grew with white settlers immigrating into the Finger Lakes. Washington concluded that if the Six Nations joined the Northwest Confederacy, their combined strength could prove insurmountable for the now 15 states.

Washington sent Colonel Pickering and called for a treaty council to convene. From their respective territories 1,600 Haudenosaunee set out for Canandaigua. Seneca chief Red Jacket addressed the council, “The business of this treaty is to brighten the Chain of Friendship between us and the 15 fires.” Following negotiations about expanded roads, the Six Nations and the United States signed a document on November 11, 1794, creating lasting peace and friendship between the two peoples.

Land issues dominated the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, and they remain equally critical 200 years later to the 60,000 plus members of the Six Nations within the US and Canada. The Haudenosaunee won recognition of aboriginal land rights and sovereignty as individual nations. In return, the Haudenosaunee continue to recognize the sovereignty of the US government.

Although not broken, the treaty suffered numerous violations. Most of “the lands reserved to the Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga Nations” were later taken by New York State in illegal treaties. The St. Lawrence Seaway destroyed Mohawk land and fishing grounds (1954); Kinzua Dam flooded 9,000 acres, removing Seneca people from traditional farming and medicine-gathering land, graves, even the Longhouse (1964); the Niagara River project took Tuscarora land (1967); Reynolds and General Motors built plants that polluted the entire St. Lawrence River (1950s on).

A Living Treaty

The treaty spells out that we address the President of the US directly when there is a violation. The Onondaga Council invoked the treaty asking George Bush to clean up a toxic mess. One year later the EPA removed 1,300 drums of solvents. When a helicopter flying over a Mohawk territory was shot at by individuals living there, the US turned to the Nation and then to the Grand Council to resolve the issue.

When conflict arose between an elected Seneca Nation official and members of the Tribal Council, the NY Supreme Court tried a case brought by the plaintiff. The state provided a ruling, failing to recognize Seneca sovereignty. A federal judge later prohibited NY State courts from exercising such jurisdiction. His comments referenced the Canandaigua Treaty: “the Nation holds the right of self-government and retains exclusive jurisdiction over its internal affairs.” He concluded, “it would be difficult to imagine a more intrusive intervention into the internal affairs of the Nation” than the orders issued by the State.

We wish to bring this treaty not just to a level of federal recognition, but to an international forum to be recognized as the legal and binding documents our treaties are. The Treaty is still in place today. I hope this illustrates the living nature of the Canandaigua Treaty and the importance of keeping it alive.

Peter (Heron clan Seneca from Cattaraugus) is the manager of the Ganondagan Historic site at Victor, NY. A renowned artist, he has been active for decades on repatriation and cultural issues. This article was condensed from the original (at by Betsy Robson.