ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. – A peace and friendship between sovereigns that has spanned more than two centuries made cause for celebration here in Upstate New York. On Nov. 9, the Oneida Indian Nation invited members and guests to commemorate the 1794 signing of the Treaty of Canandaigua, the foundation upon which Oneida sovereignty and land claims are largely based.
Signed by representatives of the six Haudenosaunee nations the U.S. government on Nov. 11, 1794 at Canandaigua, N.Y., this treaty was one of the first to be agreed upon by the fledgling United States government and therefore one of the oldest still in effect. The document established the government-to-government relationship between the United States and each of the Six Nations that continues to this day.
“This really is a unique event,” said guest speaker Alan Taylor, a history professor at the University of California – Davis who has studied and written extensively on the Treaty. “How many other Indian nations would celebrate a treaty with the federal government?”
The Canandaigua Treaty stands as an anomaly, one of very few Indian treaties not broken by Washington. Taylor described it as “of enduring importance and that solidifies a very benevolent relationship between a set of native peoples and the federal government.”
The Treaty established perpetual peace and friendship between the two sides and guarantees each side self-governance over their respective territories without interference.
“Sovereignty is not something that was granted to us. It’s something that’s inherent to the Nation – something we always had,” said Nation Representative Ray Halbritter. The United States “sprung up” around the Oneidas, who were already there, and the treaty recognizes and confirms that inherent sovereignty. “This treaty, signed by the father of this country, says that the land belongs to the Oneida people, that we would never be disturbed on our lands.” Halbritter added.
“Most of the treaties produced in this time were transactions in which native peoples are giving up lands,” Taylor said. “One of the remarkable things about this document is in fact that the federal government is relinquishing claim to some Iroquois lands and is not taking any lands from any of the Six Nations. … It is a moment of extraordinary importance in the history of the United States and in the history of the Six Nations.”
Taylor characterized the 1790s as somewhat of a “golden age” of improved relations between the U.S. government and Indian tribes. Between 1781 and 1787, when the Articles of Confederation were in effect, the states (New York in particular) had “done what they wanted.” Adopted in 1787, the Constitution finally established a federal government strong enough to reign in the states.
This new government faced two problems when it came to Indian policy. Internally, the federal administration sought to assert primacy over the states in Indian relations. The Treaty of Canandaigua represents the successful forging of direct government-to-government relations between the United States and the Six Nations.
Externally, the new federal administration inherited an ongoing war with Indians in the Northwest Territory, now called Ohio. Taylor said President Washington sought an exit strategy from a war he didn’t want to fight and hoped that the Six Nations would assist in negotiating an end to the war. This help proved unnecessary for in late October 1794, a messenger arrived at Canandaigua with the news that the army of General Mad Anthony Wayne had defeated Little Turtle’s warriors from the Ohio tribes. But both sides saw fit to press on for an agreement.
“We have a document that for once captures the appropriate spirit of the council. There are no contradictions between the document and the spirit of the council – they are in harmony,” Taylor said. Although the U.S. and the Six Nations would not meet again after Canandaigua Taylor observed that “they are left with a document that codifies their relationship at its most positive moment.”
Taylor’s book “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic” won the 1996 Bancroft, Beveridge, and Pulitzer prizes for American history.
On display were two life-size photographs of the original treaty, written and signed on deerskin, with the marks of the Indian signatories and federal negotiators. The top and bottom parts of the document, including the signature of George Washington and the seal of the U.S., were later sewn onto the treaty itself – the stitches can be clearly seen in the photo.
Michael R. Smith, partner at the Washington, D.C. law firm Zuckerman Spaeder LLP., said that his firm, which has handled the tribe’s land claim litigation for years, was proud to represent the Oneidas. As a gesture of gratitude, the firm gained access to the National Archives, where treaties and other such important documents are safeguarded, and had the photograph made of the venerable agreement.
Smith highlighted a federal court ruling last summer recognizing that “the treaty is in effect.” He noted that this means the treaty remains “the law of the land today” and allows the Nation to assert governmental authority over any land reacquired within the land claim area.
Among the invited guests was Jennifer Farley, associate director for Inter-Governmental Affairs at the White House. She reiterated her office’s commitment to helping the Oneidas and other Native people.
That the 1794 Treaty continues to remain in force is symbolized by annuity cloth, a yearly allotment by the U.S. government of muslin fabric to be divided among adult members of the tribe mandated by Article VI. While the type and size of the cloth may have diminished over the years, it nevertheless continues to represent federal respect for the sovereignty of the Oneida people.
While sovereignty and government-to-government relations dominated the formal discussions, celebrants enjoyed quality entertainment as well. Members and guests joined the Oneida Nation Dance Troupe for several social dances before the Nation’s Revolutionary War Re-enactors capped the evening by firing muskets and cannon in salute of 209 years of friendly relations.