Three-century whodunnit: Gifted, burned, stolen and mailed. Cornplanter’s Pipe comes home

Cornplanter’s Pipe is both witness to and evidence of the Seneca Nation’s years of diplomacy and its participation in the making of the Treaty of Canandaigua

Chief Cornplanter’s Pipe was a gift from President George Washington in 1792, symbolizing peace and friendship between the venerated Seneca Nation and the newly born United States. The pipe represents the glory and grit of that time — and certainly the trust and betrayal — but always the potential and necessity of renewal.

Cornplanter's Pipe Photo Courtesy New York State Museum
Cornplanter's Pipe (Photo Courtesy New York State Museum)

This revitalization of friendship and alliance is called “brightening the Covenant Chain” by the Onondowaga (People of the Great Hill; Seneca), the Keeper of the Western Door of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse; Six Nations, Iroquois Confederacy).

This “brightening” is a reminder that the bonds of friendship and promises are strong and can keep forever, as with precious metals, but can be dulled beyond recognition if not polished from time to time.

The silver on Cornplanter’s Pipe is being polished at this moment and relationships are being invigorated, because it is back where it belongs, in Onondowaga (Seneca) Country, after more than 150 years, albeit on a short-term loan. 

The New York State Museum in Albany has loaned it, from March 14 to July 22, 2019, to the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca, which is in Seneca Allegany Territory along the Allegheny River, 50 miles south of Buffalo and just north of Pennsylvania.

Seneca-Museum-Building
According to their website, The Seneca-Iroquois National Museum proudly houses an extensive collection of Hodinöhsö:ni’ historical and traditionally designed decorative and every-day-use items and archaeological artifacts. SINM, along with the Seneca Nation Archives Department, are the safe keepers of historical documents, including articles, special publications, historical and family photographs and various multi-media productions regarding the Onöndowa’ga:’ and Hodinöhsö:ni’.

The silver and wood pipe is beautifully symbolic and a miracle of endurance. In the Haudenosaunee style, commonly called a peace pipe, the small pipe bowl is the upside, for sending ceremonial smoke to creation, and the tomahawk blade is the downside, prepared to defend the peace, but not at war. During wartime, the bowl is upside down and empty, prepared to make peace and consecrate it with smoke again.

Chief Cornplanter, who was of the Wolf Clan, lived for nearly a century, until 1836. A man of peace who served in times of war, he was branded a “war chief” by those who feared him and those who wrote history books. His name is engraved on the blade as Gy-Ant-Wa-Ka, which translates as “Planter.”

The pipe’s first wooden stem did not survive displacement and fire and was replaced in the mid-1800s with the present one, which approximates the original. The new pipestem was commissioned by the storied Ely Samuel Parker, who was Tonawanda Seneca, Wolf Clan.

Carved from maple wood and inlaid in silver, the slender pipestem is encircled by narrow silver bands evenly spaced between the inlaid single arrows on the outer ends and the two hearts on the inside. The hearts and arrows point to each other, and the pattern is repeated on the opposite side. Parker included a small brass strip engraved with his own name; another name, John Andrus, is written on the blade, exactly when and for what reasons are unknown at this time. The State Museum acquired it from Parker in 1850. The pipe was stolen from the State Museum in the mid-1900s and returned in 2018, after a disappearance of 70 years.

It has been a long journey for Cornplanter’s Pipe, but this is not the end. Not yet. Rather, it is a reunification of unknown duration, filled with potential for both sending smoke skyward and polishing away some tarnish of the past, in order for the silver of peace and friendship to shine.

Whodunit, starting with Morgan and Parker

The current chapter in the long history of the pipe begins as a whodunit about an inside job. “I wrote it as a detective story,” said Anthropologist George R. Hamell when called by Indian Country Today. Respected in the museum world and in Native circles, he worked for the New York Museum from 1981 to 2007, as a curator, Native American Specialist, and Exhibits Planner, and as Curator of Anthropology in 1974-1980 for the Rochester Museum and Science Center, with which he is affiliated today.

Hamell’s research report, A Tale of Four Tomahawks, was compiled when he was with the State Museum and his draft remains there. His tome is a combination of an evidence inventory, a bibliographical timeline, and an investigative checklist. Most of his questions are pointed and still unanswered. His research reveals contradictory claims, beginning with the way the State Museum acquired Cornplanter’s Pipe.

The story goes that Ely Samuel Parker (1828-1895), who was an extended family and clan descendant of Cornplanter, donated the pipe to the State Museum. But, Hamell finds contemporaneous documentation of Parker selling it to his friend and mentor, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), for the Indian Collection of the Historical and Antiquarian Collection of the New York State Cabinet of Natural History. Hamell’s report shows “a simple line engraving” of the pipe in Morgan’s 1850 Report to the Regents and in his 1851 League of the Ho-Dé-No-Sau-Nee, or Iroquois.

“On April 27, 1850, Parker sold the tomahawk to The State Cabinet, now the New York State Museum,” was the fact stated in October 9, 1990, by the State Museum’s Acting Director Paul J. Scudiere asking for return of the pipe from a New York collector, Eugene V. Thaw, for the return of the pipe, the State Museum’s Acting Director Paul J. Scudiere wrote: “On April 27, 1850, Parker sold the tomahawk to The State Cabinet, now the New York State Museum.” By July 5, 2018, when announcing its return, the State Museum split the difference and hedged, stating that the “pipe tomahawk entered the State Museum’s collection in 1850 courtesy of Seneca diplomat Ely Parker.”

It could be that Morgan or Parker had a lapse of memory, rather than character. Neither questioned the other’s facts on this matter if they even knew they were in dispute. Morgan had befriended Parker in 1844, in an Albany bookstore, when Parker was a young teenager and Morgan was in his mid-30s, and later arranged and paid for much of the young man’s education. Morgan wrote this about their first encounter: "To sound the war whoop and seize the youth might have been dangerous, but to let him pass without a parley would have been inexcusable."

An avid collector of iconic objects, Morgan engaged Parker and his family in the avocation of collecting. Hamell notes that Parker once owned a similar pipe and “inherited” a 1792 Washington medal — both given to his illustrious ancestor, Seneca Chief Red Jacket (1756-1831) — and sold them to collecting institutions in New York.

Morgan and Parker were respected in their circles and distinguished in their fields, although they certainly were men of their time. Both were enamored with the grandeur and practicality of Haudenosaunee history, kinship, and governance structure. But, Morgan even started secret societies — not unlike the Tamanend and Skull & Bones Societies, where white men pretended to be and honor Native peoples — involving a mix of “Indian” dress, reenactment, songs, and oratory.

Both promoted federal Indian assimilation policies that were spawned by widespread beliefs of racial superiority and inferiority, and theories of Indigenous peoples’ progress along an evolutionary scale from savagery to civilization. Assimilationists often saw themselves as the pro-Indian counterweight to the exterminationists. Both led to death and displacement; corporal punishment and slave labor at Indian boarding schools; pillaging of burial grounds and sacred places, and collecting and stockpiling evidence of Native life. The underlying notions of racial privilege continue to haunt and be used against Native peoples today.

Highly-credentialed in their fields, Parker and Morgan were lawyers who sometimes advised on Seneca land claims. Morgan also used his legal skills to represent railroads and iron ore development, particularly on Native lands in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Large tracts of Seneca lands were taken through railroad companies’ and land speculators’ illegal leases with individual Seneca people for rail worker camps that turned into white towns. Congress retroactively ratified the illegal transactions in 1875. Parker applied his lawyering to settlement agreements and even renegotiated treaties for the U.S. with some Native nations that had sided with the South in the Civil War.

Parker was from the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, one of the two Seneca Nations that share borders with New York. First named Hasanoanda and later Donehogawa, he was fluent in both Seneca and English and interpreted for and represented Seneca chiefs. A civil engineer, Union officer, and secretary to U.S. Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant, Parker scribed the 1865 surrender terms that ended the Civil War at Appomattox, Virginia.

Morgan was from Aurora, New York, in the traditional territory of the Cayuga Nation and Haudenosaunee, and was a student of their treaties with the U.S. and others. A premiere archaeologist, one of his specialties was societal and governmental cohesion, including matrilineal clans, such as with the Haudenosaunee Six Nations, and he gained information from oral histories and material culture, including burials.

They remained close until 1869 when President Grant appointed Parker U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a job Morgan wanted. Parker was the first Native person to serve in that post.

Who did what when Cornplanter’s Pipe went missing?

Such differences — as who donated or was gifted what, or who paid or was paid and how much — may seem small, but they gain significance when looking at an object and its chain of custody over time. This is especially important for those who may want to have an object returned and those who may want to keep it, and those who may be called upon to resolve any impasse.

A small file returned with the pipe contains more documents from the period of its disappearance from the State Museum. The “new” documents clarify some matters and sharpen some queries. They shed light on who did what, when and may have broad implications for well-known private collectors and the museum world, then and now.

One document states that archaeologist Charles F. Wray (1919-1985) “described and authenticated to the best of his professional knowledge” the items in the 1980 two-day estate auction of the Ogilvie Davis collection at the Bob, Chuck & Rich Roan, Inc., Auction Gallery in Cogan Station, Pennsylvania. The auction flyer includes a photograph of four “fine trade tomahawk peace pipes.” One of them is Cornplanter’s Pipe.

The photo on the auction flyer shows that Cornplanter’s name on the blade was covered up in such a clumsy manner that few could have missed it, particularly anyone with a trained eye for detail, such as Wray, who was a graphic artist and photographer, as well as a scientist. He was president of the New York State Archaeological Association and member of its esteemed Lewis H. Morgan Chapter.

Two other experts also examined it in person and gave their professional opinions to the State Museum that it was not Cornplanter’s Pipe, because it was missing the engraved names on the blade.

Now, with the reappearance of the pipe, no one can miss the names on the blade. And, with the appearance of the auction flyer photo showing that the names were obscured in such a way that the obfuscation could not have been missed, it remains to be discovered what caused these experts to miss it or to wrongly report their findings.

How the experts missed the obvious, in their up-close-and-personal examination is even more puzzling because one of them, the archaeologist/anthropologist Edmund Snow Carpenter (1911-2011), was the collector who had alerted the museum, in a December 2, 1989 letter, to its possible whereabouts, naming a person he said purchased the pipe at the 1980 auction.

Carpenter reported, according to Hamell’s notes, that the identical item, “sans the name Gy-Ant-Wa-Ka, but affixed with a buttplate engraved ‘E.S. Parker,’ was being offered for sale for $25,000.00 by a “dealer in ethnographic art” to a “collector of American Indian ethological objects,” both in New York City.

Buttplate on Cornplanter's Pipe - Video screen capture WMHT
Buttplate on Cornplanter's Pipe - Video screen capture WMHT

Then Carpenter and another expert examined the pipe themselves. Hamell noted: “Carpenter in company with William C. Sturtevant, Curator, North American Ethnology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, had visited (the dealer) and personally inspected the pipe-tomahawk ... Sturtevant recalls seeing neither the name, Gy-Ant-Wa-Ka, nor the probable maker’s mark ̈ on the opposite side of the blade, “both sides of which appeared to have been recently ground and polished.”

Based on their observations, the State Museum followed the pipe as it was sold, but did not take recovery action, and then lost track of it.

Anthropologist/ethnologist Sturtevant (1926-2007) was general editor of the acclaimed 20-volume Handbook of North American Indians, and the foremost ethnologist and president of the major ethnohistory, ethnology and anthropology organizations.

Carpenter was known as a Marshall McLuhan collaborator and a premiere visual anthropologist. Born in Rochester, he “dug for artifacts at the family’s summer home on Gull Lake, Mich.,” according to The New York Times’ July 7, 2011 article on his long life.

The Times reported that the 13-year-old Carpenter “met Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca anthropologist and director of the Rochester Museum” (and great-nephew of Ely Parker), “who invited him to take part in excavations of prehistoric Iroquoian sites in the Upper Allegheny Valley.”

Wray, who authenticated the 1980 auction items, specialized in Seneca and Iroquois material and opened Seneca burials at Ganondagan, a sacred place. Wray worked with archaeologist Harry L. Schoff, who sold Seneca funerary items to engineer/investment banker George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). Heye inherited his father’s oil fortune and amassed a vast collection from Native homes, villages and burial grounds, and even clothes off the backs of some Native people. He sent treasures by the boxcar, first to Chicago and then to New York, where he opened the Museum of the American Indian.

For decades, the Heye collection was being plundered from within and Carpenter was one of its trustee whistleblowers who publicly called for investigations. Louis J. Lefkowitz (1904-1996), New York’s longest serving attorney general (1957-1978), initiated actions in 1973 to stanch the flow of cultural items. He replaced the Heye trustees, enlisted the aid of the Rockefeller Family and put the collection under supervision that amounted to receivership.

The reshaped reform board of the 1980s, which included more trustees who were citizens of Native nations, was focused on saving the collection from ruin. Over 97% of it was warehoused in the Heye Research Facility in the Bronx and in danger of damage from humidity, flooding, mold and pests.

At the urging of the majority of its new board and Indian country advocates, Congress rescued and nationalized the collection, and placed the National Museum of the American Indian within the Smithsonian Institution and authorizing museums in the historic Alexander Hamilton Custom House in lower Manhattan and on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and a state-of-the-art research and housing center in Maryland.

The new National Museum was predicated on the Smithsonian’s agreement to repatriate Native ancestors, sacred objects and cultural patrimony from holding repositories. That historic policy in the 1989 law was extended to all collections with a federal nexus eleven months later in the 1990 national repatriation law.

Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, Jr. (1926-2018), struck the repatriation policy accord with Native peoples, with the encouragement of the White House and Members of Congress. He incurred the wrath of other scientists and heads of museums with major Native collections, including those that tried to get the Heye cache for their institutions. Adams received scathing internal criticism, mainly from those who did not welcome a new rival museum in the institution, but also from those who wanted the prime space on the National Mall for a planned Museum of Man, which Congress had not authorized.

Carpenter and Sturtevant both served as trustees of the Heye collection and vigorously opposed repatriation of cultural patrimony and iconic items. They also did what they could to stop development of the national Indian museum. Others carried on their resentments into efforts to undo repatriation law and stop returns, including protracted litigation against the Northwest Native peoples’ struggle to rebury their ancestor, the Ancient One, known as Kennewick Man.

Good news/bad news

State Museum Curator of Ethnology Gwendolyn Saul has lectured about Cornplanter’s Pipe and worked with the Seneca Museum to display it. She represents a new generation of thinking about public engagement, social interactions and consultation and prior consent in dealings with Native peoples. The Museum’s website describes her as an ethnographer and cultural anthropologist, whose “research and scholarship has focused on oral histories, museum studies, contemporary Indigenous art, and critical Indigenous theory.”

Gwen Saul
State Museum Curator of Ethnology Gwendolyn Saul has lectured about Cornplanter’s Pipe and worked with the Seneca Museum to display it. (Video screen capture WMHT)

Saul is writing a paper on Cornplanter’s Pipe, with Seneca scholar and author Randy John, who is a descendant of Cornplanter from Allegany Territory. She says they hope to publish in the fall. Their paper will draw heavily from Hamell’s work, no doubt, and from his many letters and calls, following leads and tracking the pipe across several states. With the aid of the “new” documents, their paper likely will connect more dots and be a roadmap to other details, if not conclusions.

No one knows exactly which schemer or how many came up with the labels-and-pipes shell game that covered up the disappearance of Cornplanter’s Pipe. And, it may be that all the intriguing details of its seven decades’ expedition to the west coast and back are lost to history. “I have my suspicions,” said Hamell, “but whoever they are, they’re long gone now, and not just from the museum.”

This also is a classic good news/bad news story.

Bad news: Someone switched card labels and stole the pipe sometime between 1947 and 1950.

Good news: A 1950 hurricane shattered a skylight and caused someone to start looking for the pipe, even if it did take as many as three years and a jump-start to notice it went missing.

Bad news: The pipe and written documents went through many unclean hands, at least seven named thieves, fences and auctioneers, and authenticators, experts and other enablers.

Good news: The widow of a collector contacted the State Museum to arrange for anonymity and return of the priceless pipe for which she is said to have paid $75,000. Even though she sent it by snail mail without any special handling, it arrived safely in mid-2018.

Generosity of anonymous collector

The State Museum thanked the “generosity of an anonymous collector” in its July 5, 2018 press release on the return of President Washington’s gift to Cornplanter, “the respected Seneca leader.” It put the pipe’s missing period this way: “For nearly 70 years this tomahawk was in the hands of private collectors, after being stolen from the museum.” The museum announced it would be exhibited in the museum’s main lobby in July-December, 2018.

The release stated that the “pipe tomahawk entered the State Museum’s collection in 1850 courtesy of Seneca diplomat Ely Parker, who purchased it from the widow of a Seneca named Small Berry.”

As with so many Native women referenced in histories and museums, then and now, the “widow” is not recognized in the release by her own name or identity. It identifies “John Andrus,” the name on the other side of the blade from Cornplanter’s, as “possibly the manufacturer,” which raises more questions than it answers.

It is widely written that Cornplanter destroyed his “relics” because of resentment over white encroachment and displacement. Another interpretation is that he was compelled by a vision to cease national responsibilities and held a give-away ceremony, passing along responsibility for some items to trusted Seneca keepers.

All ceremonies — or birth, death, emergence, marriage, diplomacy, the start or end of service and other honored passages and occasions — were later banned and criminalized for 50 years by civilization rules as pagan, heathen and uncivilized, but Native giveaways continue as a strong tradition.

Hamell’s research notes a version of the history that Cornplanter had a dream to name a successor and “remove from his house all vestiges or relics of the workmanship and invention of white men.” Hamill quotes Parker’s great-nephew — Arthur C. Parker (1881-1995), the State Museum’s first Archaeologist and the Rochester Museum’s Director — who addressed this in his 1911 biography of his famous great-uncle.

The younger Parker wrote that his great-uncle “rescued it from the flames” of the burning cabin of the widow of Cornplanter’s deceased friend. Arthur Parker portrayed himself as saving it from the 1911 fire that took 10,000 “specimens of Iroquois handiwork,” claiming that he “tore the tomahawk from the case where it hung. The blade was too hot to hold in the hand and the varnish on the handle blistered.”

Characterizing the pipe as an “18th-century Native American tomahawk,” the museum’s release and other materials describe the pipe’s stem as a haft, meaning blade handle. This and ongoing identifications of Cornplanter as a “war chief,” further the impression that those are the proper terms of art in the learned community and that Native peoples are in a constant state of wartime savagery. Depictions and displays of this and other pipes with the blade side up are the visual imprint for those misperceptions.

Onöhsagwë:de’ Cultural Center, Seneca-Iroquois National Museum

The most important thing to know about Haudenosaunee pipes is that, if the pipe bowl is pointing up, it means Peace. If the tomahawk blade is pointing up, it is War.

One place where a lot of people know which way is up is Onondowaga, whether they casually call Cornplanter’s Pipe a pipe, tomahawk, pipe-tomahawk, peace-pipe/tomahawk, a wicked weapon, a heart-thing or, simply, “ours.”

The National Museum of Onondowaga is named the Onöhsagwë:de’ Cultural Center, in honor of a respected Longhouse figure from Allegany, Richard Johnny John, Gwende. The name derives from a word meaning An Opening in the House (a window, doorway or chimney, according to its website). Onöhsagwë:de’ is in Salamanca, Allegany Territory, one of two Seneca Nation Territories; the other is Cattaraugus Territory. Original Allegany Territory extends into Pennsylvania, where Cornplanter lived out his life.

“As soon as we heard the State Museum had the pipe, our museum opened negotiation talks with their museum,” said Hayden Haynes, who is Seneca, Deer Clan, and Business Operation Manager for the National Museum, where he has worked for six months. Also an accomplished Antler Carver, he has nine years’ experience in food and beverage management and casino marketing. He provided the phonetic pronunciation of his Seneca name as Nay-Gweh-Nohn-Dan, which translates to By My Voice. When asked how many of the 13-person staff were Seneca, he said, “Pretty much all of us.”

Haynes said they learned details about the pipe’s recovery through a public speech by the State Museum’s Curator Saul. Haynes still wonders at the casual disrespect of the anonymous collector’s method of returning the pipe. “She just mailed it,” he said, “Mailed it!” Once we worked out the details,” he said, “Dr. Saul brought it to us in person, even though we were prepared to go to Albany for it.”

The National Museum is over 40, but the new facility is only four months old. Onöhsagwë:de’ covers 34,000 square feet on two floors, with a 400-seat amphitheater, classrooms and ample space for exhibiting, housing and caring for collections.

Acting Director David George-Shongo Jr., says Onöhsagwë:de’ is a Seneca gathering place — for learning, teaching and meeting — as well as a destination for visitors from elsewhere. “It went through eight architectural plans as a museum and cultural center,” he said, “It was designed for elders’ comfort and with kids’ language classes and virtual literacy competency in mind.”

Seneca, Beaver Clan, from Allegany Territory, he emailed this: “My real name is Ha:waeyѐndih (they know/familiar with him).” With a degree in cultural anthropology, he is a former Onondowaga language teacher and has worked with the National Museum “off and on since I was 14.”

The Nation’s first archivist, he is proud of the fact that the National Museum Archives hold some of the invaluable papers of Dr. John Mohawk (1945-2006), the Turtle Clan Seneca writer, historian, educator and activist. Mohawk was from Cattaraugus Territory and directed the University of Buffalo’s Center for Indigenous Studies. A leading intellectual, and advocate for Native peoples’ sovereignty, traditions and protection of the natural world, Mohawk often invoked Chief Cornplanter’s words, deeds, integrity, humility and perseverance.

The National Museum also holds Pennsylvania’s Monument to Cornplanter, which was moved from the Commonwealth to Salamanca. George-Shongo believes it is the first Euro-American monument to a Native person in the U.S.

George-Shongo said the State Museum was willing to loan the Cornplanter Pipe, but had many pages of questions about capability, which were easily answered. Built at a cost of $18 million, the National Museum has bells and whistles only dreamt of in most museums. A state-of-the-art facility, with a generator that “starts at 100 percent,” the National Museum is “partly built into the side of a hill’ to aid the automated temperature and humidity control system. It has a security system that meets or surpasses museum standards, including sound and motion detectors, cameras everywhere and the highest quality access and credentialing processes. “There was nothing they wanted that we don’t have,” said George-Shongo.

In the days leading up to the public unveiling of the pipe, George-Shongo used this Seneca word to describe the significance of the pipe at this time: gáíwagwáihsös’ (it proves/attest to it). When asked to expand, after a telephone interview, he wrote, “The reason I chose this word is not only does it show that we are a distinct community, but I also attest that we have the standards and some beyond the standards to have anything that is part of our culture returned home.”

It is ironic that the State Museum was worried about adequate security. After all, the State Museum’s system was not sufficient to keep the pipe safe from wind, rain or sticky fingers.

It is entirely possible that Cornplanter’s Pipe could be requested for repatriation, under the cultural patrimony category or the lineal descendancy process, or both. Repatriation law does not place conditions, standards or requirements on the manner in which Native repatriators care for or exhibit (or choose not to exhibit) items in repatriatable categories.

In the “Distinct Community”

Grounds surrounding and near the National Museum feature a natural wetlands, buffalo grass and maple, white pine, and other indigenous trees. A Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) garden and ceremonial tobacco (not the commercial and chemical kind) are tended by young people from age five through their teens, as a teaching mechanism, said George-Shongo.

“Everything we do is planned for how we can help our own people,” he said, “because that’s what our people deserve.”

People gathered at the Cultural Center on March 14 for a private ceremony and a public viewing of Cornplanter’s Pipe. The National Museum’s website describes the room where it is displayed as the Agwas tiadiya’dade’ (Distinct Community), where people are welcomed with the Ganönyök (Giving of Thanks), under an oversized version of a Gustoweh (the hat worn by men and designed to “take the dust away” for clear thinking).

“The Onöndowa’ga:’ are very thankful people,” reads the website. “We give thanks for everything before we meet, or when we gather together in groups. As we speak the Ganönyök we make our minds one.”

When contacted by Indian Country Today for this article, past president of the Seneca Nation Maurice A. John, Sr., said he is “thankful to all those people that enabled this pipe to come back home.” He expressed appreciation “to the Seneca Nation for building a new museum to keep it in, to show our people and the world.”

John, whose Seneca name means "a will to live," is of the Bear Clan and served on the Seneca Nation Council in 1977 when the first museum was built. “I am truly thankful that Council built the new museum when I served as president and finished when I was Treasurer.” John also was a Trustee of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and was instrumental in the development of its “Nation to Nation” Treaties Project exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), as was John Mohawk, in which Cornplanter is featured as one of the signers of the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty.

Saying Cornplanter is “known by all as one of our greatest leaders,” John went on to write: “The pipe is sacred to our past because it meant that Cornplanter was a pipe carrier. What is a pipe carrier and the responsibilities of using it for prayer? Our Grandfathers and relatives preserved our way and enabled us to do the same for the next generations. The Creator hears our prayers and if we are worthy, helps our people.”

Seneca Leader Cornplanter
Seneca leader Cornplanter holding a pipe tomahawk. Painted by Frederick Bartoli in 1796. Image courtesy New York Historical Society.

John called this “a teaching moment for our young people, especially,” he ended with this: “We live on our Mother Earth for a short time. It is imperative to teach our youth that Cornplanter's name is remembered because of the efforts he put forth for our People. The pipe reminds us of his efforts.”

Before the gathering, the Olean Times Herald carried a statement by Seneca Nation President Rickey L. Armstrong, Sr., that the “tomahawk is more than just a tie to Cornplanter, one of our great Seneca leaders” Seneca and of the Great Blue Heron Clan, he was president in 2002-2004 and has served on the Council since 2014. The Olean paper was the first to cover the pipe’s return home.

Armstrong told the Herald: “It is a reminder for everyone that the agreements made between our Haudenosaunee ancestors and the founders of the United States live on. Even though our treaties have been broken throughout history, they live on and remain, just as our sovereignty remains, today and forever.”

Armstrong, Councillors and other Seneca dignitaries were part of the March 14 unveiling. The public parts of the event were live-streamed and the recording can be found on the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum’s Facebook page. As Armstrong said at the gathering: "This tomahawk is not symbolic. It is not here just for show. Cornplanter’s tomahawk is proof that our relationship with the U.S. and outside government is rooted in recognition of our sovereignty."

George-Shongo introduced Brenda Redeye, Seneca and president of the Cornplanter Descendants Association. She welcomed the assembled group by saying, “You know, this is a piece of history we’re making here, today … It’s our history ... We're part of something with our ancestors, and you just feel it all the way down; we’re all connected.”

When contacted for this article, G. Peter Jemison said, “I am sure descendants of Cornplanter are delighted to see the tomahawk pipe once owned by their famous relative.” An interested Seneca of the Huron Clan, he is the Historic Site Manager of Ganondagan. He also expressed appreciation to the State Museum.

Addressing the gathering on behalf of the National Museum Board of Trustees was its Chairman, Rick Jamieson, who called Cornplanter “a great man, who walked among us ... part of us, you know, one of us.” Jamieson, who is Seneca of the Wolf Clan, said, “You can read all you want in the history books about Cornplanter, but when you finally see something that you know he held, that was his, in his hands, then it comes alive; it’s real, very real.”

“It’s amazing that it made it here,” said Jamieson. “It’s amazing that Cornplanter even lived as long as he lived, because he went through wars ... two wars, and survived. He went through what happened after those two wars … Yet, he survived. He looked out for us.”

Referencing the pipe-tomahawk having survived two fires, he said, “Our Seneca Brother Ely Parker revived it, had it rebuilt.” Jamieson attributed its presence back home to a “greater power than all of us ... because that’s where Cornplanter came from … I think that’s what got him through the times that he made it through.”

Jamieson concluded by saying, “It’s where it belongs. It belongs here ... It's on loan right now, but I want that loan to be permanent. So, that’s where I come from as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.”

Some icons of diplomacy, then and now – a backstory

Pipes, medals and wampum were and are used in diplomacy between the U.S. and Haudenosaunee Nations, as symbols and as evidence of peace and friendship.

Cornplanter’s Pipe was gifted by Washington, between 1790 and 1794, most likely in 1792, during one of the Seneca delegation’s meetings in Philadelphia. It was a part of an elaborate exchange of medals, pipes, wampum and other tangible symbols of amity between the Haudenosaunee and the U.S. An integral part of Treaty making and diplomacy, gifts were vital signs of heroic labor to achieve and maintain peaceful relations.

Washington presented U.S. gifts to the Haudenosaunee Nations and some are known to exist today. An unknown number of other emblematic gifts from the U.S. and from Native nations exist in public and private collections, and sometimes come to light as such when they are auctioned or otherwise sold.

Red Jacket's Peace Medal
Red Jacket's Peace Medal. Courtesy Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society Museum 2002 display

Among the most famous U.S. gifts that Washington presented are Cornplanter’s Pipe and Red Jacket’s Peace Medal. Seneca Chief Red Jacket, Sagoyewatha (Keeper Awake) of the Wolf Clan, was widely recognized for his oratory and was depicted wearing the Medal in numerous paintings of the day.

Engraved with the date 1792, it is made of silver and features a Native man standing next to a tree and smoking a long peace pipe, which is being held by Washington. The tree stands for both the Tree of Peace and for the forests and “wild land.” Behind Washington are trappings of “civilization” and two tethered oxen symbolizing wagon settlers and plow farmers in the background and headed in the direction of the Native man.

Many of these medals of varying sizes and dates were given to delegates of their nations at Treaty talks and signings. The Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society holds the Medal, which was sold, gifted or left for safekeeping by Parker and/or other descents of Red Jacket’s extended family, depending on whose facts are being presented.

Washington commissioned a large wampum belt to commemorate the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, which the U.S. and Haudenosaunee Nations began negotiating in 1792 and concluded in 1794. Over six feet long and five inches high, the wampum strip is made of some 10,000 beads, made from the white and purple quahog clam and white whelk shells.

The belt features purple figures on a white background, for peace. It is known variously as the Canandaigua Treaty Belt, the Covenant Belt, the Great Chain, the Washington Covenant and the George Washington Belt.

The 222nd Commemoration of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua between the Haudenosaunee Iroquois and the US government. Nov 2016 - Photo Alex Hamer
The 222nd Commemoration of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua between the Haudenosaunee Iroquois and the US government. Nov 2016

In the center of the belt is a house, which represents the Haudenosaunee People of the Longhouse. Two human figures stand under the eaves of the house and at its sides, one for the Mohawk Nation, Keepers of the Eastern Door, and the other for the Seneca Nation, Keepers of the Western Door. The Keepers figures have one hand in the Longhouse (connected to the Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora Nations) and the other clasping hands with thirteen human figures, six standing on one side and seven on the other, representing the United States of America.

The Haudenosaunee and U.S. figures are facing forward, in an open and strong stance, linked in a covenant chain of peace and friendship forever.

Washington presented the Belt as a sign of good faith during talks about the potential shape and terms of the Treaty that was reached over two years later. It was during the same time that medals and pipes were gifted, including Red Jacket’s Peace Medal and Cornplanter’s Pipe, and the nearly identical Red Jacket’s Pipe, which is displayed in the permanent exhibition in the Luce Center of the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.

“Rumor has it that the tomahawk was presented to Red Jacket by George Washington, but we don’t know this for sure,” according to the Society’s Oct. 3, 2011 article, A Tomahawk With A Past. “However, ‘the eagle imagery on the silver inlay does seem consistent with the idea that it came from the government,’ says (Decorative Arts Curator Margaret) Hofer.” The article states that it was gifted to the Society “by Dr. Samuel W. Francis, who said his father purchased it from Red Jacket himself.” Hofer was quoted as saying, “It is a rare Seneca artifact with a clear chain of provenance.” The Society “rehabilitated” it with a “new handle designed to look like the original, down to the missing silver inlays that it’s rumored Red Jacket may have traded away.”

As for the George Washington Belt, is there any way of verifying that Washington presented the belt to the Haudenosaunee at the U.S. Capital in Philadelphia, on March 23, 1792? Yes, two ways. One, oral history of the Haudenosaunee, who received the gift of the huge wampum belt from Washington himself, and knew the reason, location and season. Two, Washington said so and declared it in writing: “As an evidence of the sincerity of the desires of the United States, for perfect peace and friendship with you, I deliver you this white belt of wampum, which I request you will safely keep.” And, the pipes and medal were part of the gifting of the diplomacy recorded by the belt.

For more than a century, the George Washington Belt and other wampum belts went from one unauthorized person and institution after another, and finally ended up at the State Museum in Albany, New York and the Heye Museum in New York City, to name only two of the numerous Haudenosaunee wampum collections in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

The Heye Museum trustees returned 11 wampum belts in 1988 to the Six Nations of the Grand River (Ohsweken), bordering southern Ontario, Canada. The State Museum returned the George Washington Belt and 21 other belts in 1989 to the Onondaga Nation (People of the Hills), Keepers of the Central Fire of the Haudenosaunee, south of Syracuse, New York.

Both returns were made prior to passage of the historic repatriation provisions in the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Museum Act and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The cultural patrimony category of repatriatable items in the 1990 law includes historical and other materials that are owned or held collectively, by a nation or tribe as a whole, and cannot be alienated by any one or part of the collective owners.

The term cultural patrimony was first used in the repatriation sense in the 1979 President’s Report to Congress on American Indian Religious Freedom as a catchall term for all repatriatable items and returns made under the 1978 religious freedom law. The Native coalition that worked toward repatriation law ten years later advocated for Native human rights law, while the collectors and scientists argued for “their” property rights.

The Native coalition objected to characterization of human remains, surrogates, funerary items or sacred objects (living beings) as property, saying Native peoples have responsibilities and rights to them, not ownership of them. The coalition decided to use the term cultural patrimony to address the Native historical and cultural items for which holding repositories claimed to have good title, just because money had changed hands, as with these examples of Washington’s gifts to Native nations, even if they carried the names of esteemed individuals. Even though that category is in property rights terms, the Native coalition focus was on collective responsibilities, not title.

The 1988 and 1989 wampum returns were made under the same principle as the cultural patrimony provision, but neither the State nor the Heye Museum waited to be forced by law to do what they decided was the right thing to do. Heye Chairman and World Bank President Barber B. Conable, Jr., (1922-2003), who was a lawyer and longtime New York Representative in Congress, led the Heye Trustees through the decision to repatriate.

Historian Martin E. Sullivan (1944-2014) from Troy, New York, guided the State Museum’s 1989 wampum return as its Director from 1983 to 1990. He also led the Heard Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and received the American Alliance of Museums’ 2014 award distinguished service to museums. “Dr. Sullivan served on national boards on museum standards, ethics and practices,” wrote Adam Bernstein in The Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2014. “From 1995 to 2003, he chaired the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which advises the U.S. government on the pillage, looting and illicit sale of antiquities.”

Sullivan worked out the return of the George Washington Belt and others in meetings over several years with his board and state and university officials, and with Six Nations representatives, including Oren Lyons, who is a Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onondaga Council of Chiefs, Haudenosaunee. 

Oren Lyons and Sen. Daniel Inouye holding the two row wampum belt in 1987.
Oren Lyons and Sen. Daniel Inouye holding the two-row wampum belt in 1987.

A leading international voice on repatriation, sovereignty, treaties and the environment, Lyons is famous for many achievements, as an author, artist, philosopher, professor, coach and athlete – an All-American in lacrosse at Syracuse University and co-founder of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team – and a principal author of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples.

Oren Lyons - by Vincent Schilling
Oren Lyons outside of the White House in Washington DC prior to the celebration of the 222nd 1794 Canandaigua Treaty. (Photo: Vincent Schilling)

Sullivan’s predecessor director at the State Museum and former senior ethnologist at the Smithsonian, anthropologist William N. Fenton (1908-2005) opposed return of the wampum belts from Albany. A trustee of the Heye Museum, he opposed its return of wampum, as well as the National Museum and repatriation laws. He was fond of telling colleagues he was fluent in the Seneca language and had been “adopted” into the Seneca Hawk Clan, as he said Louis Henry Morgan had been.

Important 1790 laws for federal, not state, dealings with Native Nations

In Cornplanter’s day, the Americans won the glorious Revolution, but the U.S. had yet to emerge as a mighty governing force. While its strength was in the union, some of the disparate states worked to keep the general government from gaining strength. Haudenosaunee and other Native peoples often were caught in the crossfire and threatened into conflict, as they had been (and would be again) in imported wars and political skirmishes that carried on ancient feuds in Europe.

The question of whether the U.S. or the individual states had authority to deal with Native Nations had been resolved in the Constitution, when the framers agreed, in Article I, Section 8: “Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” (Emphasis added.)

The U.S. would make Treaty promises in keeping with its foundational document, but its most powerful colonies-turned-states, such as New York and Georgia, would not honor them, instead taking Native lands and provoking war.

Residence Act of 1790

In 1790, the U.S. made two important laws that affected the federal-state power dynamic and U.S. dealings with Native nations: It moved the capital away from New York and it removed states from unauthorized dealings with Native nations.

Congress met in New York under the Articles of Confederation and the City became the official seat of government on March 4, 1789, when the U.S. Constitution was fully ratified. The following year, on July 16, 1790, Washington signed the Residence Act that designated Philadelphia as the capital, for ten years, after which a site along the Potomac River (later established as Washington, D.C.) would be the permanent capital in December 1800.

This was a compromise among U.S. Founders: Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, a New Yorker; Senator Robert Morris of Pennsylvania (called the financier of the Revolution); and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Representative James Madison and Washington, all Virginians.

It was a vote swap involving at least two items. First, the Hamilton/Morris plan for the federal financial system, including assumption of states’ debts, which was opposed by Virginia and other southern states that had repaid their debts. Second, authorization to build the capital along the Potomac River, site of Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation home, and not far from Jefferson and Madison’s Monticello and Montpelier plantations.

The agreement to locate the capital in Pennsylvania during the decade of construction in the south was to assure that New York was not the center of gravity. It also was a mourning Nation’s tribute to U.S. founder Benjamin Franklin, who had died in April, three months before the Residence Act was signed and four before the Funding Act.

A Delegate to the 1787 Constitution Convention, Franklin was a beloved author, diplomat, editor, institution-builder, inventor, musician, political theorist, postmaster, printer, scientist and statesman. He was known as a master wordsmith and speechmaker in the style developed by the Haudenosaunee and Lenape Nations in Treaty-making with Britain (and its Quaker Colony), France and the Netherlands.

Nonintercourse Act, 1790-present

Six days after signing the Residence Act, on July 22, Washington approved the 1790 Indian Nonintercourse Act, making it illegal for non-federally-sanctioned trade or transactions with Native peoples. It is the first of the Trade and Intercourse Acts and stands today.

The Act reads:

No sale of lands made by any Indians, or any nation or tribe of Indians within the United States, shall be valid to any person or persons, or to any state, whether having the right of pre-emption to such lands or not, unless the same shall be made and duly executed at some public Treaty, held under the authority of the United States.

In a letter of December 29, 1790 letter to the Seneca Nation, Washington explained that the Act was “security for the remainder of your lands.” He wrote to the Seneca Chiefs because New York continued to encroach on their lands and they wanted the president to do something about the outrage. And, since the U.S. Capital had moved to Pennsylvania, nearer to Seneca lands, it was much easier for the Seneca Nation to send runners and a delegation to Philadelphia on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations or on its own behalf.

Washington’s letter acknowledges that “the Six Nations have been led into some difficulties with respect to the sale of their lands since the peace.” He wrote that “these evils arose before the present government of the United States was established, when the separate States and individuals under their authority, undertook to treat with the Indian tribes respecting the sale of their lands.”

The “case is now entirely altered,” wrote Washington. “The general Government only has the power, to treat with the Indian nations, and any Treaty formed and held without its authority will not be binding ... No State nor person can purchase your lands, unless at some public Treaty held under the authority of the United States.”

Washington made the strongest possible commitment: “The general government will never consent to your being defrauded. But it will protect you in all your just rights.”

However, the young U.S. was not strong enough to enforce the law. As it grew in strength, countless strongmen (and, more recently, strongwomen) in all states and in all three federal branches of government ran roughshod over Native peoples, lands and rights, or tried to do so.

Fortunately, not all the branches targeted all Native peoples all the time, or at the same time, so Treaty promises have been kept and good laws have been enacted, implemented and left standing, and numerous injustices have been addressed. But, many have not and Native peoples have suffered untold direct assaults and policy switchbacks that are unworthy of the great United States.

The Nonintercourse Act may be the best federal Indian law ever, and it continues to be used and relied on in many cases and in developing positive policy. Even so, its spirit, intent and Washington’s good words have been set aside selectively in Treaty-based land cases of Haudenosaunee Nations, so as not to disrupt the lives of those who live on and enjoy benefits from stolen Haudenosaunee Treaty lands.

1794 Treaty of Canandaigua

Cornplanter’s Pipe is both witness to and evidence of the Seneca Nation’s years of diplomacy and its participation in the making of the Treaty of Canandaigua, and of its responsibilities for representing the interests of the other Haudenosaunee Nations when their delegations could not meet with the U.S. officials in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The pipe also is a testament to the strength, wisdom and sheer stamina of Cornplanter and the other Chiefs, Clan Mothers and all the other people who were involved in preparatory ceremonies, meetings and activities, in making and breaking camp, in carrying messages, in making gifts, in communicating what happened at the meetings and developing strategies for the next ones. And, that was before the final Treaty making in October and November 1794 at Canandaigua, New York.

The Treaty of Canandaigua established peace and friendship in perpetuity between the Haudenosaunee Six Nations and the United States. The Haudenosaunee Nations “sent 1600 representatives to the Treaty council — the Seneca sending an impressive 800 representatives,” reads the Canandaigua Treaty page of the Ganondagan website. “Quaker representatives, led by William Savery of Philadelphia, also attended this Treaty council,” at the invitation of the Seneca Nation because they were trusted interpreters and witnesses.

Imagine the organizational skills and diverse talents it takes to run a Treaty camp of that size for over a month. People need to get wood and tend fires; to hunt, fish, gather and cook; to prepare foods and medicines; to conduct ceremonies; to exchange gifts; to observe all protocols and make amends for any breach; to think, talk, translate and absorb translations; to anticipate and plan for what comes next.

The Treaty was years in the making — four years of active diplomacy. The Haudenosaunee were not the Six Nations when they began their formal exchanges in person and in writing with the U.S., even in March of 1792, Washington addressed them as the Five Nations. Tuscarora Nation soon joined as the sixth and was a party to the Treaty.

Diplomacy surrounding Treaty making among the Haudenosaunee and with the U.S. and other nations involved runners with wampum strings delivering messages in writing or in wampum beads or a strip. This form of diplomacy continues in the Six Nations dealings with the U.S. and in negotiations on important matters, such as protecting land, people and sovereignty, and regaining what has been lost, taken or disappeared. The protocols rarely change, and context, priorities and positions are clear, even in what seem simple salutations and opening statements.

“The voice of the Senecca Nation speaks to you the great Councillor, in whose heart, the wise men of the thirteen fires, have placed their wisdom,” wrote Seneca Chiefs Cornplanter, Half-Town and Great Tree to President Washington on December 1, 1790.

Addressing him as “Father,” the Chiefs let him know this: “When your army entered the Country of the Six Nations, we called you the Town-destroyer ... When you gave us peace we called you father, because you promised to secure us in the possession of our land. Do this and so long as the land shall remain that beloved name shall live in the heart of every Senecca.”

Washington’s response to the Seneca Chiefs 28 days later, echoed the pointed salutatory protocols: “I, the President of the United States, by my own mouth, and by a written speech signed with my own hand, and sealed with the seal of the United States, speak to the Seneka Nation, and desire their attention, and that they would keep this speech in remembrance of the friendship of the United States.”

Washington wrote that he “attentively examined” points about land takings and outrages raised by Chiefs at Tioga Point and “laid before me in the present month by the Cornplanter and the other Seneka Chiefs now in Philadelphia.” He expressed his desire and that of the U.S. “that all the miseries of the late war should be forgotten and buried forever. That in future, the United States and the six nations should be truly brothers, promoting each other’s prosperity by acts of mutual justice & friendship.”

When Washington presented the belt to the Haudenosaunee at the U.S. Capital in Philadelphia, on March 23, 1792, he said, “I cordially bid you welcome to the Seat of the government of the United States ... You have been invited to this place … at my special request, in order to remove all causes of discontent: to devise and adopt plans to promote your welfare, and firmly to cement the peace between the United States and you, so as that in future, we shall consider ourselves as brothers indeed.”

Washington emphasized his desire “that a firm peace should exist, not only between the United States and the five nations, but also between the United States and all the natives of this land; and this peace should be founded upon the principles of justice and humanity as upon an immovable rock. In order that “our peace and friendship may forever be unclouded, we must forget the misunderstandings of past times. Let us now look forward, and devise measures to render our friendship perpetual.”

These are brief examples of the international relations that led up to the Treaty. While Washington had been present for many of the prefatory talks, he engaged with the Haudenosaunee Chiefs on peacekeeping policy, and details were worked out between the Six Nations’ designees and the U.S. principal agents: the first U.S. Secretary of War Henry Knox and his successor, Timothy Pickering (1745-1829).

Pickering had been appointed by Knox as Indian Commissioner in 1790 to address the distrust of the U.S. within the Haudenosaunee Nations, mainly by the Seneca Nation, whose lands in New York from Canada into Pennsylvania comprised the “western frontier” of the time.

At the time of the Treaty, Pickering was the highest-level U.S. official at Canandaigua. In less than a year, he would be installed as the third Secretary of State (after Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph). Washington was not at the final talks and Pickering signed for the U.S., which is why Canandaigua also was called the Pickering Treaty.

The Treaty’s preamble states that the U.S. president, “having determined to hold a conference with the Six Nations of Indians, for the purpose of removing from their minds all causes of complaint, and establishing a firm and permanent friendship with them; and Timothy Pickering being appointed sole agent for that purpose; and the agent having met and conferred with the Sachems, Chiefs and Warriors of the Six Nations, in a general council: Now in order to accomplish the good design of this conference, the parties have agreed on the following articles, which, when ratified by the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate of the United States, shall be binding on them and the Six Nations.”

The Treaty’s first article states the purpose succinctly: Peace and friendship are hereby firmly established, and shall be perpetual, between the United States and the Six Nations.

In the other articles, the Haudenosaunee and each of the Six Nations reserved territory and the U.S. restored lands wrongly taken in earlier treaties. The parties recognized the sovereign status of each other and all, continuing their nation-to-nation dealings. They agreed that “for injuries done by individuals on either side, no private revenge or retaliation shall take place,” but offenders would be delivered to their own countries for “prudent measures … necessary to preserve our peace and friendship unbroken.”

The U.S. restored the western lands wrongly taken from the Seneca Nation, which ceded to the U.S. “the right of making a wagon road from Fort Schlosser to Lake Erie, as far south as Buffalo Creek; and the people of the United States shall have the free and undisturbed use of this road, for the purposes of traveling and transportation.”

The Treaty further states:

And the Six Nations, and each of them, will forever allow to the people of the United States, a free passage through their lands, and the free use of their harbors and rivers adjoining and within their respective tracts of land, for the passing and securing of vessels and boats, and liberty to land their cargoes when necessary for their safety.

It must have sounded innocent enough to the Haudenosaunee, and modest. Their lands and waters were immense and the Americans wanted only safe passage for travel on a wagon-wide road and on their extensive waterways.

They could not have known that the Erie Canal in New York would be completed 30 years later, opening a water passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. Or, that wagon-width railroad tracks would be laid along settler trails through Native lands. Or, that those passages would attract burgeoning populations, spreading more epidemics of foreign diseases, squatting on more land, chopping down more forests and chasing away and killing animals, birds, fish, plants and roots essential to Native ways, health and life.

Only the most prescient could have foreseen that the water and rail systems soon would transport increased numbers of surveyors, miners, speculators and profiteers in coal, iron ore and precious minerals, as well as used to haul their loot quickly over long distances. And, that mushrooming industrial development and waste dumping would poison the pristine lakes and waterways of Haudenosaunee and far beyond. And, that the barges, riverboats and iron horses would intensify the excesses of “civilization,” facilitating the plunder of burial grounds and the exploitation of children, traditions and sacred places in Haudenosaunee territory and throughout Turtle Island.

No matter how the Treaty’s terms have been stretched beyond recognition to disadvantage the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations have not broken their word, and they stand on their own land, sovereignty and Treaty rights.

Treaty Consecrated, Ratified, Proclaimed, Commemorated and Honored

The 1794 Canandaigua Treaty is a living document, legally binding on the U.S., the Haudenosaunee and the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations.

When the Six Nations and the U.S. gave their word and sent smoke skyward from the Treaty Council, the Haudenosaunee delegates and observers considered the Treaty concluded, on November 11, 1794, the date on which it is commemorated.

The ceremonial protocols and the signing of multiple Treaty originals by the 59 Haudenosaunee delegates and the authorized U.S. signers were verified by eight named witnesses and four named interpreters. Among the Seneca delegates who made their signs on the Treaty were Cornplanter, Red Jacket and Chiefs Half-Town and Handsome Lake of the Seneca Wolf Clan, who were half-brothers to Cornplanter.

The U.S. original was carried to Philadelphia, where it was ratified by the Senate on January 9, 1795, and ratified, signed and proclaimed by the president on January 21, 1795.

Newspapers of the day announced the president’s signing of the Treaty on their front pages, and many printed its entire text. Treaties and “Indian stories” were given prominent placement and were widely understood to be big news.

The U.S. original Treaty is housed in the National Archives on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., along with the Constitution and other venerated documents. Another original, perhaps one belonging to the Haudenosaunee or one of the Six Nations, is held by the Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua, New York.

And, Washington’s wampum equivalent of the Treaty is now repatriated to the Haudenosaunee, along with other revered historical records. It is possible that other parchment originals could surface, and many people have been following leads for decades, but those are the originals confirmed as existing today.

There is a rumor, often recycled in letters to editors and through social media, that the 1794 Treaty is not legitimate. This is not true, but it is used in political propaganda of anti-Treaty/anti-Indian hate-groups, including in New York by those who oppose the assertion of Haudenosaunee land and other rights.

Even some “experts” have repeated this rumor, because they read it in a book, and not just any book: Indian Affairs Law and Treaties, Vol. II, Treaties 1778-1883, the 1904 collection of federal-tribal treaties pulled together from disparate sources by Charles Joseph Kappler (1868-1946). The Government Printing Office printed it for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which he served as Clerk, prior to entering private practice and representing the Crow Tribe and others before the Court of Claims and Supreme Court.

While a useful reference made even handier by digitization, users should note that the Kappler’s compilation perpetuates large and small inaccuracies without correction. And, because it offers the text only and no analysis, users might think they are reading the bare facts, instead of unnoted, uncorrected errors in the original. For one example, there is no asterisk for the printed text of the 1851 Horse Creek (Fort Laramie) Treaty to caution that one of the nations, Gros Ventre, is wrongly included and another, Hidatsa, is wrongly excluded;

There is no single definitive source on treaties and all have their limitations, but one that comes closer to the mark than Kappler’s assemblage is the 1999 Documents of American Indian Diplomacy: Treaties, Agreements, and Conventions, 1775–1979, by Standing Rock Sioux Treaty rights expert, author, historian and attorney Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005), and Raymond J. DeMallie, anthropologist and founder of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University Bloomington, whose expertise is in ethnohistory, symbolism and linguistic and textual analysis.

Kappler added an asterisk at the bottom of his reprint of the Canandaigua Treaty with the Six Nations, indicating that it was unratified: *It appears that this Treaty was never ratified by the Senate. See American State Papers, Indian Affairs, vol. I, p. 232. Also, post 1027.” Had he researched the records of the Senate or the State Department, or known more about the Treaty, he would not have compounded the error in the citation he used.

“The president sent the (Canandaigua) agreements to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent, and on January 9, 1795, the Senate gave its approval,” wrote the National Archives on October 10, 2014, in Indian Treaties at the Museum of the American Indian. “The president proceeded to ratify the Treaty 12 days later.”

An original copy of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794. This document recognizes most of western New York State as holdings of the Confederacy and guarantees Indians the right to sell their land to U.S. citizens. Chiefs claim the treaty is valid and has not
An original copy of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794. This document recognizes most of western New York State as holdings of the Confederacy and guarantees Indians the right to sell their land to U.S. citizens. Chiefs claim the Treaty is valid.

The National Archives and the National Museum of the American Indian exhibited the Treaty for the first six months of the Smithsonian Indian Museum’s “Nation to Nation” exhibition on Treaties (2014-2021). It was the first time the U.S. original had ever been exhibited, and the Archives explains how it differs from the other originals: “To signify ratification, two separate pieces of parchment were attached to the existing Treaty (also on parchment), the latter reading in part:

Now, Know Ye, that I having seen and considered the said Treaty do by and with the advice and consent of the Senate of the United States accept ratify and confirm the same and every article and clause thereof. In testimony whereof, I have caused the seal of the United States to be here unto affixed and signed the same with my hand.

“The Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, signed as witness, and a paper wafer of the Great Seal of the United States was applied next to Washington’s signature.”

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IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR THE SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN - From left, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Oren Lyons, PhD, The Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chief Sidney Hill, Guest Curator Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), National Museum of the American Indian Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee) and Executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries Jim Gardner, front right, unveil the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794 on loan from the National Archives in the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian on Monday, Sept. 8, 2014 in Washington. The Treaty, between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the United States, is signed by President George Washington and The Six Nations (Iroquois). The exhibition, “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations,” opens Sept. 21, 2014, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. AmericanIndian.si.edu. (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian)

Each November 11, Treaty Day events are held in Canandaigua, with the organizing help of Friends of Ganondagan (the Seneca historic and sacred place from which the New York town derives its name). A bronze plaque on a large boulder commemorates the Treaty on the grounds of the Ontario County Court House on Canandaigua’s Main Street. The Treaty is celebrated and observed in the town, where elementary school children join in making art about the Treaty, the Covenant Chain and other symbols of peace and friendship.

Treaty cloth and wampum in the Indian Treaty Room

The Treaty of Canandaigua was honored and recognized on February 22, 2016, in Washington, D.C., in the Indian Treaty Room, possibly the most elaborate and ornate space in the White House compound. It is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the West Wing, and was built in 1888 for State and Navy Departments’ diplomatic events. The United Nations Charter was signed there and some U.S. treaties, but none with Native nations.

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The Treaty of Canandaigua was honored and recognized on February 22, 2016, in Washington, D.C., in the Indian Treaty Room. (Photo by Vincent Schilling)

When the Haudenosaunee and U.S. representatives commemorated the Treaty of Canandaigua, marking more than 220 years since its signing, it was the closest the Indian Treaty Room had ever gotten to hosting living Treaty diplomacy between the U.S. and Native nations.

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Iroquois Nation leaders, clan mothers and U.S. Government officials hold the belt George Washington had made and had presented to the Haudenosaunee in 1794 at the Canandaigua Treaty. (Photo Vincent Schilling)

The U.S. formally recognizes the Treaty at least once every year, with its delivery of bolts of flowery muslin and white muslin fabric to the Six Nations. Also known as the Calico Treaty, it guarantees annual goods equal to $4,500, with no escalator for inflation, so the amount of Treaty cloth continues to diminish. One year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs caused an uproar by suggesting discontinuation of the Treaty cloth payments.

There was universal Haudenosaunee snapback, insisting on the Treaty cloth each year, even if it is shrinks to only one square inch. Some of the Treaty cloth is used for apparel and home decoration. It has been used in more recent times to wrap repatriated Haudenosaunee remains for reburial, especially those of children.

Evidence of the Treaty was present in the Indian Treaty Room, most notably with Haudenosaunee people and traditions, the George Washington Belt and symbolic swatches of Treaty cloth.

Onondaga Nation Clan Mother of the Turtle Clan Frieda Jacques, Whatwehni:neh, wrote a March 4, 2016 summary of the event for the nation’s website, Haudenosaunee delegates travel to Washington, DC: “Our protocols were followed as was expected by our history with the United States.” Mohawk Nation Wolf Clan “Chief Howard Thompson began with an Opening Address and then followed by Words of Condolence as is our custom when meeting with another nation. One of the United States’ representatives then spoke words of condolence to us. Finally the Invitation Wampum was returned signifying that the two parties have agreed to begin our meeting.”

The “Silver Covenant Chain” was explained by Robert Antone, Oneida Nation of the Wolf Clan, wrote Jacques, as “three silver links that binds our white brothers and the Haudenosaunee in Peace, and Friendship forever,” The speaker “reminded us that when our two nations meet, we are polishing the chain and that we should do this more frequently.”

Jacques records Faithkeeper Oren Lyons as saying, “That the time of the Treaty, the United States was in its infancy and needed peace, not war” and “recognized the Haudenosaunee as a powerful nation with its own laws and governance. “ Lyons “reminded us that this Treaty was not only ratified by the United States Congress, but also by George Washington who presented us with a 6 foot wampum belt, The George Washington Belt, to sanction the Treaty in the ways of the Haudenosaunee.”

Haudenosaunee Tadadaho Sidney Hill of the Eel Clan “thanked our hosts for this meeting” and “requested further meetings in the near future to discuss those items that have caused the Silver Covenant Chain to be tarnished, one of these being the border issue.”

The replica of the Washington Belt was displayed to the many other dignitaries, guests and observers, including Seneca Nation’s then-president Maurice John and Councilors, Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter of the Wolf Clan and other representatives of their Native nations and of the National Congress of American Indians, as well as representatives of the National Museum of the American Indian.

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G. Peter Jemison, Seneca and Ray Halbritter, Oneida, in Washington DC to honor the 222nd Annual Canandaigua Treaty Ceremony. (Photo Vincent Schilling)

The U.S. was represented by White House Assistant to the President and Domestic Policy Council Director Cecelia Munoz, an attorney who worked as Senior Vice President at the National Council of La Raza before working for President Barack Obama for eight years. Other U.S. officials were Jerry Abramson, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of White House Intergovernmental Affairs; Michael L. Connor, Deputy Secretary of the Interior; and Heather Higginbottom, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and former Counselor of the U.S. Department of State.

Jacques concluded her summary by writing that Higgenbottom “spoke encouraging words of the meeting between the Haudenosaunee and the United States. In closing (she) presented Treaty cloth to the Haudenosaunee Delegates acknowledging that the Canandaigua Treaty is still being honored by the United States. A small amount of cloth was given to each nation.”

It’s a lot to lay on a pipe

The Haudenosaunee Nations of Cornplanter’s long life were far ahead of the U.S. in many respects; for one, in the wisdom of getting things right over a long expanse of time. The Haudenosaunee Union of Nations — and attendant governance protocols among the Six Nations and with other peoples — were witnessed and experienced firsthand by Franklin and other U.S. Founders, and borrowed heavily from its example when uniting the Thirteen Fires.

Most of the founders were born in the colonies that eventually won independence from Britain. Their experience with governance systems was from Europe, where there was no example of nations united in times of peace and war. The first ones they saw were the Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Muscogee and Three Council Fires (Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi) Nations.

The founders also had never seen participatory democracies and functional leadership at work and often did not know what they were seeing in the Haudenosaunee Six Nations. That would be the kindest explanation for their persistent chief-making — the quest for one kingly leader to speak for all — and for ignoring the Clan Mothers and half of the Native population and balance of power.

It would be a very long time before the U.S. stopped taking Haudenosaunee and other Native lands at gunpoint and wrenching Native peoples from their homes to satisfy the Euro-American desire for Native land, water and riches. Many would say that it has not ended yet. And, all too often, property sleight-of-hand and poisoning of Native lands and waters continues in the white-gloved fashion that leaves no fingerprints.

It would take nearly a century for the U.S. to end slavery and the passage of more time to extend just the voting voice beyond its white, property-owning male citizens to women and people of color. While the U.S. is still trying to come to grips with remedies for the ongoing ill-effects of white privilege disadvantaging others — economically, politically and socially — there is a vocal movement to return to the good days when that was the norm and when catastrophic threats to the world’s environmental security were not as evident as they are today.

Cornplanter and his contemporaries were firmly rooted in the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace, which instructs its leaders to measure the consequences of their actions down to the seventh generation. Among Native nations in the Plains, there is a similar traditional concept to act for seven generations – with respect for the past three, with providence for the future three and with care for the present one.

Although a popular catchphrase in Indian Country and with allies, it usually is said as a boast, as in “I am that Seventh Generation,” but the concept does not mean that they are somehow imbued. It means that each generation is special because ancestors acted in the best ways of the people, for the good of the people, for a very long time, and that every generation has the chance and duty to do the same.

Cornplanter, Handsome Lake, Half-Town and Red Jacket lived and embodied that tradition. They, the Seneca Nation and all the Haudenosaunee Six Nations taught a new country a great deal, much of it often disregarded, disrespected or unacknowledged. Commemorations of the Treaty of Canandaigua give an opportunity for deep reflection and understanding.

Cornplanter’s Pipe is both a witness to and evidence of this history, as is Red Jacket’s Peace Medal and the George Washington Covenant Belt. It’s a lot to lay on a pipe, a Medal, a Wampum Belt, but that’s what symbols are — mighty unwavering forces that withstand the weight of history and time.

Cornplanter’s Pipe being at home is such a time: of sharing knowledge, wisdom and courage; of allowing the outrages, triumphs and visions to instruct, guide and guard against all dangers; of optimism about things that can and should and must be done.

Yes, it’s a lot to lay on a pipe. The final acknowledgment that Cornplanter’s Pipe is home to stay will bring even more joy and confidence to the Seneca and Haudenosaunee peoples. Will it dim the memory of Kinzua Dam and the way Cornplanter and so many others were not allowed to rest in peace? No, and it should not. Just because some things are better left unsaid does not mean that they are ever to be forgotten.

Maurice John called this “a teaching moment for our young people, especially. He wrote in an email message: “We live on our Mother Earth for a short time. It is imperative to teach our youth that Cornplanter's name is remembered because of the efforts he put forth for our people. The pipe reminds us of his efforts.”

No one knows where the revitalization and homecoming of Cornplanter’s Pipe will lead —perhaps to the next great “brightening of the Covenant Chain.”  

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Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect and recover sacred places and over one million acres of lands. Guest Curator and Editor of the award-winning exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, she has been awarded a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.

Comments (1)
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David Odell
David Odell

Wow, this is a great synopsis and historical recounting of many events since the coming together of our peoples.

Thank you to the author for doing this work. And to the ancestors of all the people who have been there from the beginning, and remind us of how it was and should be, , thank you,.

There is much to do. Let us proceed. A new ceremony is certainly in order.