It was a diverse crowd. Toddlers clad in fleece hats and Seneca Nation elders in feathered headdresses. Lifelong city residents and first-time visitors. They all huddled around a large rock on the Ontario County Court House lawn on Tuesday. As the wintry air whipped around them, they listened intently to Seneca leader G. Peter Jemison. He first thanked the dozens of people in attendance. But he also paid tribute to the sun and the wind, the sugar maple and the stars. “Never forget the way in which we are interlocked,” he said. Jemison and others celebrated that spirit of connection on the 214th anniversary of the Canandaigua Treaty, an agreement between the United States and the Six Nations, or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The landmark document, requested and authorized by President George Washington, established peace and friendship between the United States and the Six Nations, or Iroquois. After months of negotiations, the treaty was signed by 59 sachems and Iroquois chiefs and U.S. government official Timothy Pickering. The date was Nov. 11, 1794. The courthouse lawn was silent as representatives of some of the Six Nations — the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora — took the podium. A few spoke in their native tongue, letting the soft, rhythmic language drift out over the crowd, undeterred by the occasional train whistle or whir of traffic. Children and adults alike gazed at the speakers, many uncomprehending yet eager to absorb the foreign sounds. The Native Americans in the crowd nodded, added an enthusiastic “yeah” or translated quietly as the speeches progressed. Everyone seemed stirred by the significance of the day. A symbolic friendship The treaty brought an end to the “wanton killing” that pervaded the 18th century, said Jemison. It stated that “peace and friendship are hereby firmly established, and shall be perpetual between the United States and the Six Nations.” Each party was granted “free use and enjoyment” of its own lands. A symbolic chain of friendship represents that connection, as Jemison showed the crowd on Tuesday. “We’re polishing it here a bit today,” he said, as he held the gleaming chain with Eric Massa, the Corning Democrat who, barring a surprise in the counting of absentee ballots, appears headed to Congress. Massa praised the “first, longest and impenetrable treaty” and committed himself to keeping it strong. Similar agreements have dissolved because of economic avarice in the past, he said. But the Canandaigua Treaty won’t fall victim to that, he said. After all, the United States owes its governmental philosophy to the systems developed by native people, he said. “It is from this land the model of democracy was molded,” Massa said. But it wasn’t just native leaders and federal officials who met on that fated day in 1794. As Helen Kirker reminded the onlookers, Quakers also played a pivotal role in the treaty’s adoption. Kirker, who wore a dark gray dress and bonnet, explained the part played by the pious humanitarians. “At the time of the treaty, Native Americans would not sign without Quakers there to verify there was no trickery,” she said. Kirker is a descendant of the Philadelphia-area Quakers who ventured into western New York in 1788. They managed to survive in the wooded wilderness near what is today Farmington, eventually earning the trust of the Seneca, she said. Those Farmington Friends, as they called themselves, attended the treaty signing, Kirker said. Noticeably absent on Tuesday — and sorely missed by many — were Lillian and J. Sheldon Fisher, the Victor residents who advocated for and organized the event for more than 40 years. Following her husband’s death in 2002, Lillian continued to diligently attend the event. Lillian died six weeks ago. Their son, Doug Fisher, spoke of the loss. “It just feels strange today neither of them are here,” he said. He recounted a trip with his parents to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to find the second copy of the original treaty. After some struggle, they were able to photograph that original document, which George Washington signed in January of 1795. The Ontario County Historical Society retains the other copy of the treaty. Paying homage Native Americans at the event traveled from as far as Wisconsin and Canada to pay homage to the treaty. Richard Kettle, a member of the Heron clan of the Seneca Nation, said it’s crucial to remember the seminal agreement. “It’s just as powerful today as the day it was made,” he said. Melanie Hill, a member of the turtle clan of the Seneca Nation, jumped in. “I think it is as important to us as the Declaration of Independence,” she said. Eileen Jacobs, also of the Seneca Nation, said the celebration sends a message to national leaders. “I want them to know my people haven’t forgotten the treaty,” she said. Jacobs and others expressed hope that president-elect Barack Obama will pay more respect to native issues than previous presidents. Because he’s of minority descent himself, Jacobs figured, he knows what the issues are — and, she hopes, will advocate on their behalf. Obama needs to attend the treaty ceremony to keep the chain of friendship alive, said Jemison. And unlike George Washington before him, he shouldn’t just send a representative, he added. Canandaigua third-grader Arianna Wink thought the celebration was a pretty cool way to learn about Native Americans. “I just thought it was fun,” she said, as she sipped hot chocolate at the elementary school, where a Native American arts and craft sale, potluck dinner and dancing were held. She especially liked the symbolic chain of friendship between the two groups, she said. But did she think such a friendship could persevere? The 8-year-old offered cautious optimism. “If they knew each other well, and they knew that each other wanted to work on it,” she said.
Canandaigua, N.Y. —