A Native Loyalist's View

Historically and fundamentally, the First Nations' agenda has been one of dogged self-determination and self-identity.  To outsiders wishing to impress a different way of life, thinking and values on Aboriginal people this may be a frustrating and often inexplicable direction contrary to external mandates.

No one questions the Onkweoweh (the Original People) were the original inhabitants and caretakers of lands and territories which were the desire of European colonists.  That's a matter of historical fact. And it's not the intent to debate the legitimacy of 'ownership' of these lands in this forum or whether the Native people involved with 18th Century incursions and campaigns were even justified in choosing a side.

Of concern here is a history, heritage and allegiance which was shared at some point in time with non-Native forces.  That also, is a matter of historical fact and while the motivations behind those allegiances  (past and present) are hotly debated among many Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), at least one aspect stands out prominently.

There WAS a relationship between the Haudenosaunee and those Loyal to the Crown which resulted in a substantial number of Native people taking up arms and fighting the Rebel forces.  Not once; not twice, but over a number of years and with sufficient tenacity so as to raise some very serious concerns with the Rebels and their followers.  'Defeat the Indian and you've defeated the British' may have been muttered at more than one Rebel meeting.

This by no means implies the Loyal forces were inferior or that EITHER side won/lost because of Native involvement or the lack thereof.   In the past (as in today), whether the war between non-Native societies was (or is) a matter which should have been (or be) any concern of sovereign Native Nations was (is) a valid point.  Those who don't mind their own businesses often see their own businesses suffer as a result.

Heritage involves discovering one's past as a means to preserve a part of history for the future.  There may be unfortunate... even ignominious... events which for whatever reason may contradict our contemporary beliefs and value systems.  Just as each of us has made choices which, seem to have been a great idea at the time, turned out to have serious unforeseen and permanent consequences.

We've each made seemingly innocuous decisions which have also had lasting and beneficial results far beyond the scope of our imaginations.  Fate is a common leveler among all people as few are capable of accurately predicting the future with great regularity.

This is all well and philosophically interesting, but what's it got to do with Native Loyalists you may ask?

My Loyal ancestor, Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, is often credited as a key factor in persuading the Haudenosaunee to side with the Loyalist cause.  Depending on one's perspective (or Traditional inclination), this squarely places him as either an exalted visionary or a vilified puppet of non-Haudenosaunee influences.  By now the gentle reader should know where the author stands on this pronouncement.

Brant sided with the Loyalists for any number of reasons... some altruistic... some self-serving.  History would prove him correct in many aspects and thoroughly debunk many of his visions of  unmolested tranquility in the King's land in Upper Canada.    Brant would also go on to recognise personal opportunism in the management of the Six Nations land which may be the single most contentious point among many of his descendants today.

It may be best to imagine the view a Loyal Haudenosaunee might have; living in the States, having ancestral and contemporary ties with their land as given by the Crown in 1784 and reasonably attuned to regional non-Natives issues and policies on both sides of today's border.  Celebrating commonality and diversity is one thing; understanding and experiencing very real differences is another.

The student of Loyalist history is all too familiar with the fact the Traditional homelands of the Haudenosaunee were located primarily in the area which became New York State.  It begs the question: What would be the condition of those Loyal Haudenosaunee had land never been secured in Upper Canada?

Although founded on a principle of freedom of speech and political persuasion, clearly the United States was not tolerant of opposing ideologies or allegiances after the Revolutionary War.  "America, Love It or Leave It" has very deep... and real... historic roots as in the case of the Loyalists.  The inextricable Aboriginal love and deep appreciation of the natural world was not shared by many of the expansionist settlers other than for financial gain and political mandates.   Regardless of national sovereignty, historical precedence or Traditional beliefs, the Haudenosaunee were relentlessly hounded out of their Traditional lands.

Is there any reason to believe the Haudenosaunee, Loyal or otherwise, would have fared better after the Revolutionary War had they remained in the new United States?    Was their condition... and subsequently that of their descendants... better in Upper Canada?

I contend it was... and is... and admittedly this is a jaded assessment.  Given past and present considerations, it becomes easier to see how there would be a deep appreciation and respect felt toward my Loyal ancestor.

With respect to Native involvement in the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada, there may be a tendency for the Native to regard the UEL heritage as not being the same as the Haudenosaunee experience... which of course historically it is.   From that aspect, the UEL mission to honour and celebrate the hopes and aspirations of their ancestors is one of the same as the Native intent.   UEL heritage and Native heritage share a common past in the later part of the 18th Century, which is the primary focus of the UELAC.

It needs to be remembered; the 'Traditional' lands of the Haudenosaunee transcended today's international borders and as such, crossing either the Niagara or St.Lawrence Rivers might not have had the political significance it does today.  Never owners of land in the European sense, but caretakers of the land, it must have been a very strange concept to the Aboriginal ancestors who first encountered the earliest explorers.  The implications of 'owning' land would become abundantly clear in the years to follow for the Onkweoweh.

Moving to the other side of the river might not be as pivotal to people who never saw the point in imaginary dotted lines anyway.  As such, there may be a tendency to wonder why an organisation would be so passionate in their sentiments about moving from one side of a lake or river to the other.  In many ways, the difference between the two countries is minimal. 

In others, the differences couldn't be more dramatic.

It's these various differences which are most noticeable to non-mainstream members of society.  As integrated to the dominant culture and society as Aboriginal people have become, there's still a desire to maintain a distinct identity and value system which is uniquely Native.  'Joining' takes a back seat to 'Being'.  Celebrating and perpetuating Native history and heritage takes precedence over other heritages.

Grave of Joseph Thayendanegea Brant   1742 -1807Joseph Thayendanegea Brant is remembered as the Mohawk chief who led his followers out of harm's way and into relative safety.  He's also seen as the leader who sold-gave-bartered away much of the land which was given to the people of the Six Nations.  Two very different renderings of the same man with both accounts factual and justifiable.  The first account tends to be the Loyalist sentiment and the second is most often found among the people of the Six Nations.  It leaves little wonder why there aren't more Six Nations Native people singing the praises of Joseph Brant.

Rather than second guess the motivations of a man dead for close to two hundred years, I give the man his due credit while acknowledging his shortcomings.  His legacy of  leading his people out of the United States is perhaps the single most important facet of his life for me.   The potential alternative of remaining in the States raises many concerns over the health and viability of the Six Nations today and for that reason alone, a healthy respect needs to be shown to Loyal ancestors.

And that sentiment appears to be shared by the members of the UELAC.

As the UEL approaches its second hundred years, here's hoping all our Loyal ancestors continue to be honoured for their legacies.

One hundred years from now, I'd like to hope my descendants will appreciate my endeavours... however misunderstood or misguided they may seem at that time.