Being Canajoharie – James Paxton

There is much to love in Paxton’s Joseph Brant and his world: 18th century Mohawk warrior and statesman (2008). Exceptional writing and heart-rending illustrations and even the book’s silky pages. More to love is Paxton’s thesis: Joseph Brant is an 18th century Mohawk warrior and Pine Tree Chief who understands as well as any modern Canadian the necessity of valuing multicultural states in a global community.

Brant is Canajoharie.

Paxton uses Canajoharie as a political designation, which is familiar to us in the 21st century. Being Canajoharie means one favours a multicultural state, which allows different lineages and ethnicities to live within and under a single federal sovereignty (much like the modern Canadian state), over a single ethnic/lineage state.

In the 18th-century Mohawk valley, the Kanien’kehá:ka, a. k.a., the Mohawk people, have such a state. Canajoharie is the centre. Chiefs give the yea or nay on settlement within their borders. Councils, for instance, agree to allow many desperate Palatine Germans to live in their valley, and rule-of-law works well for the mixture of lineages under Indigenous governance. Except for troubles with ‘that old rogue George Klock,’  Canajoharie life runs smoothly for Thayendanegea. Being Canajoharie means embracing a model of peaceful, multicultural, co-existence within, in this case, Indigenous sovereign territory.

Paxton declares Brant seeks to reestablish the Canajoharie political paradigm in 1784 at the Grand River.

After the American Revolution, a percentage of People of the Longhouse settle in their northern hunting grounds, some at the Bay of Quinte under Chief John Deserontyon John, more at the Grand River under Pine Tree Chief Joseph Thayendanegea Brant.

Brant tries to use his wartime influence to force the British to keep their promise. To get allies to fight with them in the revolution, the Crown promises Brant’s people a sovereignty in the upper country equal to the one they have lost in the Mohawk Valley.

When the time comes to pay up, as it were, the Crown picks a tried and true strategy – delay, delay, delay. After all. Immigration into British North America proceeds apace. Critical mass in BNA changes from Indigenous to the “American-born” British settlements. Because of the War of 1812, Britain’s regular forces, and not the Indigenous warriors, hold the spot of top military dog. American settlers, many of them racist, continue to pour across the Canadian-American border, eager for free Crown land. Brant’s Canajoharie vision becomes impossible even to imagine. Brant dies in 1807. His dream is dead and forgotten by 1815.

The final insult for Brant’s reputation is Ontario’s loyalism. The “smothering” (Paxton, 86) clap-trap of loyalism is loud and relentless. United Empire Loyalists subsume and rearrange Captain Joseph Brant’s memory, painting him as a loyalist and a loyal British subject instead of a warrior chief of the Longhouse. The historical re-working of the Mohawk’s reputation leads to a grave injustice. Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, who seeks merely to have promises kept, gets demonized at his home settlement for his failures, and in ROC for his ethnicity. Colonialism, racism (on both sides) and UEL trash Brant’s memory and kill the Canajoharie paradigm.

Paxton’s thesis is utterly convincing. Brant’s vision of a Six Nations/Haudenosaunee sovereign state ruling over (and taxing) a multicultural community puts Brant far ahead of his time. Backlash inevitably arises – on all fronts.

Surviving two centuries of colonial and Canadian betrayal, many First Nations scoff at the thought of their nations’ openly embracing multi-lineage/multicultural roots. First Nations cannot and will not support massive Indigenous immigration into their territories – let alone welcome other, non-Indigenous lineages. (See for instance  “Mohawk man’s house targeted in Kahnawake because of non-Indigenous wife.” National News | May 3, 2015 by Tom Fennario). 

Paxton writes about Brant’s mixed legacy among his own people. “In 1886, the city [Brantford] erected a massive bronze-and-granite monument honouring the Mohawk. Anglo-Canadian society has embraced Brant more completely and warmly than have the Haudenosaunee” (85). The whole of Canadian society should embrace Thayendanegea but, because of Haudenosaunee in-fighting, silence is golden (see the Demonization of Joseph Thayendanegea Brant on the website).

Grand River Haudenosaunee shrug off Brant as “controversial” and say not much more on the subject.

How nice for Canada to fall back on political correctness to avoid learning about our history.

We are too polite to argue with an Indigenous group over what they perceive is their history – even when they get things wrong. Rick Monture’s We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations takes a brave stab at setting records straight. Still. If Thayendanegea remains controversial with the Haudenosaunee, Canada is happy to think of him likewise. Too controversial to defend. Amen. Brant’s national reputation and his memory go up in pipe smoke. Sadly, one takes issue with Paxton’s assertion. ROC does not embrace Brant. Misguided UEL enthusiasm for Brant as a member of the United Empire Loyalist’s club and Brantford’s substantial statue in ‘Victoria’ park, notwithstanding, Joseph Thayendanegea Brant remains an unknown in this country.

Are Butler’s rangers known? Perhaps. Joseph Brant and Brant’s Volunteers? Hardly. What a shame.

Canadian kids might want to thank Brant and Brant’s Volunteers and John Butler and Butler’s rangers for securing the upper country (Ontario) for Great Britain – and clearing the way for the Canadian nation.

Haudenosaunee kids might want to thank Thayendanegea for securing for them the beautiful Grand River Valley. Indigenous voices blame Brant for the loss of their territory and monies. These voices are naive and uninformed, as anyone who reads about the Grand River Navigation Company’s scandal will soon realize.

Every historian, Canadian and/or American, agrees, post 1783, Indigenous in Canada fare better than their counterparts in the United States of America but Brant gets less public notice in Canada than the ‘unsuccessful’ warrior-rebels, Pontiac and Tecumseh. Unlike them Brant does not die in battle. Could Brant foretell the lies our teachers will tell us, he might have wished someone had shot him. Brant is as keen on unification and sovereignty for his people, as Tecumseh and Pontiac are for theirs.

To know Joseph Brant’s story is to understand colonialism and Canada and the Indian Act of 1876 at their worst. To know his story is to understand the political vice squeezing Indigenous nations, east and west, as they find a way to cope with a settler tsunami. Thayendanegea takes issue with terms of Peace of Paris, 1783. He engages in ongoing disagreements with Governor Simcoe and Peter Russell and William Claus. He fights for his people non-stop. Brant’s history points straight as an arrow to the inevitability of an upcoming colonial boondoggle in 19th-century Ontario: the Grand River Navigation Company versus The Six Nations Confederacy/Haudenosaunee.

Paxton’s conclusion is not as strong as his thesis. Outside of Brantford, few remember Joseph Brant. Canada’s ignoring Thayendanegea and Brant’s spectacular achievements, and overlooking the reasons for his spectacular failures, merely perpetuates our own failure to acknowledge Canada’s ongoing betrayal of Indigenous nations. 

feature image courtesy Darren Morris @FunSSresources

(1) Thayendanegea by Gilbert Stuart





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