Category Archives: Haudenosaunee History

Angus Laborgne’s Walleye: How Two Dozen Speared Fish Can Offer Lesson in History to New York State

On April 2, Angus Laborgne, a resident of the Haudenosaunee reservation at Akwesasne, was cited by New York Department of Environmental Conservation officers for spearing walleyes in Scriba Creek, near a state fish hatchery.  The officers cited Laborgne for taking fish out of season, by “means other than angling,” and from what the state considered “closed waters.” Laborgne had speared twenty-three walleyes, all of which the DEC officers confiscated.

71 acres Scriba Creek Waterfront Constantia NY | NY Outdoor Realty

            Steve Featherstone’s great reporting on NewYorkUpstate.com, and a friend who regularly keeps abreast of the news in Central New York, brought this story to my attention.

            Laborgne’s action, according to John Harmon, the President of the Oneida Lake Association, was a “deliberate provocation.”

            Three days later, Laborgne returned, accompanied by fourteen other Haudenosaunee fishermen, “from every single reservation.” They speared even more fish from the same waters.  The DEC this time decided to stand down, hoping to deescalate what Featherstone described as “a conflict over a complicated legal gray area involving Native American fishing rights under state law—a long simmering fight that made it as far as the governor’s desk last year.”

Native anglers spear walleye near Oneida Lake spawn site, launching fight  over indigenous fishing rights - newyorkupstate.com

            Featherstone is referring to a bill vetoed by Governor Kathy Hochul that would have recognized Native Americans’ treaty-guaranteed right to be free from state and local fishing laws except for those cases in which the survival of the species was in question.  The DEC implied that Laborgne’s fishing did just that. In a statement the DEC noted that “walleyes are concentrating in certain streams,” and are “vulnerable to over harvest” during spawning season.  The DEC claim that it “recognized the importance of walleye as a subsistence and cultural resource for Indigenous nations, and is actively consulting with the leadership of the nine State-Recognized Indigenous Nations to advance our shared conservation objectives.”

            Fair enough, but it is worth looking at Laborgne’s argument about his rights to fish, and whether the issue really is as complicated as Featherstone’s reporting suggests.

Walleye | EEK Wisconsin

            Mr. Laborgne told Featherstone that “according to what I understand, we have the right to all creeks, and all lakes, and all rivers.”  The Haudenosaunee, he continued, are born with this right.  He said that he planned to return to Scriba Creek, and he would continue to do so until the State of New York recognized “that this is our inherited right…and we have the right.  They didn’t give it to us.”

            Laborgne is right.

            In order for me to show you how, I will have to persuade you to accept some principles that have long been fundamental to the entire field of American Indian law. First, Native American tribes can do whatever they want unless that activity is specifically prohibited by a treaty or an act of Congress. Second, in 1978, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist started messing around with this, adding to the principle of “explicit divestiture,” described above, the idea of “implicit divestiture”:  Tribes could not exercise those powers that were somehow inconsistent with their status as “domestic dependent nations,” a concept coined by Chief Justice John Marshal 147 years earlier in the case of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. Tribes, the logic goes, do not give up their sovereign rights as nations that predated the United States unless they do so explicitly.  If they did not give away the right or power in question, and if it is not inconsistent with their status as domestic dependent nations, then that power they still possess.

            There are a couple of more assumptions I need you to agree to before we move on.  Before Europeans arrived in North America, Native American communities had the absolute right to hunt and fish wherever they chose.  Thus, unless they specifically gave up that right, through some treaty or some act of Congress, they are still permitted to fish wherever they want. 

So let’s talk about the treaties the state and the federal government entered into with the Oneida Indians in New York. The 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix protected Oneida land from encroachment, an acknowledgment by the United States of the Oneidas’ assistance in the Patriots’ cause during the American Revolution. In 1785 the state of New York coerced the Oneidas into giving up some of their reserved lands, and in 1788 the state came back for more.  The 1788 Treaty is the most important one for our purposes, and we need to talk about it.

            First, it is worth exploring how the state went about planning for and negotiating this treaty. I am going to spend some time on this because it is so important.  I hope you will bear with me.

            It seems reasonably fair to conclude that by 1788, the year in which he met with the Onondagas and Oneidas in New York’s Indian territory, Governor Clinton must have recognized that he presided over a state only nominally under his control.  British troops continued to garrison forts at Oswego and Niagara, despite the provisions of the Treaty of Paris that had formally ended the Revolutionary War in 1783.  These soldiers would not leave New York until 1795, after Jay’s Treaty had been approved.  During the war, two of the eastern counties of the state and part of a third seceded, becoming in the process the independent republic of Vermont.  Talk of other parts of the state breaking away occurred commonly enough for James Duane to fear that west of the Hudson “a second Vermont may spring up.” Though the punitive Treaty of Fort Stanwix extinguished Iroquois claims to lands largely to the west of New York, much of the territory in the Empire State remained firmly in Indian hands.  Clinton needed those lands for his state. As historian Barbara Graymont pointed, Clinton and his colleagues pursued a three-fold program: They hoped to eliminate “any claim of the United States Congress to sovereignty over Indian affairs in the State of New York”; they wanted to extinguish “the title of the Indians to the soil”; and they were determined to eradicate the sovereign status of the Six Nations.

            Doing so would not be an easy task, for New York State was not alone in trying to acquire the lands of the Six Nations.  Massachusetts claimed much of the land in what is now New York owing to its colonial charter, which specified no western boundary to its territorial limits.  The two states had worked out a compromise at Hartford late in 1786, with the result that New York exercised legal jurisdiction over the lands in question, but the Bay State retained the right of preemption, or first purchase, to Indian lands in upstate New York.  Massachusetts promptly sold these preemption rights to two speculators, Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham who, in July of 1788, concluded a treaty with the refugee Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas at Buffalo Creek.  Phelps and Gorham acquired nearly 2.6 million acres of Iroquois land in western New York for five thousand dollars and the payment of an annuity to the Indians of five hundred dollars.

            In addition to the problems posed by the Phelps-Gorham purchase, Clinton and his associates worried about the activities of the New York Genesee Company of Adventurers, a wealthy and influential group of land barons led by John Livingston.  On the 13th of November, 1787, the Livingston Company negotiated a lease with “the Chiefs and Sachems of the Six Nations of Indians.”  The sachems “leased” to the Livingston Company, for a term of 999 years, “all that certain Tract or Parcel of Land, commonly called and known by the Name of the Lands of the six Nations of Indians, situate, lying and being in the State of New York, and now in the actual possession of the said Chiefs and Sachems of the Six Nations.” Livingston and his associates agreed to pay to the sachems “the yearly Rent or Sum of Two Thousand Spanish Milled Dollars, in and upon the fourth Day of July.” Two months later, the Company negotiated an additional lease with the Oneidas, “for the said term of nine hundred and ninety-nine years, on a rent reserved for the first year of twelve hundred dollars per annum, until it shall amount to fifteen hundred dollars, of all those lands in the said writing described, as the Tract of Land commonly called and known by the Territory of the Oneida Indians.”

            Early in 1788, Governor Clinton and his associates in the State Assembly and Senate undertook a concerted campaign to consolidate their control over the conduct of Indian policy in New York and the disposition of those lands the Iroquois could be persuaded to part with.  Clinton and other New Yorkers wanted to acquire Iroquois lands for the settlement of the state’s obligations to its revolutionary war veterans.  Without question paying off the state’s obligations to its soldiers was important to Clinton, but as historian Laurence Hauptman has shown, other factors were important as well.  The consolidation of state control over its western lands, the development of the state’s economy, and the construction of a state wide transportation system all relied upon New Yorkers first acquiring title to Iroquois lands.  The Six Nations were in the way.

            Early in 1788 the New York State Assembly invalidated the Genesee Company of Adventurers’ “leases” of Six Nations land.  According to a joint resolution approved by the State Senate and Assembly, the leases, by their terms, were for all intents and purposes “purchases of lands, and . . . by the constitution of this State, the said leases are not binding on the said Indians, and are not valid.”  They determined that “the force of the State, shall from time to time, as occasion may require, be exerted to prevent intrusions on and for preserving to the people of this state, their rights to the lands and territories comprehended within the boundaries specified in the said leases.”

To prevent problems like that presented by the Genesee Company of Adventurers for the future, the Assembly and Senate on the 26th of February enacted a law “for directing the manner of proving deeds and conveyances to be recorded.”  For a purchase of lands to be valid under New York state law, that purchase must be witnessed and recorded and proved “by one or more of the subscribing witnesses to the same, before one of the justices of the supreme court, or a master in chancery, or one of the judges of the court of common pleas in and for the county where such lands and real estate are situated.”  Through this enactment, the state tightened its control over the procedures through which land changed hands. Furthermore, the Legislature on the 18th of March approved a law “to punish infractions of that article of the Constitution of this State, prohibiting purchases of lands from the Indians, without the authority and consent of the legislature; and more effectually to provide against intrusions on the unappropriated lands of this State.”  No purchases of land from Indians, “within the limits of this State, shall be binding on the said Indians, or deemed valid, unless made under the authority, and with the consent of the Legislature of this State.”  Any person who acted without the permission of the Legislature would pay a fine of 100 pounds to the people of New York, “and shall be further punished by fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court.”

            After taking these steps to ensure that no unauthorized parties acquired Indian lands within the state, and after depriving the New York Genesee Company of its ill-gotten gains, Clinton and his allies in the Legislature appointed commissioners to negotiate treaties with the Six Nations.  There is, contrary to the claims of the defendants’ experts, no evidence they present that demonstrates that the Iroquois knew that the New York State Legislature had invalidated the Livingston Leases and nothing Clinton or the state commissioners told the Onondagas and Oneidas in the summer of 1788 could have led them to that conclusion.

http://savagesandscoundrels.org/media/2638/Pickering%20Treaty.jpg
Map showing the Oneida cession of 1788. Under Article II of the agreement, the Oneidas retained the right to hunt and fish in the entire shaded area. No subsequent treaty every deprived them of that right.

At Fort Schuyler, the governor and the state’s Indian commissioners continuously warned the Indians that their lands remained in jeopardy unless they negotiated with the state.  The governor accompanied the state commissioners to Fort Schuyler, formerly Fort Stanwix, where they would meet with as many Indians as could be gathered.  The Six Nations, the governor hoped, would “open their ears to the voice of the Great Council of the State of New York,” and meet them to “brighten the Chain and renew the Covenant which had so long bound us together.” Clinton and the commissioners informed the Iroquois that they intended to protect the Indians from the many outside forces that clamored for their land.  Deceptively, the governor and the commissioners hoped to exploit the confusion then reigning in Iroquoia, and obtain from the Six Nations an enormous cession of Indian lands.

            Governor Clinton appears to have wanted to move quickly. He attempted to rush the proceedings.  He informed the Onondaga sachems, for instance, that “the other public business of the State will not permit me to remain long from home and it will therefore be necessary for such of your people as propose to bee at the Treaty to come on with all possible haste or they may be too late.”  Though there is no evidence that the Iroquois sachems clearly recognized, understood, or cared about the nature of that “public business,” Clinton indeed had plenty to worry about.  New Yorkers overwhelmingly had opposed the new Federal Constitution drawn up at the convention held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, and the governor (albeit quietly) led the “Antifederalist” forces within his state.  Advocates of a stronger national government felt the need to replace the Articles of Confederation for a number of reasons, but the “father of the Constitution,” James Madison, listed high on his list of  “Vices of the Political System of the United States” the aggressive Indian policies pursued by several of the states, including New York.  Article I, Section 8, of the new Constitution replaced the vague and ambiguous language of Article IX of the Articles of Confederation, with an assertive statement of federal authority over the conduct of Indian affairs: once the Constitution became the “supreme law of the land,” Congress would possess the exclusive authority “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

            New Yorkers had ratified the new constitution, reluctantly, in July, only a few short months before the gathering at Fort Schuyler.  When word of the Constitution’s ratification in New Hampshire and Virginia arrived earlier that month, the Antifederalists of New York realized that they no longer could safely oppose the Constitution: the United States would exist under a new and more powerful frame of government.  The question posed to the delegates at Poughkeepsie was now no longer whether or not New Yorkers would approve the Constitution, but whether or not they would become a member of the Union now that the requisite number of states had ratified.  Complete independence was never considered by New York’s Antifederalists, who recognized that they would soon have to work within the new federal system.  Governor Clinton must have felt the need to acquire for New York as much of the Iroquois estate as he could before the new government went into effect, and the rules of Indian diplomacy changed.

            New York’s urgent appeal to the Six Nations was received by a people still recovering from the ravages of the Revolutionary War. Although the Oneidas suffered comparatively less than their brothers in the Confederacy, they may have been confused or concerned about Governor Clinton’s intentions.  Certainly representatives of the Genesee Company of Adventurers tried to disrupt the proceedings at Fort Schuyler.  A Seneca named Onyegat told New York’s Indian commissioners that men from the Genesee Company had told him that “the Governor’s Business at this proposed Treaty is to purchase your Lands, but you have leased them to us.  He means to pay you all at once for them, and then in a few Years to drive you off and tell you that you have no Property here.”  A Frenchman named Dominique Debarges, a fur trader from Montreal and a Genesee Company agent, along with an Indian named “the Infant,” told sachems on their way to Fort Schuyler that “it will be your Destruction if you go down to the Treaty called by the Governor of New York.  I know his intentions,” Debarges continued, and “when you return you’ll have no Place to set your Foot on.  You will be like wild beasts which are hunted.” Debarges also told the Indians that “the Governor had his troops collected at German Flatts, ready to fall upon them as soon as they returned.” The Oneidas, as well as the Onondagas, likely heard these rumors; the evidence suggests that the constituent members of the Confederacy regularly shared information and intelligence. That the missionary Samuel Kirkland served as an interpreter at Fort Schuyler could only have further confused the Indians attending the council. The minister and missionary had served as an interpreter at the federal Fort Stanwix Treaty in 1784, and his presence at Fort Schuyler may have done much to grant a veneer of legitimacy to Clinton’s efforts and supported the Governor’s contested claim to represent the only jurisdiction with a legitimate right to negotiate with the Six Nations.

            The state commissioners chose to treat with the Onondagas first. The Oneidas returned home, and would not return to Fort Schuyler until the meeting with the Onondagas had been completed.  By the middle of September, that business was finished, and the Oneidas returned to the fort. 

            Speaking through Kirkland, the Oneida spokesman Good Peter responded to the Commissioners’ invitation. He expressed to the Governor and the state’s men his understanding of the purpose of the gathering. Good Peter wanted to protect the Oneidas’ lands.  He made clear to Governor Clinton that “in whatever Land we should cede to you, our Warriors should have the Privilege of Hunting and Fishing, and that a Line should be drawn round the Part we should reserve to ourselves to secure it to us and our Posterity.” In essence, Good Peter, like the Onondaga sachem Black Cap, offered to share the bulk of the Oneidas’ lands with the citizens of the state of New York in return for an annual payment. The remainder of their lands the tribe would keep for their own exclusive use.

            Governor Clinton told the Oneidas that he desired to protect their lands from the Livingston Adventurers, who “had without any Authority from us, obtained from you a Lease of your Lands.”  He had, he said, no interest in buying lands from the Oneidas, for “we have already more lands than we have People to settle on them.”  His hope was to set things right, “to meet you at this Council Fire, and by a new agreement place Matters on such a footing as to prevent these Things for the future.” This pleased Good Peter, who responded to the Governor’s speech on the 20th of September.  He was happy to hear that the state did not want the Oneidas’ land, and that New York would protect his people from the Livingston Company.  “The Wind,” he told Clinton, “seems always to blow and shake this beloved Tree, this Tree of Peace.” Good Peter recalled that in 1784 “the United States” had “Planted the Tree of Peace with four Roots, spreading branches, and beautiful leaves, whose top reached the Heavens.” He feared “that by and by some Twig of this beautiful Tree will be broken off. I Love this Tree of Peace as my Life, and my Protection. I know you love it.” To preserve this peace, Good Peter concluded, the Governor must “punish these disorderly People.”

            The point is simple. Throughout his speeches at Fort Schuyler that September, and consistently in his recollections of the treaty four years later, Good Peter believed whole-heartedly that the Oneidas had met with the governor and the state’s Indian commissioners to protect his people from dispossession by the Livingston Company.  Indeed, at the close of the council, Good Peter proudly announced to Governor Clinton that “My Nation are now restored to a possession of their Property which they were in danger of having lost.” The 1788 Oneida treaty, Good Peter continued, secured to the Oneidas “so much of our Property which would otherwise have been lost.” Clearly Good Peter would have had no reason to make this statement if he knew, prior to the meeting at Fort Schuyler, that the Livingston leases had been invalidated by the State Legislature. 

Here’s something else that treaty did.  Even though the deceptive treaty read that the “Oneidas do cede and grant all their lands to the people of the State of New York forever,” with the exception of a small reservation, they reserved for themselves “and their posterity forever…the free right of hunting in every part of the said ceded lands, and of fishing in all the waters within the same.”  The Oneidas reserved the right to hunt and fish in all the lands they ostensibly had ceded to the state of New York.

            The 1794 Federal treaty of Canandaigua guaranteed the Oneidas and their longhouse kin the right to the “free use and enjoyment” of all their lands.  Nothing in that federal treaty deprived them of the reserved fishing rights laid out at the 1788 Fort Schuyler treaty.  Nor did any of the numerous land cessions signed by Oneidas in the decades that followed 1788. Not one of these agreements deprived the Oneidas of the right to fish in streams and lakes they ceded to the state in 1788.  Those rights remain active still. 

            Of course the DEC has an interest in preserving walleye, and it is good that the Department recognizes that Haudenosaunee people do.  There is reason to hope that this issue might be compromised.  But until that compromise takes place—and Governor Hochul’s hostility to the state’s Indigenous peoples leaves me feeling uncertain that it ever will take place—Native Americans are free to exercise the rights guaranteed in their treaties.  They are not asking for special privileges. Rather, they are asking that the State of New York honor its word.  When it comes to Native Americans, perhaps the time for the state to finally start doing that is now.

Your Territorial Acknowledgment Is Not Enough

My college does a territorial acknowledgment before many public events on campus. We are not alone in doing this. We acknowledge that SUNY-Geneseo stands in the historic homeland of the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. It is an important first step, but one for which my feelings are ambivalent. We do this acknowledgment in rooms where no Native American students are present. We do it for ourselves.

            During our commencement ceremony, a Haudenosaunee flag stands on stage and another flies in our student union, beside the flags of all our foreign students’ nations. Only a tiny number of Native American students have walked the stage at commencement, or ambled through the Union. We consulted with no Indigenous peoples when we began acknowledging our location at the Western Door of the Iroquois Longhouse.

            A just-announced diversity initiative will lead to a more public celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, something we so quietly recognized several years back that it is as if we do not want anyone to know. And we will not raise the Haudenosaunee flag on the college flagpole, unlike some of our sister institutions in SUNY.

            So let’s get serious for a second.  During a troubling year when the college has dedicated itself to exploring the difficult question of how we might become an anti-racist campus, what we have done with and for Indigenous peoples is simply not enough.  We are quiet crusaders on the cheap.  Our gestures, and that is all they are—have been tiny and few and they cost us nothing.  We talk a good game, but that’s it. To say that we acknowledge that our college stands on what was once Indigenous land at a college that makes little effort to recruit, support, and retain Indigenous students is about as hollow a thing as I can imagine. And believe me, there are many schools—in SUNY and beyond– that do even less than us

            GENESEO, more than many colleges across North America, stands directly on Native American land.  “Chenussio” appears in New York’s colonial records and in the writings of French Jesuit missionaries in the middle of the seventeenth century.  The Genesee Valley, the beauty of which we sing in our college’s song, was a hub of indigenous activity for many centuries.  Geneseo stands directly at the Western Door of the Haudenosaunee longhouse and critical events in Seneca history took place near and on the very ground the campus occupies. The Big Tree Treaty of 1797, for instance, was negotiated in one of our parking lots.  The Senecas there signed away all their lands in western New York, from that gorgeous Genesee river valley to Lake Erie, eleven small reservations excepted. The town’s white founding fathers all were involved in dispossessing the Senecas. We occupy what was a major Seneca town site in a state that could not have taken the shape it now holds without a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. It can be argued that no SUNY school stands on ground so closely linked to that history of dispossession.

            I am completely familiar with the arguments that will be thrown back at me. I have heard them many times.  Indigenous peoples comprise approximately 1% of New York’s population.  It is not worth the trouble to devote our scarce resources to trying to attract these students to campus and make them feel welcome once they arrive. Our dedication to diversity is highly qualified, indeed.  We cannot fly the Haudenosaunee flag on the campus flag pole and we certainly cannot invite our Haudenosaunee neighbors to campus, because that will anger anti-Indian politicians in Albany and thus jeopardize the funding needed to fix a college that has significant construction and maintenance needs. We will not look down at the ground upon which we stand. We can’t. Because. We can’t. Because. We just can’t. We won’t.

            Several years ago I organized a meeting on campus. I invited a number of Haudenosaunee scholars from other SUNY campuses in the western part of the state.  They came to Geneseo to talk about bringing Indigenous students to SUNY.  The four of us agreed that it was simply a choice.  If our colleges wanted to do it, they could.  If SUNY as a system wants to do it, it can.   And despite invitations sent to the entire administration and admissions staff, we spoke to an empty room. It was difficult to escape the conclusion that our leaders at that time had voted with their feet.

            Don’t get me wrong. I love my colleagues and I love my students. I have good friends across the campus. But I’ve been at Geneseo for a while now, and I think I see many things clearly. We do not do enough.  We choose not to do enough. We are not interested in doing enough.  It pains me to write these words.

            What would I have the college do? I have been asked that. I am a professor. I am a very good teacher. I have been successful as a scholar and I continue to try to produce. I write more than most historians in SUNY.  And I do a lot of service, both on and off the campus. This service work is time consuming and tiring, as it forces me to be on the road at least every other week. At one level, then, my response to questions like this—to those in admissions, student services, in recruitment and retention who pose it— is to tell them to figure it out for yourselves. You get paid more than I do. You are the experts.  Do the work. I am already too busy.  Hire someone with some expertise in recruiting Native American students. 

            But that isn’t how it works, is it.

            If you are a BIPOC professor, of course you know this. Even if you are a white guy like me who stumbled into this work long ago and was lucky enough to be welcomed into the communities about which I teach and write, you are asked to do nothing less than come up with solutions to the problems you clearly see, and to do so without any additional compensation.  It is demoralizing. So we are asked for solutions. We propose solutions. And those solutions are shot down. We can’t. Because. We can’t. Because. We just can’t.

We won’t.

            It is a choice.  It is really that simple. But the least we can do is try. We can redirect funds. It is the moral and ethical thing to do.  Hire Haudenosaunee faculty and staff. Create a safe and welcoming environment on campus with student services staff experienced in the needs and concerns of Indigenous students.  Grant free tuition, room, and board to Haudenosaunee students. That might be a start. We could do this easily for the cost of SUNY’s football programs. We send no one to meet with Native Nations. We have no one in student services to help support those students should they arrive. We could divert resources towards this goal if we wanted to. We could acknowledge our college’s historic location with something more than a few lines tossed out at the beginning of college functions. We are well-intentioned but ineffective.

           OUR ENROLLMENT is down significantly this year, which has made an already desperate financial situation even worse. The pandemic and widespread economic dislocation is responsible, but some of our administrators fear that those students are not coming back.  Meanwhile, we continue to promote the image, with some small justification, that we are the poor person’s Swarthmore, an elite liberal arts college at a public school price. Sadly, I do not see us casting our net in new waters to try to bring students to Geneseo who we have not brought before. I see no evidence that we are interested in recruiting kids from the inner-city and I see no effort to reach out systematically to the state’s indigenous population. Indeed, we had a recent alum from the Tuscarora Reservation who wanted nothing more than to recruit and mentor Haudenosaunee students for Geneseo, and he would have been good at it.  Nobody in Admissions at that time was interested. (Most of those people have since moved on to other colleges). Geneseo is well known as a demanding school that offers difficult courses. Yet our retention rate—the number of students who come to Geneseo and return—is low. Clearly many of us need to change the way that we teach.  But we also need to think about who our students are, and where we are going to look for new ones.  This is difficult work that will not yield results immediately. It will take resources that are in short supply.  But how we expend our resources is a choice and we really ought to choose differently, as a college and as a massive University system. As employees of the State of New York, we ought to recognize how complicated the State’s relations have been with Native Nations, and how complicit our employer has been in the historic dispossession and marginalization of the state’s Indigenous population.  With regard to our native neighbors, the state’s hands are dirty, and that dirt will not be washed away by a few lines thrown out at the beginning of campus functions.

Good Injun Now: The Killing of Mitchell Patterson

He’s a “Good Injun Now.” That’s how a headline in the Buffalo Morning News announced the death of Mitchell Patterson, a Tuscarora Indian whose life of violent crime came to a close on Lock Street in Buffalo in January of 1895.

That headline writer was riffing on the famous line attributed to the American military leader Philip Sheridan, perhaps the most famous thing Sheridan ever said: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” It was a joke that headline writers liked.

I have put a lot of time recently into my current research project, a history of the Onondaga Nation. I am at that stage of the research when I am collecting and reading newspaper articles. Variations on this theme appear quite often. Two decades after Patterson’s death, the Brooklyn Citizen published a story under the headline, “A Good Indian–And Alive,” chronicling the surprising career of Charles Doxon, an Onondaga who attended the Hampton Institute, and became a regular lecturer for the Six Nations Temperance League and on matters religious.

Newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contain a wealth of information about the lives of native people. They provide a window into the events that impacted these communities, and through a glass darkly, into the lives of native peoples as they made their way through a world that at best wanted them to disappear. Newspapers have allowed me, for instance, to reconstruct the lives of Onondagas who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and other Native American boarding schools: those who succeeded as farmers, or as housewives, or as leaders of a native nation. We meet football players and musicians in the newspapers, but also Onondaga bootleggers and outlaws, including a man who took his own life after shooting a Madison County sheriff’s deputy.

They are rich sources, and indispensable. I could not do the work I need to do without them. I subscribe to newspapers.com, use a couple of the newspaper databases to which my college library provides access, and I make frequent use of the quirky Fulton History website, which contains a trove of information.

They are flawed sources, too. They include an enormous amount of racist and stereotyped information about native peoples. They report on examples of what their editors still considered savagery, and they told stories of crime and dysfunction in native communities. Besides stories chronicling the resistance of native peoples to the forces of settler colonialism, they carry stories of Onondagas shooting their guns at the moon during an eclipse, and resting satisfied that their actions returned the world to light, of “Pagan” ceremonies, and of superstitious dancing and despair. Much that took place in these communities, I am certain, struck editors as entirely uninteresting and unworthy of even a single column inch. Much, I am certain, has been missed or left out.

Still, I had to check. And reading newspapers can lead one down a rabbit hole, as you follow a lead you did not expect through its challenging twists and turns. It was on one of these journeys that I encountered Mitchell Patterson.

In June of 1880, Patterson attacked “a young white woman” in Lewiston, Niagara County, not far from the Tuscarora Reservation in western New York. He “cut her eyes out, split her ears, and otherwise disfigured her.” Other accounts disagreed about the identity of the victim, indicating that Patterson’s wrath fell upon his aunt Nancy, who told him that he could not come home drunk any more. Patterson got angry, one Tuscarora neighbor recalled, and, in the Indian-speak newspapers loved to utilize, “he go sharpen stick and stab her eyes out.” Patterson fled across the Niagara River into Canada. Officials found him in a Brantford jail, not far from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, due to be released in October on some unrelated charge. He was somehow arrested in New York, and sentenced to ten years in prison for the violent attack.

He must have been released early. Patterson shows up in the papers again in April 1889. The Niagara County grand jury indicted Patterson for “shooting at an officer on the Tuscarora Reservation” the previous February. Four years later the district attorney in Lewiston charged him with shooting “Zacharia Green on the reservation.” And just seven months after that, a Niagara County court found Patterson guilty of selling alcohol to Indians on the reservation. He was imprisoned in the county jail for two months and fined twenty-five dollars.

He did his time. The Buffalo Commercial reported on March 28, 1894, that “the sentence of Mitchell Patterson, the bad man from the Tuscarora reservation, expired to-day, and a warrant was waiting for him the moment he was released.” The Commercial pointed out that Patterson “is a bad man and Indian that has made the marshal no end of trouble, and when he gets in this time it is to be hoped he will stay.” The charge, this time, was the beating of Lafayette Printup, in Sanborn, the previous November, 1893.

Patterson disappeared from the papers for a few months. He appeared again in November of 1894. Perhaps he had been in jail, but it is not possible to tell from the newspapers. Wherever he had been, that fall day Patterson went to the home of his neighbor, a “good Indian” named Isaac Clause. Patterson called for Clause to come out, and as soon as his neighbor appeared, “Patterson knocked him down and kicked him in the head.” Then he forced Clause to come with him, and “marched him to the village store and made him treat to tobacco, afterward robbing him of all his money.” Patterson “pounded and robbed” Clause, said one paper, “leaving him in a semi-conscious state in the road.” Clause’s relatives feared that he “is so badly injured he may die.”

Just two months later, Buffalo police officer Daniel Reagan began to hear about an Indian walking along Commercial Street in the city who had made a number of “indecent remarks” to a couple who was out for the evening. Officer Reagan found the suspect–it was Patterson–and he began to follow. Patterson turned on to Evans Street and picked up his pace. Reagan caught up, grabbed the much larger Patterson by the collar with one hand, and pulled his night stick out with the other. Patterson yelled, “Let go me, you son of a gun!” He then pulled out a pistol, pointed it at Reagan’s head, and then turned and ran without firing a shot.

Officer Reagan pursued. Patterson ran in the middle of the street, Reagan on the sidewalk. An “iron framework” ran between them, that “separated the drive way on the bridge from the footway for pedestrians.” At one point, Patterson turned and fired a round. He missed. Reagan drew his own weapon and continued to pursue.

A couple of seconds later, Patterson turned onto Lock Street, “a narrow, unlighted thoroughfare.” Reagan “could see the tall form of the Indian running along the west sidewalk of Lock Street,” about fifty feet ahead. Patterson fired again, and this time Reagan returned fire. “There came a fusilade of shots, which were heard from blocks around.”

Reagan hit Patterson three times. He and some witnesses carried the wounded man into the light of a saloon. They called for an ambulance, which rushed Patterson to the hospital. The surgeons, the newspaper reported, “have little hope of the man’s recovery, as a great hemorrhage resulted from the perforation of the liver, and the shock to the system was intense.”

And, then, the only description of Patterson. Six feet, two inches tall, weighing close to 250 pounds. He was “about 40 years old,” and “has the face of the typical reservation Indian,” with “a sparse mustache and goatee.” Patterson was “profusely tattooed.”

On his right arm is a figure of Mitchell, the pugilist, and on his left the word ‘Wisdom,’ in large letters. On the left leg is another potrait of Mitchell, for whom his namesake seems to have a great admiration.

In the hospital, Patterson gave an “ante-mortem statement” to the coroner.

My name is Mitchell Patterson. I live on the Tonawanda Reservation. I was walking on Canal Street and a policeman shot me. Another Indian was with me by the name of Frank Wooley, who had a gun and shot at the policeman. I had no gun. The other Indian had a gun. I sail on the lakes and come to Buffalo quite often. He had two guns and he gave one to me I shot once but did not hit anybody.

This was certainly a confused, and confusing account, that does not square at all with what Officer Reagan reported. Evidently the coroner did not find it satisfactory, either, because he visited the hospital again the next morning to take an additional statement from Patterson, who must have been in miserable shape. I include it here in its entirety:

My name is Mitchell Patterson. I live on the Tuscarora Reservation, near Lewistown. I am thirty-five years of age and am a single man. I came to Buffalo from Keating Summit, where I was working in the lumber regions, about a week ago. I have been boarding with a man named Walters, on Main Street. I was walking on Canal Street about 8 o’clcok last night when a policeman came up to me and said: ‘You big Injun; want you.’ He put his hand on my collar. I jerked away and ran over the Evans Street bridge, and there, I think, I shot at the policeman once. I ran into Lock Street and shot at him again, and he shot at me and hit me.

I carried a revolver one week, which I bought on Canal Street. I had two extra cartridges in my pocket. I do not remember if the policeman told me not to shoot or not. I was drunk and do not remember everything. I might have shot four or five times. I do not remember. I served three years in Auburn [a state penitentiary] for fighting another Indian. I was sentenced at Lockport. I kicked the life out of him. I have been out of prison for two or three years.

A more detailed account, indeed, but one that contradicts much that appeared in the first statement, taken the night of the shooting. The coroner thought the second statement was more accurate and thorough, but still not complete. Patterson was dying of his wounds, answering questions after surgery. I can hear in his narrative, I think, the coroner’s questions, Patterson’s short answers, and the coroner’s efforts to fashion this into a narrative.

Patterson died at 3:00pm, roughly eighteen hours after Officer Reagan shot him. In the days that followed his death, Buffalo newspapers continued to flesh out Patterson’s story, reporting on the bits of information they recovered from Tuscaroras who visited Buffalo. They told the story of a “heap bad Injun,” to be sure, who seemed to have terrified his native neighbors in several native communities, as well as the police who always approached him armed because they knew Patterson was ready for a fight. Violence defined Patterson, according to the newspaper reports.

Patterson was a life-long criminal with a violent temper, and he spent more than half his adult life behind bars. But these stories, perhaps in ways the editors did not intend, paint a more complex picture of a Native American man who traveled through Haudenosaunee communities across a broader Iroquoia. He spent time at Onondaga, at Tonawanda, and at the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. He worked on Great Lakes Steamers, cut timber in Ontario, Michigan, and New York, and squeezed a few bucks here and there by selling alcohol to his neighbors at home on the Tuscarora Reservation.

He had family connections. He beat Noah Patterson, his grandfather, to defend his grandmother from a wife beater. After the latest attack from her husband, she “got mad and look for a man big ’nuff to lick Noah.” Mitchell Patterson fit the bill. Three Tuscaroras visited Mitchell Patterson in the hospital, according to one story more to satisfy their curiosity than express their sympathy. They said little, according to a white witness, but that does not mean they did not care. Mitchell Patterson’s mother–she is unnamed in the newspapers, and identified only as “Old Mrs. Patterson”–arrived at the coroner’s office two days after her son’s death. The newspaper said “there was not a trace of grief upon her face.” She wanted to see her son’s body, and carry it home for burial. The coroner guided her in. “She viewed the body for a few moments,” the newspaper said, and “uttered a few words in the dialect of her tribe.” Her wagon was not large enough to carry the remains, so “it was accordingly arranged to place the body in a rough box and ship it to Sanborn for burial in the Indian cemetery there on the Tuscarora Reservation.”

Perhaps “Old Mrs. Patterson” showed no grief. But I am not sure that is true. One of the many stereotypes about native peoples was their supposed “stolid” nature. Maybe the coroner saw what he wanted to see. Perhaps the grief she felt was real, significant, and deep, expressed in a few quiet words in the Tuscarora language, by a mother who wanted to take her wayward son home for burial.

Newspapers provide a remarkable and important source for reconstructing Native American life. But we must remember that white newspaper editors and non-Indian journalists made decisions about their paper’s content, and they did not often ask native peoples what they thought. Indians appear in the newspapers when the white people in charge wanted them to appear, when they did something that they felt might interest their white readers. This might include instances of the continuing “savagery” and “paganism” of Haudenosaunee peoples. Native peoples appear frequently in the newspapers as athletes and criminals, too. Boarding school students who did good, and boarding school students who met tragic ends, appear in the papers. There are also stories of Native American organization and institution building, protest, and activism: instances when native peoples worked together to protect their communities in ways that non-natives might perceive as threats to their own lives, liberty, and property.

In between, in the gaps, silences, and the behaviors and actions described by newspapermen but not understood, there are fleeting images of a world that historians of Native Americans struggle to recover. Mitchell Patterson may have been a criminal, a sadist, a “Bad Injun,” and a source of terror to those who knew him. But he also moved through indigenous communities throughout western New York and Ontario, communities with stories that have not always been told with the richness they deserve and a careful and critical analysis of the sources will allow.