combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

The Iroquois Declaration of War on Germany, 1942

In 1942, the Iroquois Six Nations declared war on the Axis powers, asserting its right as an independent sovereign nation to do so. This proclamation authoritatively allowed Iroquois men to enlist and fight in World War II on the side of the Allied powers.

The provocation for this declaration had historical antecedence. The Iroquois declared war on the Axis powers in reaction to a 1941 circuit court of appeals decision entitled ex parte Green, which upheld Washington's Nationality Act of 1940 specifying that the Iroquois Confederacy, among other American Indian tribes, was subject to federal law despite the appearance of national sovereignty bound by treaty. Historically, the treaties that Washington had, and continues to have, with various Indian tribes were all in perpetuity. These are contracts relating to both services and ownership of land, as well as to tribal and First Nations' rights. However, in the 1941 case, the court felt differently. It ruled that the 1940 Nationality Act unequivocally made Warren Eldreth Green, the Iroquois contesting the Act, a citizen, even without his consent. The court was modeling its decision on an earlier 1924 act of Congress that made American Indians citizens. Thus all American Indians fell under the same ruling. The Iroquois, of course, were offended by the decision. They felt that as a foreign nation, the tribal members of their Confederacy were not technically citizens, and therefore not subject to the Selective Service Act of 1940, which they believed was promulgated unilaterally by Congress, and without their consent, thus imposing federal supremacy over Indians and Indian affairs[1].

In reaction to this decision, and in order to uphold its sovereignty as a separate state, delegates from the Six Nations Confederacy assembled in conference on 13 June 1942, to draft a formal declaration of war. The following day, on the steps of the United States Capitol, a spokesman of the Confederacy read the following:

We represent the oldest, though smallest, democracy in the world today. It is the unanimous sentiment among Indian people that the atrocities of the Axis nations are violently repulsive to all sense of righteousness of our people, and that this merciless slaughter of mankind can no longer be tolerated. Now we do resolve that it is the sentiment of this council that the Six Nations of Indians declare that a state of war exists between our Confederacy of Six Nations on the one part and Germany, Italy, Japan and their allies against whom the United States has declared war, on the other part.
Thus acting, from its own perspective, as an independent sovereign state, the Iroquois nation entered World War II on its own consent and terms[2].

The Confederacy's justification for entering war was as much for honor as for principle and expediency. Apart from legal obligations and possible threats of reprisal (if they did not obey the court), the Iroquois wanted their nation to enter the war with an appeal to integrity or moral soundness. Thus they spoke of righteousness, or doing right, as if wanting to make the struggle with merciless slaughter confined and narrower until the source of that slaughter or carnage was overcome.

Such a posture reminds one of the dilemma in which the Iroquois Confederacy found itself at the time of the American Revolution. The English wanted the Confederacy to commit their resources in support of the British government. The Confederacy was divided, even though it required a consensus to act, and certainly to declare war. Nevertheless, the Mohawks and Senecas supported the British, the Oneidas and Tuscaroras supported the Colonies, and the Cayugas and Onondagas attempted to remain neutral. The question arises: What was the guiding principle of each tribe of the Confederacy for entering the war or staying neutral?[3] Historians give a number of reasons, not the least being the Confederacy's political system of requiring unanimity among all six tribes, which ultimately proved unworkable by being incapable of reconciling the partisan agendas of each tribe.

In 1779, General George Washington, suspecting a Confederacy assault in the northeast, eventually sent General John Sullivan to attack the villages of the Confederacy in western New York state, devastating all Iroquois villages there and ultimately destroying the power of the Confederacy. After the war, the two tribes of the Confederacy that supported the Colonies, namely the Tuscarora and the Oneida, were rewarded with privileges and given large tracts of land. The remaining four tribes were forced to cede their lands. Most went to Canada. Over time, during the 1800s, two independent Canadian and American Confederacies emerged, but only as remnants of the once powerful original Iroquois Confederacy[4].

No doubt by 1941, with the wisdom of hindsight, the Iroquois knew more of their American neighbors than to expect bad things from them, and were ready to call affiliated Americans their brothers and sisters upon easier terms than in 1779, especially considering the merciless slaughter of the Axis powers. Possibly they also saw the U.S. Constitution as the best embodiment of the sentiments of their people and their earlier Confederacy.

[1]: World War II and the American Indians by Kenneth William Townsend, The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, pp103-124 (©2000).
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[2]: Ibid.
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[3]: "Molly Brant: Her Domestic and Political Roles in Eighteenth-Century New York" by Lois Feister and Bonnie Pulis in Northeastern Indian Lives 1632-1816 ed by Robert S. Grumet, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, pp295-320 (©1996).
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[4]: Ibid.
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[editorial note: Until 2004, AmerIndians constituted the largest ethnic minority serving in the Armed Forces, which arguably had more to do with their subculturally based warrior ethos than with economics; but given the historic relationship between AmerIndian tribes and the US government, it's remarkable that Indians have willingly and competently served a paternalistic nation that has been less than accommodating. A significant result of this traditional inculcation has been the spiritual healing of warriors, ancient or modern, which surpasses the reintegration rate of the dominant heterogeneous society, despite a crosscultural anomie prevalent in the modern era. This adoptive absorption is most crucial when the war is unpopular, as they mostly have been since WWII, and thus bespeaks a finer sensibility than they have been credited with by outsiders.]

by James Wm. Chichetto
... who is a freelance poet, with eight books of verse to his credit, and works appearing in The Native American Poetry Anthology, The First Abbey Wood Anthology, The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, The Colorado Review, Gargoyle, The Manhattan Review, Poem, The Paterson Review, as well as previously in this literary magazine. He is related to combat veterans of the Korean War and World War Two; and teaches writing and literature at Stonehill College.

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