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Willi Wottreng | Deskaheh – an Iroquois on Lake Geneva

23.01.2019 – Ruth von Gunten

“I believe, when looking back, that books about the Indians were key in my education. Later I learned that one says indigenous peoples, to be politically correct.” Those are the words of the first-person narrator in the novel based on the true story of Iroquois Chief Deskaheh. Just by chance, she came across some photos and letters. Her research allowed her to discover the history of the indigenous people in the Grand River territory in Ontario, which had rejected the supremacy of Canada. Appointed by the Council of Elders, Chief Deskaheh travelled for that reason to Geneva in 1923. He was to advocate for the recognition and independence of his people before the Council of the League of Nations. But he failed – due to the lack of interest of politicians and bureaucrats and the arrogance of the Western world. Although his speeches are huge public successes, the people persist in their prejudices against the “savage” wearing an Indian costume. After spending 18 months in Europe, Deskaheh has to return empty-handed – but does not manage to make it all the way back home. The Canadian government had forcibly removed the Council of Elders and conducted “democratic” elections. Deskaheh died of pneumonia in 1925 in exile on US territory. Soon the rumour was spread that he had been poisoned.

The author of the book, Willi Wottreng, has done meticulous research; facts and figures are historically documented. The author deftly switches between the angle of the first-person narrator and the story of Deskaheh. As a reader, one closely experiences how the former farmer grows into his role of speaker for his people, and one accompanies him during his stay in Geneva and on his lecture trip rightacross Switzerland. His frustration can be felt when he speaks untiringly with diplomats and tries in vain to advance to the high ranks of the League of Nations. Delicately, simply by suggestion, the author describes the relationship of the Iroquois with Hedwige of Geneva. The author skilfully brings the story full circle by having the storyteller travel to Grand River where she hands over the few documents to an indigenous school. A wonderful homage to Iroquois Chief Deskaheh, advocate for the independence of his people.

Willi Wottreng, born in 1948, studied history and was involved in the youth movement in 1968. He worked as a journalist for “Weltwoche” and “NZZ am Sonntag”. The book author and journalist, who lives in Zurich, is a member of the board of the GMS Society for Minorities in Switzerland.

Willi Wottreng: “Ein Irokese am Genfersee”, Bilgerverlag, Zurich 198 pages; CHF 30.00