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The Buffalo of Yesteryear: Red Jacket's speech on religious freedom

This post is the latest in an occasional series about the men and women who played important roles in Buffalo’s early history.

Of the Native Americans who called Western New York home when European and Anglo-American settlers arrived in the late 18th century, the Seneca chief Red Jacket is perhaps the most widely known. Many Buffalo-area residents are familiar with landmarks like Red Jacket Parkway in South Buffalo, the Red Jacket Quadrangle at the University at Buffalo and the Red Jacket monument at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Born Otetiani and also called Sagoyewatha (“He-Keeps-Them-Awake”), Red Jacket earned his English name because of the red coats he wore while fighting alongside the British during the American Revolution, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Red Jacket's legacy is complicated, because he was seen by some as double-dealing with white settlers against his people’s interests, but there is wide agreement on his talents as an orator.

Red Jacket delivered one of his famous speeches, the text of which is available at the Library of Congress, at Buffalo Creek in 1805 in response to the advances of a Christian missionary. The speech, which defended Native Americans’ right to their own religion, remains relevant today in a nation that, despite being founded upon the principle of separation of church and state, still occasionally grapples with religious tolerance.

“Friend and brother,” Red Jacket said to the missionary. “It was the will of the Great Spirit that we should meet this day. He orders all things and has given us a fine day for our council.”

Red Jacket continued:

"You say you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind, and, if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach, we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right and we are lost. How do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book. If it was intended for us as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given to us, and not only to us, but to our forefathers, the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people.

"Brother. You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the book?

"Brother. We do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion, which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive: to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion."

Red Jacket died in 1830 and was originally interred at a Native American burial ground in South Buffalo before his remains were moved to Forest Lawn.

Red Jacket can be found on the western frieze on Buffalo's City Hall, agreeing to the Treaty of 1810. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

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