The medal, considered to be of central importance by many in the Nation, was gifted to Seneca Chief Red Jacket by President George Washington in 1792 to commemorate discussions that culminated in the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794, in which the Seneca Nation played a crucial role. The medal was meant to be a symbol of peace, friendship, and enduring relationships among the United States and the Six Nations.
“It is both fitting and gratifying to have the Red Jacket Peace Medal back with the Nation where it belongs,” said Seneca Nation President Matthew Pagels. “An untold number of artifacts that are of cultural significance to our people – and all Indigenous communities across the U.S. – remain in the hands of private or public collections. The return of the Peace Medal underscores the need for more of these important objects to be returned to their rightful place.”
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act defines cultural patrimony as objects with ongoing cultural importance to a tribal nation, rather than property owned by an individual.
The Seneca Nation submitted a formal request for the repatriation of the Red Jacket Peace Medal in October 2020, and it was returned early this month.
The Peace Medal stayed with Red Jacket for the remainder of his life after he received if from Washington, and he reportedly wore it every day. Upon Red Jacket’s death in 1833, the medal was passed down to his nephew Jemmy Johnson, who wanted to sell it to the New York Museum in 1851, but the sale was intercepted by another descendant, Col. Ely Parker.
While in Parker’s possession, the medal passed through the hands of several prominent individuals – including President Abraham Lincoln, who reportedly held the medal the day before his assassination. Parker kept the medal until his death in 1895, when it was sold that same year by Parker’s widow Minnie Orton Sackett (1849–1932) to the Buffalo Historical Society, (now The Buffalo History Museum). Believing that no individual can own an object of cultural patrimony, leaders of the Seneca Nation say they understood her intention, but believes she was not authorized to sell the heirloom.
The Museum has served as a steward of the medal and sustained popular interest in it, Red Jacket, and all Seneca communities for more than a century.
“Pursuant to NAGPRA, the Red Jacket Peace Medal cannot belong to any individual or museum; it is inalienable and belongs to the Seneca People as a collective,” said Dr. Joe Stahlman, director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum. “Like the Canandaigua Treaty, the Red Jacket Peace Medal is a representation of the ongoing sovereign relationship between the federal government and the Seneca People. It has always maintained an inviolable place in our cultural memory.”
“As a steward of local history, The Buffalo History Museum must look back at its own history, reassess its collections and the circumstances surrounding artifact acquisition,” said Melissa Brown, executive director of The Buffalo History Museum. “Reassessment is not enough, however, action is imperative to ensure that any artifacts of cultural patrimony are returned- in this instance, to the collective stewardship of the Seneca people. I, and all of the Museum, were committed to repatriation of the Peace Medal. Through our continued relationship, we seek to ensure the legacy of Red Jacket and the history of the Haudenosaunee, reinforcing connections to the vibrancy of the Nation that shapes our community today.”
The Peace Medal is now being held at the Onohsagwë:dé Cultural Center (also known as the Seneca-Iroquis National Museum) in Salamanca. It is expected to be available for public viewing soon. The museum says a public unveiling event is tentatively planned for May 17; details are expected to be released in the days to come.
Illustrations: Red Jacket in 1835 wearing the Peace Medal (detail from a lithograph by Henry Corbould after a painting by Charles Bird King printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel and published in History of the Indian Tribes of North America); and a photograph of the Red Jacket Peace Medal courtesy Buffalo History Museum and Seneca Nation.