The Twelfth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2010
Berkeley Prize 2010

Tara Gaskin

The Confederacy Council House at Six Nations Reserve No. 40: A Monument to First Nations Culture and Community

In the centre of the village of Ohsweken, on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, there stands a modest brick building. If you were to peek in the windows you would notice the numerous shelves that house binders full of official documents and records. Glancing to the sides you might also see piles of storage boxes which contain more maps and papers. If you were feeling curious you could wander over to the west side of the building and read the inscribed Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque placed there to recognize Tom Longboat, a world champion long-distance runner and Six Nations resident in the early 1900s. It would be difficult, however, to deduce the building’s current purpose or any sense of how it got there. Decades of friction between the native people of Six Nations and the Euro-Canadian culture have confused the entire Canadian narrative and added layers, both literal and figurative, to the Council House and its story.

The Council House was the meeting place for the Six Nations Confederacy Council from the building’s opening in 1865 until one pivotal day. On October 7, 1924 the Canadian government determined the hereditary, but unelected, Confederacy Council was no longer to hold political power on the largest Native Canadian reserve in the country (Trevithik 1). The Department of Indian Affairs representative arrived with a small number of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in tow. In anticipation of a great conflict, a reporter from the Brantford Expositor was present. Contrary to the popular stereotype, the interaction was quiet and sombre. The Confederacy Council heard the prescription for a newly elected council and walked out the doors (Trevithik 1).

Some would argue the eviction was an attempt to regain control over the Six Nations Reserve. Today, 85 years later, both councils still exist, however, there is no effective leadership. The elected Council convenes at a new facility on the Reserve. The Confederacy Council also meets, though the Confederacy is not officially recognized by the Canadian government as having authority. The most significant development in recent times has been the transfer of building ownership from the elected council back to the Confederacy Council in 2007 ( Today, the Council House stands quietly as a monument to the Reserve’s internal and external tensions.

The Confederacy Council House was commissioned by the Six Nations Chiefs in the late nineteenth century as part of the new plan to establish a village centre on the reserve (Rogers 203). A new council house would be more accessible to the people than the existing log council house located 280 miles east near Middleport, New York. Seneca Chief John Hill was selected to design and build the Council House and construction began in 1863. By 1865 the Confederacy Council House was complete (Rogers 203). The building was based on a traditional frontal-focused hierarchical plan. The superintendent would have sat at the front of the meeting hall in the center. To his right sat the clerk and to his left the language interpreter. In front of the presiding authorities sat the hereditary chief from each of the participating Iroquois Nations: Mohawk and Seneca on the eastern side, Onandaga in the centre, and Oneida, Cayuga, Tuscarora, Delaware, Nanticoke and Tutelo to the west. Behind a railing was seating for local observers (Rogers 204). The striking wooden structure stood proudly in the centre of the village. Its elegance was complete with a bell tower at the roof’s south-west apex.

When a building fits flawlessly into its setting, in terms of style, material, siting, and construction, it will be an invaluable part of the cultural ethos. The building will meet the needs of the community, and, consequently, the surroundings will allow the building to thrive. The Council House was a vernacular building appropriately constructed using locally available materials and traditions. Through the use of familiar methods of construction the Six Nations people made an effort to create a suitable facility for their Confederacy Council. It was apparent, however, this intention did not conform with the Canadian government’s expectations. Under mounting pressure from the government to comply with colonial ideals and practices, at some point in the 1890s the building was clad in a buff brick veneer (Rogers 203).

The motion to clad the Council House in brick veneer carried heavy aesthetic and symbolic implications. In a physical sense, the issue of ornament versus decoration is brought to mind. The Council House, as it stood, was ornamental. Thoughtful use of contextual materials and recognition of the aptitudes of community members created a visually pleasing building that could be seamlessly integrated into the village. The structure was allowed to tell the story of the building. In this way, the building could be easily understood by all who came upon it. Decoration, on the other hand, is something applied. Decoration of a structure may serve to indicate a building’s use or to conceal results of cost cutting measures in construction. To the Council House brick veneer was applied as if to cover a fault.

The act of covering the wooden structure was characteristic of the adaptation of native cultures under colonial regime. The buff brick veneer would not improve the structural stability of the Council House, nor would it prolong the life of the building. The only conceivable reason for cladding the Council House would be to conceal the contextual materials in an attempt at echoing the Euro-Canadian image. This represents one of the unfortunate realities of the fading Native Canadian identity.

Many native customs and lore have fallen through the cracks in records of Canadian history. The oversight is largely based on the dependence of native people on their oral tradition. The chronicling of events through spoken word passed between generations was not a medium that matched up with the primarily written archives of European descendants. In effect, some parts of the narrative have been obscured over time. Historically, the built environment was also an integral part of the oral tradition. In Neil Levine’s analysis of the influence literacy has had on the building he delves into Victor Hugo’s theory of architecture. Hugo, in the 1830s, concluded “Buildings had forever lost the power to express human thought and had relinquished that power to the printed word.” (Levine 139). There is an important parallel here, one which encourages forging a closer tie between the community and its architecture.

Modifying the Council House, to connect with the future needs of the Reserve community and act as a monument to past political unrest, would be an effective way of creating a productive property and increasing the Reserve’s cultural value. An appropriate use of the building would be for a post-secondary learning facility in the village core. The school could run courses that build tangible hard skills as well as more academic programs. Currently, there is a need on the Reserve for people trained in construction trades, applicable health occupations and relevant youth service work. Additionally, it is important to have teachers and researchers working in the community who are versed in the traditional and contemporary languages and world views.

A recently established institute, Six Nations Polytechnic, has formed relationships with colleges and universities in Southwestern Ontario. The centre offers courses locally that qualify for transfer credits at the participating post-secondary institutions. Thus, much of the groundwork has been set for creating a place for higher learning on the Reserve. The Council House, however, would establish a different type of learning institute. Its location, in the center of the village, would be accessible even to residents who are unable to drive. Its proximity to local amenities would provide access to a multitude of resources that would not fit in the small building. In effect, a place for experiential learning would be developed. Through local experience, students would gain practical knowledge to complement their classroom studies. Students could also begin to network through the community and set up job prospects for after graduation. These concepts are crucial for the school to have a lasting impact on the culture of the community.

Some resources would be brought in from beyond the reserve; specialized instructors and advanced researchers to name a few. As well, there are vital assets within the community that would set this school apart from other Canadian learning institutes. In areas such as native languages and sustainable living, the citizens of the Reserve would hold unparalleled expertise.

In order to uphold the historic oral tradition, the spoken languages of the Six Nations should be valued. It is important the people of the Reserve and the greater community recognize education need not be viewed through a western lens to be deemed worthwhile. Native languages, medicines, music, and customs are all valuable pieces of the Canadian narrative too often downplayed in the traditional Canadian education system. An emphasis on historical conventions would be advantageous for the local and broader populations.

The age-old understanding Native Canadian’s have of the natural world is another valuable skill. A holistic approach to sustainability is practiced widely among Native peoples. Aspects of sustainability such as the importance of site and history are common in Native Canadian cultures. These aspects are said to be valued by contemporary builders but are not always realized. Many Canadians are not even aware of the longstanding, environmentally conscious traditions of the Six Nations culture. Courses offered in sustainable building and landscaping approaches would create a forum for discourse.

The Council House itself would be a fitting location for this type of knowledge sharing. As mentioned previously, sustainable buildings appear peerlessly bound to their sites. One could hardly imagine them in another location, because they have been crafted of local materials and using local building practices. If community members were to take on the task of stripping the Council House of its brick veneer, and exposing the elegant wooden structure beneath, the building would stand as an undisguised example of these concepts. Furthermore, the process of removing the brick would represent a great step forward in marking the region’s independence. The building’s interior has undergone minor renovations as it has temporarily housed the elected council offices and a small library over the past decades. The plan could easily be reverted to an open format with a large open room at its center. The open plan would facilitate the sharing of ideas and resources. Therefore, in terms of the programming, siting, material and construction, the Council House would provide a suitable location for experiential learning.

Historically, the Canadian education system has not held high regard for native studies in schools (Battiste 21). Where native studies are included it is most often as an additive to a Eurocentric Canadian history component. It is time the largest native reserve in Canada, Six Nations Reserve No. 40, be served with a learning facility specific to the community’s needs. The Reserve needs a means of providing its people with contextual knowledge that draws from their existing frames of reference, and a repurposed Council House would present the perfect setting.

As well as the being an appropriate accommodation for post-secondary learning, the Council House is a historically significant landmark. By opening up the building to public use, the building’s embodied narrative would be exposed, thus taking advantage of the community’s oral tradition and communicating with a broader audience. A building intended as a forum for political discourse, then underused for most of the 20th century, would once again be a form the backdrop for engaging conversations and the roots of social change. These two objectives would culminate as a vibrant cultural centre in the village core. Through recognition of the Native role in Canadian history, and an appreciation for the local assets and needs reuse of the Council House presents an opportunity for an immensely positive impact on the Six Nations community.

Works Cited

Battise, Marie. "Enabling the autumn seed: Toward a decolonized approach to aboriginal knowledge, language, and education. " Canadian Journal of Native Education 22.1 (1998): 16-27. Canadian Periodicals, ProQuest. Web. 31 Jan. 2010.

Levine, Neil. “The book and the building: Hugo’s theory of architecture and Labrouste’s Bibliotheque Ste-Genevieve,” in The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth Century French Architecture, Robin Middleton, ed. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1982. (pp. 138-73)

Natekha, Owen. "Yetsyenhayentahkwa - Old Council House." Google Panoramio. Web. 30 January 2009.

Rogers, Edward S. Aboriginal Ontario: Historical Perspectives on the First Nations. Toronto, Dundurn Press Ltd., 1994.

Scott, Trevithick. Conflicting outlooks: the background to the 1924 deposing of the Six Nations Hereditary Council. Calgary, University of Calgary, 1998.

“Six Nations chiefs return to Council House” Political Affairs Magazine., 16 January 2001. Web. 20 January 2009.

Additional Help and Information

Are you in need of assistance? Please email
Ms.Tara Gaskin, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Copyright © 1998-2024 Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy
For permission for any form of re-use of any of the contents, please contact
The BERKELEY PRIZE is endorsed by the Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley.