An Echo from the Past: Amazing Painting of “Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow”, Early 18th-century Iroquois Leader

c092418kDuring a recent visit to Quebec City, I stumbled upon a promotional flyer featuring this amazing painting of an early 18th-century Mohawk leader, Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, and I decided to do a little research on this stunning character. Here’s what I found:

Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow was a member of the bear clan of the Mohawk nation. In 1710, he was among a delegation of “four Kings” — three from the Five Nations Confederacy of the Iroquois and one from the Algonquin nation — who traveled to London, England, accompanied by colonial leaders, and had an audience with Queen Anne.

The aboriginal representatives are said to have make the trip to ask for missionaries and military assistance against the French, but were in fact being courted for their alliance in England’s war against France. Their visit created a sensation among Londoners, who wrote poems, ballads and songs about them. To commemorate their stay, the Queen commissioned court painter John Verelst to paint a portrait of each of her visitors.

During this visit, Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow was baptized as “Brant”. Unfortunately, he may have contracted a European disease during his trip for he died soon after his return from London. Brant was also the grandfather of the famous Iroquois leader Joseph Brant (1742-1807).

Early images of Canadian aboriginal people are rare, and this portrait is said to be one of the best records of 18th-century Aboriginal tattooing in existence. The paintings of the Four Indian Kings were held in the Royal Collection for more than a century before being acquired by the Government of Canada as national treasures in 1977. In 2010, Canada Post released a set of four stamps featuring Verelst’s paintings. The stamps were designed by David Sacha and Karen Satok of Sputnik Design Partners, a Toronto-based firm.

2010519_indians-souvenir-sheetFour-Kings-Stamp-Block“Instead of using the portraits’ actual frames, we decided to narrow in on the paintings themselves; that’s where the story lies,” says Sacha. “The strongest feature in each was the eyes of the Kings, so we used them as the focus in the background.”

A close-up of Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row, Emperor of the Six Nations, is featured on all pieces of the issue. “As the leader, he had the most prominence as far as the delegation is concerned,” explains Sacha of the design choice.

The designers used the first day cover to expand on the story presented in the paintings, with images and brief bios of each of the kings. “Part of what made their visit so interesting is the individual backgrounds of the four men,” notes Sacha. “We wanted people to know who they were and why they were chosen as representatives.” The cancellation mark is a rendering of the seal that the “four kings” used to sign documents during their visit to London.

Four-Kings-OFDC“The Four Indian Kings are among the most significant documents held by Library and Archives Canada,” notes Dr. Daniel J. Caron, Librarian and Archivist of Canada. “The earliest surviving full-length depictions of North American Aboriginals painted from life, the portraits present a vivid record of the authoritative Aboriginal presence at the meeting with the British Queen in London on April 19, 1710.”

English Sources

Canada Post, The Four Kings

Library and Archives Canada, Sagayenkwaraton (baptized Brant). Named Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas (Mohawk)

McCord Museum, SA GA YEATH QUA PIETH TOW, King of the Maquas

Sources en français

Postes Canada, Les quatre rois indiens

Bibliothèque et archives du Canada, Sagayenkwaraton (baptisé Brant). Nommé Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas (Mohawk)

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