A four hundred year struggle for social justice

By David Sharpe

Four hundred ago (1613) the Five Nations of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) began negotiations with the Dutch settlers residing on their territory in what is now New York State. The eventual result of these early meetings was the creation of the Two Row Wampum Belt symbolizing a covenant of friendship. The belt of white shells and two purple rows symbolizes a Dutch ship and Haudenosaunee canoe travelling the river of life. The two craft follow a distinct parallel path. Each craft represent a people with their own laws, religion, customs and sovereignty. The three white bands represent friendship, peace and respect.  This the Dutch knew from hearing a reading of the wampum, an early example of First Nations diplomacy. 

This covenant would later be renewed when the British supplanted the Dutch on Haudenosaunee territory. The Two Row represents a unique concept of social justice and provides a framework of peaceful coexistence, one that Richard Hill, coordinator of Indigenous Knowledge at Six Nations Polytechnic and curator of an exhibition held at the Woodland Cultural Centre, War Clubs Wampum Belts: Hodinöhsö:ni Experiences of the War of 1812 says can “be used to remake our relationship.” In these contentious times of blockades and Idle No More protests, the Two Row wampum provides a template for a renewed relationship between Canada and First Nation peoples.  Hill spoke at a Laurier Brantford Aboriginal Awareness event, one of many speaking engagements where he holds up replica wampum and says, “These are official diplomatic documents, not historical trivia.” The belts have been “spoken over hundreds of times,” Hill says, and the wampum “captures words spoken over it.” The Two Row’s declaration of friendship, peace and respect outlines a foundation of social justice lacking in the current discourse based on a history of colonialism and oppression.   

The history of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) is a complex story, intertwined with the story of the formation of Canada. Siding with the British during the American Revolution the Haudenosaunee were awarded a tract of land six miles either side of the Grand River from its source to its mouth in recognition of their service to the Crown and to replace their lost homeland in the United States. The ink was barely dry on Fredrick Haldimand’s 1784 proclamation when conflict arose over the document’s meaning. Were the Six Nations truly a sovereign ally and owner of the tract or were they mere subjects of the Crown and only occupants of the land?  

A focus of Hill’s public lectures on First Nations involvement in the War of 1812 is another wampum belt, the William Claus (British Superintendent of Indians in Upper Canada) or Crown Pledge Belt.  This belt was once used as a stage prop by Pauline Johnson and sold to a wealthy U.S. collector. It then sat in a Philadelphia vault for roughly a century before being returned to the Six Nations recently. Hill notes both the irony and the timeliness of the belt’s return, “In time to mark the celebration of the war’s 200thanniversary. It just underlines the pledges of the Crown they failed to fulfill.”

Two things are important to note about the Claus belt. First, the British gave it to the Six Nations of the Grand, confirming British recognition of wampum belts as diplomatic instruments. The belt was presented to the Six Nations at an 1815 conference held at Burlington Heights. Claus was careful to follow protocol in the presentation of the belt and pledged that all the land and rights enjoyed by the Six Nations prior to war would be honoured. But in a telling indication of the storm clouds ahead, Claus refers to the Six Nations as children of their great father the king, and not as the allies they had been prior to the war. 

The federal government, wanting to increase the patriotic fervor of Canadians and tell one of the feel good stories of Canadian history (militia and natives standing shoulder to shoulder to repel the American invaders), has generously funded commemorations of the War of 1812. Things didn’t get off to an auspice start.  On Canada Day 2012 the Six Nations pulled out after being told by local organizers the “governor general doesn’t have time to hear about wampum.” This diplomatic slight was soon rectified as the government came to understand that the Six Nations had indeed proved loyal to the Crown during the conflict and this service was historical proof of the legitimacy of their present day land claims.

By the time fall rolled around cheering crowds greeted the appearance of Six Nations elected chief William Montour at the Battle of Queenston Heights commemoration. But the real surprise came on Oct. 25, 2012 at Rideau Hall when Canadian Governor General David Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented the Six Nations with a flag and medals commemorating their participation in the war of 1812.  Accepting on behalf of the Confederacy Chiefs were Six Nations historians Richard Hill and Keith Jamieson.

Johnson and Harper finally heard the story of the Two Row and Crown Pledge Belt from Richard Hill. When the prime minister thanked the Six Nations for “defending Canada at Queenston Heights, Hill gently corrected the prime minister. He pointed out that Canada didn’t exist at the time of the War of 1812 and that, “The Six Nations fought for its allies, land, and the right to exercise our own laws on that land.”

After thanking the Six Nations for a gift of wampum, The Governor General declared, “I want you to know that this wampum belt occupies a central place here at Rideau Hall, as a reminder of the covenant that binds us and of my responsibilities as a representative of the Crown.” 

These fine sentiments recognize the historical connection between Canada and the Six Nations. Real social justice for the Six Nations remains elusive until the government of Canada admits to the illegal confiscation of Six Nations lands and trust monies and recognizes the Six Nations as a true partner in nation-building.  

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