Wampum Belt: We’’ll Work Together



On my jaunt past Thunder Bay I started to see a few red maples.  What says autumn more than a red maple? We get very few of these wonderful autumn leaves of red maples in Manitoba. In fact, to my surprise, since I know there are some just past Kenora, I was surprised that I did not encounter these until I was past Thunder Bay. But eventually they were evident in all of their splendour.


The Two Row Wampum Belt of the Haudenosaunee people, also known as that Iroquois, is a great example that illustrated one way that Indigenous peoples recorded and preserved their laws and government systems. The Two Row Wampum Belt is made from either whelk shell, quahog, or hard shell clams. The belt’s rows of cylindrical purple and white beads are bound together with hemp that runs its full length. It was these belts and their intricate beadwork designs that served as the foundation for all other treaties and agreements between the Haudenosaunee and the colonial representatives.


2 row Wampum Belt

In addition to confirming an individual’s credentials and authority, these belts also served as one of the first methods used to document oral agreements. Today, they also act as evidence of pre-existing Indigenous diplomatic relationships. Wampum belts were used as mnemonic devices to record important events and were often brought out for official gatherings and sacred ceremonies. Indigenous laws were also recorded within the patterns on these belts. Items like masks, medicine bundles, birch bark scrolls, petroglyphs, and button blankets, although primarily spiritual in nature, could also record and preserve legal traditions.

Named Gusweñta, this two-row wampum belt serves as a symbolic and binding agreement that was made in 1645 between Haudenosaunee leaders and Dutch colonial officials. When the Dutch began making incursions into Haudenosaunee territory, Mohawk runners traveled to Onondaga to request a meeting among the Haudenosaunee leadership to determine how to deal with these new uninvited guests. This belt represents the outcome of subsequent meetings between Haudenosaunee representatives and Dutch officials. Like other wampum belts, this living treaty is made of purple and white wampum beads. The three rows of white beads each represent the shared tenants of friendship, peace, and forever. The two parallel rows of purple represent two vessels. One row embodies the Haudenosaunee, their people and their life ways. The other row stands for the Dutch, their people and their life ways.


Later other First nations adopted the wampum belts as well.

The image on the wampum belt was two boats on the same river. Pam Palmater in the film Colonization Road gave one of the best explanations of  the wampum belt:

“The whole Wampum belt concept of we’ll work together, we’ll share this place, but I will steer my boat and you will steer yours, and never will we try to interfere with one another. I think that’s the most critical fundamental message that has since been recognized by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It’s basically self-determination. Recognizing however whatever English word you want to use nationhood, sovereignty, self-determination. It’s we will take care of ourselves, and govern ourselves and you do your business and we’ll work along cooperatively in the areas that we have to. And what a wonderful vision for Canada. And I think that is the original vision. We don’t need any new ideas to save Canada, we just need to go back to that original wampum belt, and recognizing each other’s abilities to govern ourselves and protect one another.”


But sadly, that was not the vision of the Canadian government. Immediately after the first treaties were signed it enacted the Indian Act to impose its vision of how the “Indians” should conduct their affairs in this white system and foisted it upon them without their consent. The vision of the government was that European whites were superior, and Indians should assimilate with them. They should become like us. They should do things our way. Many non-indigenous people still believe this. They should do things our way, because we know best what’s good for all of us. But it is not what Indigenous people wanted and was not what they thought they had agreed to.

 Indigenous people began to see colonialism as the whites putting their foot on the throats of indigenous people. And they believe that is ongoing to this day. That of course is what the Indian Act is all about. It is about dominance.

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