Meandering in God’s country: Sacred Treaties


The land and lakes around Thunder Bay are extraordinarily beautiful. I made many stops to photograph them. It really did feel like I was meandering in God’s country.

In the morning in Thunder Bay after my first night on this inferior jaunt to Superior, in the breakfast room of my hotel, I met a couple from Steinbach. It is a small world. They were also visiting to see the autumn colours. I met a nurse from North Vancouver who heard me complaining about hotel prices in Thunder Bay. She said if I could not find a place, I could bunk in with her. She was either the nicest or most naïve woman around, or perhaps she was overwhelmed with my good looks and charm. I later told Christiane she should be paying me more respect as I was obviously a very desirable man. She seemed entirely unimpressed.


Cuyler Cotton in the film Colonization Road had some interesting things to say about indigenous relations with settlers.  He said, “the lesson of the treaties is that we have a deal. We have a sacred agreement you and I, that we’re supposed to live here together in this place for as long as the waters run.”

It is also noteworthy that the treaties were hard bargained. The First Nations were shrewd negotiators. Some think they were in a weak position. If that is true, and I don’t think they were, they sure managed to bargain well. Both parties got a good deal. Sadly, one side, Canada, often did not live up to its bargain. It has not always been honourable. The honour of the crown has often been threadbare.

Those treaties were written in English, but also contained indigenous elements. They were only written in English because the First Nations had largely unwritten languages. But the treaties included things like a Wampum Belt. It is not a European custom to have such things in treaties.

For example, according to Palmater,  “the Treaty of Niagara wampum belt is a founding document of this country and should be treated as such.” This is what the Canadian Encyclopedia says about it:


“In July and August 1764, sir William Johnson and approximately 2,000 people, representing approximately 24 First Nations, met at Niagara to discuss an “alliance with the English.” The discussion led to the acceptance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It also included one of the first land cessions under the Royal Proclamation’s protocols, a return of prisoners, and an accepted British presence in the Great Lakes area. The resulting treaty was recorded in wampum. In the contemporary era, the 1764 Treaty of Niagara is not recognized by the Canadian government but is seen as a foundational document by First Nations for all subsequent relations and treaties.”


When the English conquered New France in 1760, England realized it had to ensure a peaceful settlement with First Nations of the regions. It could not afford the ruinously expensive “Indian Wars” the Americans became engaged in. In 1763 the British built numerous forts throughout their newly acquired territory. England also signalled its “Indian policies” in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and it instructed Sir William Johnson the superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies to establish peace with those first nations. He spread around the Royal Proclamation with wampum strings among First Nations from Nova Scotia to Hudson Bay and even to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Americans hated the Royal Proclamation  because it claimed that they could not acquire land east of the Mississippi except through the British Crown and this would hamper its expansionary desires. Some American elites like George Washington for example, amassed astonishing fortunes doing exactly that. Others wanted to do exactly the same thing. As a result, the Royal Proclamation was instrumental in leading to the War of Independence a few years later.

Johnson presented the Proclamation to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in December of 1763 and called for a congress in Niagara in the summer of 1764.

As the Canadian Encyclopedia said,

“The First Nations who agreed to the Niagara Treaty fought as allies with the British in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Indigenous involvement in both of these conflicts, particularly the latter, ensured British North America’s survival.”


As Assistant Professor Hayden King said, “First Nations saw the treaties as Nation to Nation.” Pam Palmater pointed out that “another really important thing about the Treaty of Niagara was that the Wampum belt was done by indigenous hands, with indigenous ceremony and indigenous intentions, and there is no misinterpretation about what that belt means.”

Niigaan Sinclair, Associate Professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba said, “the signing of the treaties made them family not friends.

As Heidi Bohaker said,

“In their [indigenous peoples’] world view, people were divided into one of two categories: relatives or strangers. There wasn’t any acquaintance category. So, if you were going to trade with somebody, if you were going to engage in any kind of alliance relationship they had to become relatives. And there are all kinds of ceremonies and protocols, a law, in other words for how you brought people in, and then what rights and obligations those people had.”


That is how the non-indigenous settlers became relatives with indigenous people. At first there was a lot of enthusiasm for this new relationship among people in North America. Later not so much.

Leave a Reply