In 1613 the Five Nations of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) presented a group of Dutch government representatives with a wampum belt. This act, which has become known as the ‘Two Row Wampum Treaty’, was meant to symbolize an alliance between the two parties, serving as the basis for all subsequent relations between Indigenous peoples and European settlers.
Now – just over 400 years later – this symbolic gesture is being revisited in a local setting via the ‘Two Row on the Grand’ paddling festival, which will begin on July 21, 2017 and span seven days.
“There’s a history behind this,” began Ellie Joseph, one of the primary organizers of Two Row on the Grand, as she spoke to a group of Laurier Brantford students in room RCW 202.
“What I will walk you through first of all is something called a wampum belt,” said Joseph as the visuals behind her showed various hand crafted belts made up of white and purple wampum.
Wampum are tube-shaped beads made from whelk and clam shells. These shells were collected along the North Atlantic coast and fashioned into garments such as bracelets, necklaces and – most significantly – belts.
These garments were then used to signify a wide range of agreements, everything from marriage proposals and peace offerings to large scale alliances and treaties. In addition to their practical value, they also served as historical records amongst Indigenous communities, many of which even had ‘wampum keepers’, those who “protected the belts and interpreted the history contained therein,” according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.
“[Wampum belts] represent treaties or agreements between different peoples,” explained Joseph. “The oldest treaty relationship in North America was a treaty between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee. At that time they were down in the Mohawk traditional lands along the Hudson River.”
“The Hudson River back in the 1600’s was used as a travel [route],” she continued. “The Dutch had their big ships going down carrying their cargo and so on from point A to point B, and the Mohawk people were travelling in their canoes.”
“They were able to communicate with each other,” Joseph noted. “And they looked at the differences in their relationships and thought ‘how can we continue on living a life of peace?’”
This is when the Mohawk tribe presented the Dutch with the ‘Two Row Wampum belt’, which they held to be a promise “that they would continue from that day forward and get along with each other.”
The Two Row Wampum belt consists of a white background broken up horizontally by two purple rows.
“One canoe and one ship are actually represented in this wampum,” said Joseph, referring to a visual. “The two purple lines that you see in there: one represents the Dutch vessel – or the allies’ lifestyle, beliefs and politics – the other one refers to the Haudenosaunee and their way of life and their canoe.”
“The white backgrounds in between the purple, those are representative of peace and respect.”
“The promise that they made to each other back 400 years ago was that they would never interfere with the affairs of each other … that they would never try to steer each other’s vessel – or get into each other’s politics.”
Despite this promise, disputes and disagreements have eroded this relationship over time, weakening its strength. The treaty was all but forgotten until the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign began to advocate for its rejuvenation through special events and community education beginning in 2013 – the 400 year anniversary of the original Two Row Wampum treaty.
“If you look back at the Two Row Renewal Campaign online … They did an epic paddle of over 200 people on the Hudson River,” Joseph explained. She said that participating in this event was her inspiration for the Two Row on the Grand paddling festival.
“It was such a spiritual thing for me to be able to be a part of that. Our culture is rich, the river has a lot of history to it and a lot of people are totally unaware of it,” said Joseph.
Joseph plans on advocating the strength of a good mind, and hopes to involve as many paddlers as possible. There will be guest speakers, workshops and even a special powwow ceremony as well.
“The fact that we can paddle into the powwow this year is going to be – I mean how many people can say they have paddled into the powwow on this historical river?”
The paddling festival will take place between July 21 and July 28, and will begin in Paris, following the Grand River to Port Maitland where it empties into the northern shore of Lake Erie.
“We’re hoping that paddling on the Grand like this will get people excited about what we have in our own backyard.”