Getting elected president of the US is all well and good, but that doesn’t mean that you get to have everything your own way, as recent political deadlocks have amply demonstrated. Being named Dictator for a Day, on the other hand – now that would be something. But what to do first with all this unaccustomed power? I’ve actually given this preposterous scenario a bit of thought, and concluded that my number-one priority would be setting things right, so far as is still possible, with America’s indigenous peoples. It seems to me that practically anything that’s wrong with this country could arguably be blamed on the huge karmic debt that our European ancestors piled up by getting off on the wrong foot with the New World’s native inhabitants. We clearly don’t deserve what we stole from them.
It may be far too late to think of laundering all those smallpox-infected blankets that our forebears handed out to the “Indians,” but there is still much that could be done in terms of reexamining the many treaties that our governments have abrogated over the past four centuries. Historians could start giving long and deep oral traditions their due respect when recounting how things really happened as this continent was colonized, and not automatically discount any evidence that wasn’t written down with pen on paper. And our court systems could stop basing decisions on the imperialistic precedent of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which uses a 1493 Papal Bull carving up the New World among its colonizers as a rationalization for confiscation of land by a “sovereign” state from the Native Americans.
One significant legal battle over Native land rights has been taking place here in New York State recently. The Onondaga Nation filed a lawsuit in 2005 claiming that the state violated the Constitution and other laws when it obtained about 4,000 square miles of territory – including what are now Syracuse, Oswego, Fulton, Watertown, Cortland and Binghamton – from the Onondagas in a series of treaties between 1788 and 1822. The case has been bouncing around the courts since 2005, and an appeal is currently up before the Second Circuit US Court of Appeals following a dismissal in September 2012. The ante in terms of land viewed as illegally acquired is now up to 2.5 million acres.
Aside from the size of the claim, what makes this lawsuit particularly interesting is the fact that it harks back to what Onondaga chief Irving Powless termed “the grandfather of all the treaties…the first one that we made.” He was referring to the 1613 Treaty of Tawagonshi, signed on the banks of the Normans Kill, just south of present-day Albany, by representatives of all the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations, including the Onondagas, and two traders, Jacob Eelckens and Hendrick Christiaenssen. The latter had been delegated by Dutch authorities to negotiate an agreement with the Native peoples that would enable their countrymen to purchase land, establish settlements and trade freely in Haudenosaunee territories. The Treaty created a protocol for the settlement of disputes and even obligated the signers to share food when it was in short supply.
It was one of the first formal treaties ever signed between Native Americans and European colonists. But more significantly, it differed from most other early treaties in that the signers clearly and specifically addressed one another as brothers and equals. Neither recognized the other as exercising sovereignty or a paternalistic role. As a legal precedent, therefore, it should theoretically trump any subsequent attempt to abrogate the rights that it preserved in the name of the Doctrine of Discovery.
The whereabouts of the original Dutch paper copy of the Treaty of Tawagonshi are no longer known, if indeed it still exists. But the Onondagas still own and cherish their “copy,” which was rendered in their culture’s medium for important recordkeeping: a wampum belt. It’s known as the Guswenta or Two Row Wampum, for its two parallel rows of purple quahog-shell beads set against a field of white beads. The design is traditionally interpreted as representing two watercraft: the great sailing ship in which the Dutch settlers arrived and a canoe for the Haudenosaunee. Each is said to carry not only the people themselves, but also their leaders, governments, beliefs and ways of life.
Great emphasis is placed on the fact that the two boats proceed freely, each without interference from the other, and do not cross paths; nor is it possible for one pilot to straddle the waters and attempt to steer both boats simultaneously. In the view of its keepers, the clear intent of the Treaty as recorded in the Guswenta is that a partnership of equals was being formed, with a commitment to non-intervention in each other’s affairs.
In between the two rows of purple beads symbolizing the boats are three rows of white beads, the first row signifying “peace,” the second row “friendship” and the third row “forever.” This traditional Onondaga translation closely replicates the wording of surviving later copies of the original Dutch version of the 1613 Treaty, which concludes with a “promise in love and friendship to continue and to maintain for as long as grass is green.” The perpetual status of the agreement is reiterated by the fact that the two purple rows of beads continue right up to one end of the belt, with no white border to indicate a conclusion to the parallel voyages.
So, from the point of view of the Haudenosaunee peoples, as long as grass is green, the Treaty of Tawagonshi is still in effect, and any purchase or confiscation of land from them that did not adhere to its terms should be viewed as legally null and void. Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the Treaty, and the Onondaga Nation, along with a not-for-profit community organization called Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), have a lot of festivities planned for 2013 under the aegis of the Two Row Wampum Campaign. The idea is to educate North Americans in general and residents of New York and Ontario in particular about the powerful significance of the Guswenta, the history of early agreements between the Haudenosaunee nations and European colonists and the ways in which they have been kept or broken.
Sustainability and stewardship of ecological resources are seen by the Onondaga as essential underpinnings of the continuing peace and friendship implicit in the Treaty, so public education about the cleanup of the Hudson River and the implications of legalized hydrofracking in New York State will be an integral part of the project. “The time has come for us to renew our commitment, to learn and acknowledge this ongoing history, to make amends and work for justice,” write the Campaign’s organizers. “We hope to polish this centuries-old ‘covenant chain’ of friendship between our peoples, and draw more people into the work of extending Indigenous sovereignty over their lands, protecting our shared environmental inheritance and building support for a just resolution of the several Haudenosaunee Land Rights Actions.” Awareness-building events are likely to include lectures, concerts, celebrations, historic enactments and collaborations – and perhaps even a few lacrosse matches.
The flagship event, so to speak, for the Two Row Wampum Campaign in 2013 will be a literal enactment of the side-by-side voyage depicted in the historic belt. Twin flotillas of canoeists and kayakers, one consisting of Native Americans and the other of their non-Native friends and supporters, will launch from Albany on Sunday, July 28 to paddle nine to 15 miles per day down the Hudson River, camping along the route. Several paddlers from Onondaga will set out earlier, from Onondaga Creek to Onondaga Lake and Oneida Lake, then to the Mohawk River, the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk community and Cohoes Falls before joining the Hudson.
There will be educational and cultural events all along the way, featuring talks by Haudenosaunee leaders and their allies along with “cultural sharing.” The peace fleet will arrive in New York City on Friday, August 9 to participate in the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, with a large festival to celebrate the success of the enactment to take place on Saturday, August 10.
A 53-mile “trial run” for the big paddle event was held in the summer of 2012, beginning at Saugerties and ending at Popolopen Creek in Fort Montgomery. And representatives of the Onondaga Nation and NOON are already circulating through Hudson Valley communities to give informational presentations about the Two Row Wampum Campaign and seek participation from municipalities and community organizations. Expect to hear from them soon, as the Campaign gears up for the Treaty’s 400th anniversary in April.
January 30 is the application deadline for those who wish to participate in the Hudson River flotilla event next summer; non-Native participants are asked to contribute at least $30 per day toward the cost of the event. You can find links to application forms, plus lots more information about the Campaign, the 1613 Treaty of Tawagonshi, Onondaga history and culture at www.honorthetworow.org. You can also visit the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign on Facebook or follow it on Twitter, call (315) 472-5478 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.
Treaty of Tawagonshi 400th anniversary/Two Row Wampum Campaign, Hudson River Flotilla, July 28-August 10, 2013, signup deadline January 31, $30+/day; (315) 472-5478, email@example.com, www.honorthetworow.org.