Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Two Row Wampum Does NOT Show that Six Nations are a Sovereign People

The Two Row Wampum (a belt sewn of two rows of purple quahog beads on a white bead background, alleged to be 400 years old) is an object of great symbolic importance to Haudenosaunee people. 

The assess the very controversial story of the validity of the "Two Row Wampum" belt, and the supposed "Tawagonshi Treaty" of 1613 linked to it, we need to go back to the time when the Dutch and Mohawk first came into contact. Both items are alleged, via Haudenosaunee oral tradition, to underscore all subsequent relationships with Europeans. However, for our purposes (contemporary Canada) the only chronology that matters dates from time when the British and the Five Nations were first in contact with each other. In 1664 the British took over administration of the New Netherlands colony from the Dutch by right of conquest. The British may or may not have been aware of the purported "Two Row Wampum" agreement or treaty that was supposedly established between the Dutch and the Five Nations in 1613. The wampum, recently repatriated to the Six Nations, is known as Guswhenta (Kaswentha), that to this day is the subject of immense controversy between Natives and academic scholars.

The world outside the Haudenosaunee orbit by in large is of the opinion that the entire concept and everything to do with it (the treaty document and the wampum belt) is bogus, little more than a story that Haudenosaunee have magnified by selective interpretation. Hence it is now a convenient item that guides all relationships between them an European nations - illustrating equal but separate - in other words independent sovereign peoples. However, any document to surface that seems to support the belief that a true meeting between Mohawk and Dutch occurred in 1613 has been shown to be, or is suspected to be, a forgery. There is no clear independent validation. So in other words were are supposed to accept Haudenosaunee oral testimony, which would have to extend back 400 years, as being valid. This is asking too much. If such an important agreement was in place there should be other contemporary references to it in the copious records of the 17th to 18th Centuries. There isn't a direct reference, only oblique possible references, so we can perhaps dismiss this whole business as wishful thinking that helps to justify a key principle in Haudenosaunee thinking - sovereignty.

The most recent article to explore all of the evidence is by Jon Parmenter (2013) and can be seen here. He takes a position that the oral traditions of the Haudenosaunee should not be dismissed, particularly when there are documents that can be seen (although controversially) as supporting the beliefs that could have a footing in events distant in time. He appears to have done a reversal on an article he wrote earlier. An article by Otto in the same journal, Journal of Early American History (see here) takes a very different position, and attempts to show that the archaeological, historical and other lines of evidence do not offer sufficient backing to support the oral tradition. It is difficult to ignore the article written one year earlier (2012) by Gehring and Starna who, with William Fenton demolished the authenticity of the Tawagonshi document 25 years ago. Some of the reasons include the fact that the supposed names on the document are actually villages, not Chiefs.  Thus it is difficult to see it as a "treaty" of any description even were it authentic.  Gehring and Starna, experts in 17th Century Dutch language note that it is a combination of 17th and 20th Century terminology.  In addition, the only copy was found under unusual circumstances, with Van Loon, who found the document at "the Mississauga Reserve" in Canada.  I am assuming that this would be the New Credit Reserve, but no further information is forthcoming.  Anyway, it is seen as a document of immense significance to the Haudenosaunee and is kept, supposedly, in a bank vault in Syracuse NY.  Considering the credentials of these scholars in 17th Century Dutch and Iroquoian culture, their assessment (seen here) cannot be easily dismissed.

Ultimately, it really doesn't matter if the goal is to determine whether the Tawagonshi "Treaty", the Two Row Wampum, and oral tradition support Six Nations sovereignty. The answer is a resounding no. Even if the agreement is valid, and the belt is as old as it is purported to be, what happened in the Dutch regime it has no bearing on British - Haudenosaunee relationships - unless such an agreement had been "renewed". Also at best it was an "arrangement" between some of the Dutch colonists and the Mohawk, and so has no direct ties to the Dutch Crown - it is merely a local agreement.  It does not appear that the successor British colonies gave the agreement any significance, and the British Crown did not acknowledge its validity, but Colonial officials may have given "lip service" to the concept, often confusing it with their legitimate Covenant Chain agreement.  The actual belt his highly unlikely to date from 400 years ago (the matter is dealt with extensively in the above sources), and its content of two purple lines bordered by three white lines could mean anything - it is only tradition that gives an interpretation.  Oral history depends on human memory.  The Five Nations were descimated by endless wars, and the devastating effects of European diseases.  By the late 1600s there were few true ethnic Mohawk (most were captives from other nations), and generations of elders who had true knowledge of earlier events were in very short supply.  This combined with the reality of the way in which human memory works (e.g., the studies of Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California Irvine) shows that ove time and retelling a "memory" will be shortened, distorted, and changed in ways that reflect the times.  In other words it is not a reliable source of information.  Hence the need for written recordings that can be brought out and read to all, including who signed a document.  A wampum belt is devoid of context and specificity and we must simply "trust" in what is being revealed by someone said to know its meaning.  To romanticists this is fine, to scientists and historians the process is a set up for a well known phenomenon of "seeing what one wants one is primed to see".  Memory tends to be selective, and conforms to expectations including those which are politically based.

At the Bicentennial of the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812, two well known Six Nations members displayed the belt to the assembled group, explaining its significance to Six Nations people. In my opinion this object with symbolic significance is being used as a justification for swaying public opinion toward the legitimacy of Six Nations "rights" bolstered by historical artifacts that should not take on mystical, spiritual features which seem to be attached to it. Here the image made of sewn white and purple wampum beads is somewhat mysterious. It purports to show, in a very primitive symbolic way, something that would not be self evident unless "interpreted" by someone who claims to know what it means. The object shows only two parallel purple lines on a white background. It is however said to illustrate or "mean" two canoes each going their way along parallel paths and not interfering with each other. Some have interpreted this as a sovereignty pact, but it was not, as far as the incoming British were concerned. The British have been very consistent over the years. Lands that come into their possession become sovereign British territory, and belong to the Crown of England. The "Two Row Wampum" may actually be conflated with the British agreement (no controversy here) known as the "Covenant Chain" of 1677 which had nothing to do with sovereignty, but rather a military alliance.

The concept that the British wished to instill was a relationship involving the "Covenant Chain", where the British and the Five Nations were bound together by a metal chain with links that needed to be "brightened" every so often, generally by offering bribes to Five Nations Chiefs, which the latter readily accepted. There was never any disagreement about the Covenant Chain, although it was "broken" for a short time in 1753 by Mohawk Chief Hendrick Peters Thoyanoguen. It did not last because it meant that the presents stopped coming and the other Chiefs became annoyed by Hendrick and the Covenant Chain was renewed in the 1750s. Again, there was no illusion of sovereignty, the King was the Sovereign to all of the people of the Colonies, including His Majesties Indian subjects. There was no disagreement here either, the King was always termed "our Sovereign Lord" or "Great Father" or something of that nature.  The alliance held firm, at least with the Mohawk, through the Revolutionary War.

What is key to note is that these concepts have been used even in modern times to allude to the "fact" that the Six Nations are a people allied to, but independent of, the British Crown (later the Federal Government of Canada).

Six Nations has requested (required) the return of various wampum belts that over the years had been given (e.g., by Pauline Johnson) to museums, anthropologists, collectors and so on.  Supposedly they are now where they should be, according to the Great Law of the Confederacy, with the Firekeeper of the Onondaga Nation whose role it is to keep these records of treaties, agreements, Chiefly titles, etc. so that they can be presented as the occasion requires.  The problem is that a wampum belt is made of white or purple beads strung together to make pictograms.  Hence they tend to be schematic, much more than say the Bayeux Tapestry which records in detail the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, and the Battle itself.  This record is woven with thread where characters can easily be recognised and even the type of battle armour recognised from this document - such is the attention to detail.  Wampum belts do no have this aspect, they are used to trigger the memories of those who have participated in a particular event, or who have been told via oral history of the meaning of the belt.  Clearly any scientist studying memory would chime in and present the research based (factually derived) data on the fallibility of human memory - just think of the popular "telephone game".  If there is a disconnect, such as the time that the wampum belts were outside the possession of the Six Nations, then somehow this gap must be filled in other ways.  Likely this will be from the writings of anthropologists, often affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute, who have studied the subject.  So as a key document that can provide what the English speaking world has in the Magna Carta, the Two Row Wampum has more symbolic and sentimental value, and they are also historically significant if they date back to say the 17th Century.

However when carefully exploring all the records of the time there is a huge inconsistency that is clearly evident.  It is difficult to reconcile the belief that the Two Row Wampum reigns to this day with facts such as the statement of the (then) Five Nations during the Nanfan Treaty.  Here in 1701 they conveyed their beaver hunting grounds over to, our great Lord and Master the King of England.  It appears in the strongest terms to imply a subjugation to the Crown.  This perspective is pervasive in the records, where the King is referred to as, our great Father.  In the Proclamation of 1763, in no uncertain terms, the British authorities claimed "dominion" over their aboriginal "subjects" and their lands - which must be surrendered to the Crown for a valid sale to occur.  None of this in any way sounds like a relationship between equals.  And yet, in document after document, the Six Nations are referred to as "allies" of the Crown.  How does one make sense of the inconsistencies?

While at one time I was a true Liberal and liberal through and through, the events of Caledonia in 2006 showed me that it is the liberal political correctness and caving in to various myths about First Nations people (despite my own genealogy, which needs to be shelved until we can establish wherein lies the truth), and the burden of guilt White people are or should be carrying around that forced me to challenge these assumptions.  It is all a big lie, and has for years been perpetuated by the left - leaning media (I used to tilt in that direction too).  So now it is time to explore how the more right - leaning, conservative Canadians view the situation.  We can start with the Two Row Wampum myths - as one can see here in a Sun News article.  I never would have believed that there would come a day when I would actually agree with anything coming from that source - I used to simply ignore it.  No longer.

It is evident that after the move to the Grand River in 1784, the Six Nations and the British authorities (e.g., Governor Simcoe) had diametrically opposed views on what the Haldimand Proclamation meant in terms of the ability of the former to do with the land as they pleased.  However by 1835, the Six Nations had agreed to surrender the lands to the Crown who would sell or lease them, and the latter would return the monies to the Six Nations (either directly or through trusts typically involving bad investments - which tended to become very controversial when things went sour).

The Six Nations have assumed the legitimacy of the sovereignty issue, and as an example of how this plays out, one would be hard pressed to find a Canadian flag flying at a private residence on the Reserve, but instead the Confederacy flag flies everywhere, being particularly prominent at the establishments selling cigarettes.  If a Canadian flag is placed on any disputed territory it will be summarily removed and often destroyed.  The Ontario Provincial Police are "unwelcome" at Six Nations, and instead policing is accomplished by an OPP trained Six Nations police force.  Much more will be said on this subject in a later post.

Once again it matters not what the weight of evidence or facts say, the belief is that the Two Row Wampum (the actual belt being in the possession of Six Nations leaders) "proves" that the Six Nations are a sovereign people, allied to, but not ruled by, Canada.  One might ask though, that since there is no aboriginal connection to the land in the Haldimand Tract (the Six Nations are aboriginal to the United States), does this "status" justify the approximately 32 million dollars of Canadian taxpayers monies from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada that flows into the Six Nations Reserve each and every year.  It only gets more tangled if one examines other "rights and entitlements" that Six Nations members receive.  This will be the subject of a later post. 

Updated: 20 - 21 January 2014.


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