Recently I was having a discussion with a member of the Six Nations Community, half my age, about the importance of oral history in ascertaining specific rights to which Six Nations were entitled. I realized that the version of oral history that he had been given was being taken at face value, and there was no critical analysis here (despite common knowledge about the fallibility of human memory). I had the impression that he considered that what he was told was immutable and need not be questioned - it was a virtual echo from early times describing the events pertaining to the origins of, in this case, the supposed 400 year old Two Row Wampum agreement between the Dutch (many think it was the British) and the Five (later Six) Nations. This discussion coincided with an article in the most recent issue of "Turtle Island News", May 7th 2014, p.7 entitled, "Wampum belts returning means power and unity for Haudenosaunee". It also brings to the fore a key element in deciding how much weight to give evidence such as oral history and wampum belts.
Documentation, Oral History and Wampum -Example of the Matter of Two Row Wampum Treaty: First, I have described in previous blog postings the Two Row Wampum as a source of evidence, as seen here. Often Six Nations have denigrated documentary evidence, with the belief that it is biased toward White people and is not consistent with the Six Nations "way". The reality is that we (the world) would know little about the Norse Gods, the Norwegian Kings, the history of pre - literate Scandinavia, and so on without documentation. There are also inscriptions on stone, artifacts, and other evidence which basically adds cross validation to Icelandic aristocrat Snorri's Sturleson's account of the Norse world (e.g., his work "Heimskringsla") from this Icelandic aristocrat. He used available manuscripts as well as oral history to create his lasting legacy to the world. Clearly oral history, when used to confirm and supplement documentation, is a worthwhile data source. However, it cannot "stand alone".
In addition, much of what we (White and Six Nations) know of Six Nations history comes from the historians and anthropologists who have published reports in the years since 1850. If we were to depend on what is available from Six Nations oral history, it would be an impoverished version of the truth. The massive documentation, which includes letters and correspondence of highly literate Six Nations individuals such as Joseph Brant Thayendinagea, is absolutely indispensable in rounding out the picture of Six Nations history and culture. However White visitors to say the Mohawk Village have left their written observations which are indispensable in for example developing a picture of life in that location at key points in Haudenosaunee history. See the marvelous resource such as historian Charles M. Johnston, Valley of the Six Nations: A Collection of Documents on the Indian Lands of the Grand River, The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1964 as an example of what "white brothers" (see later) have left for all who want to know about Six Nations history. Does anyone really believe that our knowledge of the Conservative / Hereditary people at Six Nations would be as rich without the marvelous work done on site in the mid 20th Century with knowledgeable informants (including largely Chiefs and Clan Mothers) by anthropologist Annemarie Shimony, Conservatism Among the Iroquois at the Six Nations Reserve, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1994 (originally published 1961). Her informants were constantly telling her how things were going downhill, how so many traditions were being lost and that there just was not the interest on the part of the young people which would bode well for the continuation of their way of life with true to the ancestors cultural practices. Shimony, a compassionate observant, told their story - which is a key resource to Confederacy people wanting to know about the "way things were".
In terms of the Two Row Wampum supposed treaty, evidence is slender. We have a copy of a document from 1613 which includes the names of four Five Nations (likely Mohawk) signators with totems, and two Dutch traders, only one of whom can be traced in other records. The document, termed for convenience sake the Tawagonshi Treaty (but not noted as such on the copy of the parchment) was brought to light by a man whose ancestors were among the early Dutch of New Netherlands, who claims to have found it (via his brother) at the New Credit Reserve (which adjoins the Six Nations Reserve). Alas, this individual, who was familiar with both the modern and Colonial Dutch languages may have forged the document since academics assert that the document in its present form could not date from 1613. Furthermore, the man has been known to forge documents of this nature - which doesn't help the belief in the authenticity of the copy of the parchment - the original seems to have disappeared, but the "official" version is held by the Onondaga residing near Syracuse (traditional firekeepers, and archivists).
As to the wampum belt showing two parallel purple rows against a background of white wampum, the dating seems too early for such an artifact of this nature. Wampum is not found on any Five Nations archaeological site that dates before the 1630s (and very little is seen here at this time). There is no evidence that wampum was used to record, as a mnemonic and memorial device, events important to the Five Nations until later in the 1600s. The fact that there are in effect only two rows on the artifact is also problematic - it is simply too schematic, and allows for almost any interpretation imaginable. It could represent almost anything, and so without supporting evidence such as a parchment that states that the "deal" or "treaty" was sealed or solidified through the use of a wampum belt, serious questions about authenticity remain. Nothing of that nature exists or has to date surfaced. Furthermore there are a number of different belts, and none appears to be old enough to date from 1613. So is the one for example in the possession of the Onondaga of New York, or the one in the possession of the Six Nations of the Grand River, or another one the direct link to the Tawagonshi Treaty? No one knows. There is, however, no denying that wampum belts have a very powerful symbolic and historic value to the Six Nations. They were used in every important treaty, or even meeting with Colonial officials, and strings of wampum replaced antlers as the "horns of office" representing the symbol of authority of the hereditary chief.
Thus there has been reliance on oral history to shore up the shaky foundation from other sources. Today, one dare not bring up anything challenging the validity of oral history, as it is definitely not politically correct to do so. Even anthropologists have increasingly been giving in to political pressure to give this form of evidence equal billing with other sources such as written documentation - the specter of being labelled "racist" or having a "colonial mind set" and the like always looms large. However, in the real world, there are serious issues with depending on any form of oral history to pin the truth on is very risky and indefensible. More on oral history later. But please note that wampum belts are linked to oral history and the latter is frequently needed to make sense of the symbols on the wampum belts as they do not have enough "substance" to tell their story without the prop of an oral history.
Returning to the content of the above article, the secretary of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council (HCCC) said that, Wampum belts are returning and they are bringing people together. Many at Six Nations have worked very diligently to bring home the belts that over the years, were stolen, hawked, and hoarded post - contact. Thus the belts often ended up in private collections and museums. Recently, through one means or another, generally by "encouraging" the holders of these sacred relics to "do the right thing", the belts have been returned to their original owners.
There was a recent presentation at Six Nations (GREAT Theatre) where the belts were unveiled for all assembled to see, and to have someone knowledgeable in these artifacts help the audience understand the meaning of wampum belts. The presenter, a Seneca from Tonawanda, who clearly has a passion for these belts, described how in the search for the truth, two perspectives are needed. He spoke of hearing of the meaning of a belt from his grandparents who were first language speakers, and from obtaining further information from others across Haudenosaunee Territory. He contrasted this form of knowledge with that of what is found in books, where, in his opinion, you have to take what is read, with a grain of salt. Sometimes our White brothers have interpreted things differently than how we would as Onkwehonwe people. The speaker asserts that with the two perspectives, it makes it easier to dig through what has been said or written and determine where distortions may have entered the picture. The speaker then gives an example which to me, highlights the distinct disadvantage entailed in putting too much reliance in oral history. He speaks of the Friendship Belt anchored by two figures at the opposite ends, one figure built with a white chest area and the other with a dark chest area with a white spot. The speaker then reports that,
Some people often, I've heard them say well that represents our white brother because it is all white, and this other one over here represents us because it's dark, and we have dark skin.
However, the speaker "likes another theory". Specifically that,
I've heard it said that's not really our white brother - that's us. Because the white on the inside is our heart. So we have nothing but peace in our heart. And then the one on this side is a solid white bead - that's the heart of our white brothers.
Because when it comes to friendship, and obviously we know through history he (white brother) said, he had friendship. We know he didn't have a lot of it. He has a much smaller heart, and it doesn't expand outward like Onkwehonwe.
With due respect to the speaker, if the last paragraph is not racist, I don't know what is. If a White person had written anything remotely like this statement they would be vilified and raked over the coals and would lose tremendous credibility - but it is ok for someone of Six Nations heritage to speak disrespectfully of their "white brothers" and all is well. I really don't get it. I have seen the diaries of respected anthropologists who purchased items from individual Chiefs, and then donated the artifacts to the Smithsonian Institute or other setting where they had a staff and equipment to property take care of these precious objects. They were in safe keeping, and available to inform the "wider world" of this important feature of Six Nations culture. Hence the objects could be appreciated by "the world" and in turn the world would come to better know the Six Nations people. The sale was perfectly legal and resulted in a perpetual care arrangement for the artifacts. Now they are being put at risk, placed into situation where once again they could be sold by individual Chiefs in need of an infusion of cash, or with the realization that they do not have the secure storage capabilities to guarantee the safety of the irreplaceable objects.
It would be remiss in this context not to mention the fact that it was these maligned "white brothers" who, without being coerced to return these belts, have stepped up to the plate and "done the right thing" - although the original sale generations ago was perfectly legal. So, irrespective of the wishes of those who originally sold the artifacts 150 years ago, present day Six Nations insist on "rights" with no balance of "responsibilities". Now they want them back. So a legal sale is not honoured. That sounds very much like what is happening with the ceded land of the 1830s and 1840s which, based on the Six Nations Chiefs in Council wishes at the time, were transferred to the Crown to be sold for the benefit of the Six Nations. Now, "We want the land back" - well, I would love to have returned all of the lands and valuable artifacts sold by my ancestors over the years, but realize that a deal is a deal. This all leads to my asking the question that follows, "what have Six Nations members done to address the wrongs perpetrated against the residents of Haldimand County post 2005?" I can answer that - nothing that I am aware of. So it is all well and good that Six Nations obtains what they see as redress for acts of 150 years ago, but they are unwilling to even entertain the concept of the need to redress the wrongs they committed but 8 years past! Something is out of kilter.
Oral History, Human Memory, and Two Row Wampum: So, returning to the "reading of the wampum", here the interpreter is cherry picking a version that meets best with his world view, and is ignoring what many others have told him about the meaning of the symbols on the belt. Therefore one can ask a legitimate question - how under these circumstances can one conclude that oral history has any merit? Oral history depends on human memory which is notoriously fallible. Hence, it makes sense to listen to the oral history, but ask whether there are other versions of the same story. Inevitably there will be more than two versions of any long - standing oral tradition or history. The old game of telephone shows us how by telling the same story even a few times it changes dramatically such that it is possible that little of the original version remains intact - one simply cannot tell. In addition, modern psychology has shown us how memory works. Dr. Brenda Milner at McGill University outlined the neurobiology of memory; and Dr. Elizabeth Loftus of University of California Irvine how memories change with time. Basically memories tend to become shorter, and change in predictable ways - the "misinformation effect" and the "power of suggestion" being two of her research areas shedding light on the phenomenon of memory. See here for more information.
So, when examined through the microscope of science, relying on oral history is indefensible. The only instance where that is not true is when there is cross validation, meaning there is another line of evidence that supports the oral history. Wampum belts are dependent on some form of accurate story to interpret the symbols - otherwise it becomes an exercise in guesswork as shown in the above example. Six Nations will have to live with the reality, and come to realize that there is not sufficient evidence to support the Two Row Wampum concept as it is presently understood - the canoe and the ship travelling side by side (there are no such icons on the wampum) and stretching this to assert that what is meant here is that Six Nations are a "sovereign" people living outside the world of the White man. Unless one lives in the depths of the Brazilian jungle in this day and age, the whole concept of an independent existence does not make entire sense - would this mean no more Federal Government largesse?