Relationships between Settler and Indigenous peoples in Canada have long been negotiated and organized by treaties. One of the oldest and most important in North America is the “Two-Row Wampum” treaty between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Dutch. This treaty remains critical in understanding historic and contemporary relationships between settler and Indigenous peoples and the evolution and construction of political opportunity for both.
The Two-Row Wampum Treaty was negotiated by representatives of the Five (Six as of 1722) Nations of the Iroquois and representatives of the Dutch government in 1613. The belt consists of two bands of purple quahog beads separated with three bands of white welk beads. It constituted a peace agreement between the two parties as the imperialist Dutch moved into Haudenosaunee territory, the region of the south-eastern Great Lakes.
The symbolism of the exchange as well as the imagery of the wampum belt have been variously understood. Indigenous law and custom interpreted wampum belts as a deep and binding commitment by both parties. According to Haudenosaunee oral history, the most common interpretation holds that the two purple bands symbolize two boats and the white bands are a shared river. These boats represent the two parties of the Two Row Wampum Treaty, travelling in the same river but each steering their own boat. The future involves a cooperative relationship between self-governing groups, neither of which was to be assimilated or subordinated. Thus, the Two Row Wampum belt invokes relations of peace, cooperation, and self-government.
While negotiated prior to the era of Canadian democratic suffrage and negotiated between the Dutch empire and one particular Indigenous nation, the Two Row Wampum Treaty has provided a basis for subsequent arguments that members of Indigenous nations, as allies not subjects of the British Crown, should not seek political enfranchisement within the borders of what became Canada. Their enfranchisement should occur within their own nations. Not surprisingly, this argument has proved especially powerful for Indigenous nations with Haudenosaunee ancestry. Quebec’s Kahnawake Mohawk Nation asserts its right to self-government with specific reference to that historic contract (Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, 1996). Today some Mohawk citizens choose to carry passports issued by the Mohawk Nation, and initiate distinct laws on reserve. Many Mohawk women and men focus their political efforts at the level of their Indigenous nation.
The Two Row Wampum belt also has significance for Canadian legal theory. Indigenous legal scholar and member of Ontario’s Chippewa Nawash First Nation, John Borrows, has argued that the Two-Row Wampum should continue to provide the foundation for negotiating relationships between First Nations and the Canadian government, thus maintaining the right to self-governance and independent nationhood (1997). In Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (2010), Borrows argues that indigenous law should be seen as equal to common and civil law, and that incorporation of Indigenous legal systems in Treaty agreements exemplifies the multi-juridical system.
Though signed centuries ago, Two-Row Wampum Treaty continues to inspire and to challenge. Calls to revisit the importance of the Treaty as the legal, political and moral foundations of the Canadian state lie at the heart of the 2012 Idle No More Indigenous resurgence. Recognition of the nation-to-nation relationship embodied in treaties supplied the focal point of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike in December 2012 and January 2013. The ideal of the ‘double wampum’ nevertheless poses significant challenges in capturing Indigenous diversity. How can it address the circumstances of peoples who have never taken treaty (such as many First Nations in B.C.) or those who reside, sometimes for generations, off-reserve or in multicultural communities in which they are a minority (Anderson 2013)? How can a 17th century document address the emergence of significant diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic populations? How does the large number and diversity of Treaty agreements, in addition to Two Row Wampum, shape the relationships between Canada and Indigenous peoples? The Treaty’s meaning for women’s rights is also far from clear. Where should women work to guarantee equality and what does equality mean? Such questions ensure that Indigenous political choices remain complicated.
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Borrows, J. (1997). Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History, and Self-Government. In M. Asch (Ed.), Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality and Respect for Difference. Vancouver: UBC Press.
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Kahnawake Mohawk Nation. (1999). STATEMENT CONCERNING THE REPORT OF THE ROYAL COMMISSION ON ABORIGINAL PEOPLES. Mohawk Nation Office- Kahnawake Branch. Retrieved from http://sisis.nativeweb.org/mohawk/royal1.html
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