Introducing the Two Row Wampum

Two Row

An agreement for peace, friendship and respect.

by Tom Keefer

The Two Row Wampum is one of the oldest treaty relationships between the Onkwehonweh (original people) of Turtle Island (what Indigenous nations called North America before European colonization) and European immigrants. This treaty was made in 1613 between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee as Dutch traders and settlers moved up the Hudson River into Mohawk territory. The Dutch initially proposed a patriarchal relationship with themselves as fathers and the Haudenosaunee people as children.

According to Mohawk historian Ray Fadden, the Haudenosaunee rejected this notion and instead proposed that:

“We will not be like Father and Son, but like Brothers. [Our treaties] symbolize two paths or two vessels, travelling down the same river together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian People, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be for the white people and their laws, their customs and their ways. We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our own boat. Neither of us will make compulsory laws nor interfere in the internal affairs of the other. Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.”

Well aware of the political and military strength of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Dutch agreed with the principles of the Two Row. As was their custom for recording events of significance, the Haudenosaunee created a wampum belt out of purple and white quahog shells to commemorate the agreement. The Indigenous legal scholar John Borrows described the physical nature of the Two Row Wampum as follows:

“The belt consists of two rows of purple wampum beads on a white background. Three rows of white beads symbolizing peace, friendship, and respect separate the two purple rows. The two purple rows symbolize two paths or two vessels traveling down the same river. One row symbolizes the Haudenosaunee people with their law and customs, while the other row symbolizes European laws and customs. As nations move together side-by-side on the River of Life, they are to avoid overlapping or interfering with one another.”

Two Row

The Two Row Wampum treaty made with the Dutch became the basis for all future Haudenosaunee relationships with European powers. The principles of the Two Row were consistently restated by Haudenosaunee spokespeople and were extended to relationships with the French, British and Americans under the framework of the Silver Covenant Chain agreements. It was understood by the Haudenosaunee that the Two Row agreement would last forever: “as long as the grass is green, as long as the water flows downhill, and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the West”.

While 2013 marks the 400th anniversary of the introduction of the Two Row to Europeans, it is important to note that the concept of the Two Row and the idea of reciprocal relationships of peace, friendship and respect between different entities has a much deeper connection to the Haudenosaunee world view.

The Two Row is a foundational philosophical principle, a universal relationship of non-domination, balance and harmony between different forces. The Two Row principles of peace, respect and friendship can be extended to any relationship between autonomous beings working in concert. These include nation-to-nation relationships, dynamics between lovers and partners, and the relationship between human beings and our environment.

While the Two Row Wampum was created to commemorate the introduction of the Dutch Republic and is derived from Haudenosaunee traditions and philosophy, it is also consistent with the outlooks of many other Indigenous peoples seeking to accommodate themselves to the sudden arrival of Europeans on Turtle Island. Almost universally, Indigenous peoples extended their hands in peace and friendship to the newcomers to their lands, and sought to improve their lives through trade and friendship with these newcomers. But at the same time, Indigenous people were intent upon maintaining their own ways of life.

The Two Row can function as a framework for decolonization right across Turtle Island, since holding true to the Two Row means supporting the right of Onkwehonweh people to maintain themselves on their own land bases according to their own systems of self governance and organization. These traditional Indigenous systems are opposed to the values of the capitalist economic system. Rather than being driven by notions of “profitability” and production for markets, traditional Indigenous economics are based upon localized subsistence production taking place in harmony with nature.

In this framework, people do not “own” land, but belong to the land as a part of creation and safeguard it on behalf of coming generations. In most traditional Indigenous societies, resources and wealth were shared, and production was geared towards meeting human needs, rather than the of commodities to be bought and sold on the market.

The Two Row Wampum remains a treaty relationship that Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous nations defend today, even if the Canadian state has failed to uphold the principles of the treaties it inherited from the British Crown. Since the capitalist economy which so degrades and exploits the majority of non-Indigenous people has proven incapable of upholding this agreement, it is time for those who support Indigenous rights on the non-Indigenous side of the Two Row to reclaim these principles. We should not be surprised that the rapacious British Crown and the imperialist Canadian state is not willing to respect the self-determination of Indigenous peoples or uphold the Two Row Wampum. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of people in Canada cannot be won over to living by the principles of genuine peace, respect and friendship with Indigenous peoples on this land.

With the rise of a new cycle of Indigenous struggle through the Idle No More movement, and with the global crisis of capitalism intensifying, the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum is a perfect moment for us to start redefining this relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

For more information about the Two Row Wampum, please visit http://tworowsociety.com/.

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