Welcome to our Sacred Covenants series! Follow along as we reflect together on the meaning of treaty covenants by signing up here.
I remember the first time I saw a Two-Row Wampum Belt. I was walking through the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario, near the Six Nations Reserve, and there, on a well-lit wall, I saw the replica piece of the Two-Row Wampum. As I stood, listening to the Haudenosaunee tour guide, I could not keep my eyes off of the purple and white beads lined up in five simple lines. As I listened, I realized why I could only stop and stare at the simple design. The tour guide explained that the Two-Row Wampum, also known as the Covenant Chain, was created in 1613 as an agreement between Dutch settlers and the Haudenosaunee (also referred to as the Five Nations of the Iroquois). Being the granddaughter of Dutch immigrants and a teacher on the Six Nations reserve, I knew, in that moment, that this wampum was important. It obviously was designed to have an impact on the relationship that existed between European settlers and the Indigenous communities that first lived on these lands, but I knew it also had an impact on the way I lived my life.
Being the granddaughter of Dutch immigrants and a teacher on the Six Nations reserve, I knew that this wampum was important.
That day at Woodland Cultural Center, I had the opportunity to hear the meaning of the design of the Covenant Chain and this description gave me more insight into the historical relationship as well as the present-day interactions between Indigenous People and the first settlers. The tour guide explained that the two purple lines on the Two-Row Wampum Belt represented the two groups of people making the agreement — the Dutch settlers coming to Turtle Island (the identification given to the land area of North America by Indigenous communities) to explore, to trade and to settle and the Haudenosaunee who farmed, hunted, raised their families and built their communities around the Great Lakes. The two purple lines represented, more specifically, the birch bark canoe of the Haudenosaunee and the boats of the Dutch. The tour guide continued by explaining that the three white lines represent peace, friendship and respect that were to be shared by the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch as they traded resources, shared land and developed relationships.
Looking at the way this wampum belt was designed, I understood what the tour guide meant by the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch realizing that their laws, their customs and their ways of living were unique to their individual groups. As the Two-Row Wampum Belt was presented, they were agreeing that they would travel down the river of life together, side by side, but each in their own boat. They agreed that these two paths would not cross or interrupt the lives of the other — they would not make laws that could impact each other and they would not interfere in each other’s community affairs. Put simply, the Haudenosaunee would continue living according to their laws, customs and ceremonies and the Dutch would live out their lives in the ways they had been raised back in their home country, but both groups would not make decisions that would impact the way the other lived out their lives.
As I drove away from the Woodland Cultural Centre that day, I could not stop thinking about the image of the Covenant Chain. As I thought about the many ways that First Nations communities in Canada have been negatively impacted by the ways Europeans have interfered in their lives — through colonization, forced relocation, reserves, residential schools and natural resource exploitation — I could not help but lament that these covenant promises had been broken. It is in these broken promises that peace diminished and standoffs took place between communities, friendships failed and stereotypes began to spread and the mutual respect turned into a fight for power and wealth. I realized that the paths had not stayed in their own line, but instead the European ships had sailed straight for the rivers of many Indigenous people and communities throughout Canada.
In the weeks and months that followed, I spent much time reflecting on my life, my community and my relationships.
In the weeks and months that followed, I spent much time reflecting on my life, my community, and my relationships. I realized that it was my responsibility to respect the promises that had been made (over 400 years ago) between my ancestors and the First Peoples of North America. I came to recognize that these historical treaties and covenants are just as important today as when they were first made. I took it upon myself to live out the values of the Covenant Chain — to spread peace, develop authentic friendships and embody deep respect for the Haudenosaunee community members that I have the privilege of working with on the Six Nations reserve. As I have been blessed to work on the Six Nations reserve, it is these values that I continue to strive for so I am able to travel down my own river of life, celebrating my identity as a European-Canadian while being blessed by the way my Haudenosaunee friends, colleagues and students are travelling down their own, unique river of life.
To continue the conversation about covenant and treaty with your congregation, participate in this year's Aboriginal Ministry Sunday. Order bulletins and find a litany, prayer, and Sunday school lesson plan from the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee here.