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The First Covenant

The first covenant made by my Haudenosaunee people and Europeans was with the Dutch in 1613. In 1609 Dutch explorer Henry Hudson “discovered” the Hudson River that flows from Henderson Lake in the Adirondack Mountains to New York City, New York. This city was originally called New Amsterdam in the early years of the Dutch colony. In the early 1600’s the Dutch were the leading colonizing power with colonies in places from North America to Taiwan.

The Mohawk River flows from the west into the Hudson River just south of present day Albany, NY. The Mohawk people found the Dutch cutting down trees and building on the shores of the Hudson River and so we came to them and asked them what they were doing. We found out that they wanted to establish a trading relationship with our people. They had brought items to trade with us for things they wanted from us. They would then return to their country and sell our traded items at a profit to pay off their loans and expenses and return value to their investors. 

We established relationships with other Indigenous nations as well and knew that this could work with the Dutch newcomers.

The Mohawk counseled with the other nations of our Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) and decided we wanted a more fulsome relationship. This is the origin of the Guswentah or Two Row Wampum covenant. A covenant in our understanding was a sacred agreement between peoples under the witness of the Creator and creation. We said it was for as long as the grass grows, the rivers flow, and the sun shines.

We recorded our understanding of this relationship in a wampum belt made from purple and white tubular beads made from a quahog shell. The white line represented the common river of life (literally the Hudson River). Two parallel purple lines represented the two nations traveling this common river of life in their vessels of state. The Dutch traveled in their sailing ship with their technology, leaders, language, and ways. The Haudenosaunee traveled in our canoe of state with our technology, our leaders, our language, and ways. These vessels were not to interfere with the operation of the other.

There were three rows of beads separating the two vessels to describe the principles and values of the relationship. The first row was the desire for the peace of friendship. The second row was the respect that is at the heart of true peace. The third row was the good mind that establishes peaceful relations and results in a strong relationship. Our Haudenosaunee people had learned how to covenant together to establish healthy peaceful relationships between our Haudenosaunee nations. We established relationships with other Indigenous nations as well and knew that this could work with the Dutch newcomers.

Surely, we can have an even better relationship than we had at the beginning. 

For a time, the relationship proved fruitful, but we noticed a tendency for the newcomers to forget. We also noticed the newcomers used iron chains to anchor their boats. We saw that the relationship was good and so to strengthen and remind our covenant partners of our original Two Row Wampum we told the newcomers we wanted to anchor their ship with a chain connected to Kanata Kowa (big village), our capital at the Onondaga Nation, by Onondaga Lake, NY. Instead of iron links we would use three silver links representing the three rows between the two vessels and called it the Silver Covenant Chain. As silver tarnishes and becomes black over time it needs to be periodically polished. Silver can shine so brightly that you can see yourself in it. This was a way to deal with forgetfulness through renewal.

The actual wampum belt recording this covenant showed different persons holding a long chain between them. Four hundred and nine years ago Dutch and Haudenosaunee people were very different peoples: different languages, different technology, different clothing and ways, different ways of making decisions, different connections to creation, and different religions. And yet, we were able to establish a good relationship that lasted for some time. Today we are much closer than we were then: most of us speak the same English language, we live in the same Western world, go to the same schools, have the same governments over us, etc. Surely, we can have an even better relationship than we had at the beginning. 

In my role as Senior Leader for Indigenous Justice and Reconciliation with the Christian Reformed Church in North America here in Canada I will re-polish the Silver Covenant Chain. Hearts Exchanged has started the polishing process. Let us continue to wipe away the tarnish of colonialism, the trauma of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the wounds of Indian Residential Schools, and the other matters identified by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as cultural genocide. Let’s work together to fulfill our ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19) where the proof of our knowing God is our love for one another (John 13:34-35 and 1 John 3:11-15). Demonstrated love is the long pathway TRC Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair spoke of when he said, "But if we make a concerted effort ... then eventually we will be able, some day, to wake up and, to our surprise, find that we are treating each other in a way that was intended when contact was first made."

Photo of two row wampum belt used with permission of Darren Bonaparte.

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