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Native Currents

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Two Row Wampum: Symbol of sovereignty

Before the Dutch people came to the lands of the Haudenosaunee, the On-kwe-hon-weh (The Real People) lived very happily, enjoying life the way the Creator intended. The Onkwehonweh were dependent on nature, and taught the Dutch people their customs and artwork. The Dutch and the Onkwehonweh became friends so the Dutch said, ''We shall pronounce ourselves in friendship,'' and they decided to make a treaty and continue in friendship.

The Onkwehonweh called the Dutch ''white people.'' The Onkwehonweh held a special council informing the people that the time had come for the white race and the Onkwehonweh to continue as friends so that all the people might walk upon the Earth in peace, and love one another. When the Onkwehonwe and the white people understood this kind of friendship, it was made known by both races that the day had come to pronounce their friendship.

The Onkwehonweh said, ''We now have an understanding about our friendship so that the generations to come will also know about our friendship.'' The Dutch replied, ''I will put our friendship in writing.'' The Onkwehonweh replied, ''This is good, but we must never forget to pass it on to all the generations to come.'' They agreed.

The white man said, ''How is the Onkwehonweh going to describe our friendship?'' The Onkwehonweh replied, ''We must thank the Creator for all his creations, and greet one another by holding hands to show the Covenant Chain that binds our friendship so that we may walk upon this earth in peace, trust, love and friendship, and we may smoke the sacred tobacco in a pipe which is the symbol of peace.''

The white man said he would respect the Onkwehonweh's belief and pronounce him as a son. The Onkwehonweh replied, ''I respect you, your belief, and what you say; but you pronounced yourself as my father and with this I do not agree, because the father can tell his son what to do and also can punish him.'' So the Onkwehonweh said, ''We will not be like father and son, but like brothers.''

The white man said, ''The symbol of this Covenant is a three-link chain which binds this agreement made by us, and there is nothing that will come between us to break the links of this chain.'' The Onkwehonweh said, ''This friendship shall be everlasting and the younger generation will know it and the rising faces from Mother Earth will benefit by our agreement.''

The white man said, ''What symbols will you go by?'' The Onkwehonweh replied, ''We will go by these symbols: When the Creator made Mother Earth, man was created to walk upon this Earth to enjoy all nature's fruits, saying no one shall claim Mother Earth except the rising faces which are yet to be born. First, as long as the sun shines upon this Earth, that is how long our agreement will stand; Second, as long as the water still flows; and Third, as long as the grass grows green at a certain time of the year. Now we have symbolized this agreement and it shall be binding forever as long as Mother Earth is still in motion. We have finished and we understand what we have confirmed and this is what our generation should know and learn not to forget.''

The white man said, ''I confirm what you have said and this we shall always remember. We shall have respect for each other's way of belief, having our own rights and power.'' The Onkwehonweh replied, ''I have a canoe and you have a vessel with sails and this is what we shall do:

I will put in my canoe my belief and laws; in your vessel you will put your belief and laws; all of my people in my canoe, your people in your vessel; we shall put these boats in the water and they shall always be parallel. As long as there is Mother Earth, this will be everlasting.''

The white man said, ''What will happen supposing your people will like to go into my vessel?'' The Onkwehonweh replied, ''If this happens, then they will have to be guided by my canoe. Now the white man understands this agreement.''

The white man said, ''What will happen if any of your people may someday want to have one foot in each of the boats that we placed parallel?'' The Onkwehonweh replied, ''If this so happens that my people wish to have their feet in each of the two boats, there will be a high wind and the boats will separate and the person that has his feet in each of the boats shall fall between the boats; and there is no living soul who will be able to bring him back to the right way given by the Creator, but only one: the Creator himself.''

The Onkwehonweh called the wampum belt ''Guswhenta.'' The two paths signify the laws and beliefs of the white man and the laws and beliefs of the Onkwehonweh. The white wampum background signifies purity, good minds and peace, and that the two peoples should not interfere with one another's ways.

The white man said, ''I understand, I confirm what you have said, that this will be everlasting as long as there is Mother Earth. We have confirmed this and our generation to come shall never forget what we have agreed. Now it is understood that we shall never interfere with one another's beliefs or laws for generations to come.''

The Onkwehonweh said, ''What we agreed upon shall be renewed every so often so that the Covenant Chain made between us shall always be clean from dust and rust. We shall renew our agreements and polish the covenant and when we get together to renew our agreements, we shall have interpreters; we will dress the same way as when we met so that our people will know who we are. I will put on my buckskin clothing, you will dress the same way that you dressed when you first came to our people, the Onkwehonweh.'' So they completed the treaty of the two parties.

This interpretation of the Two Row Wampum belt has been widely attributed to the late elder Jake Thomas, a traditional Cayuga chief at Six Nations reserve, and Huron Miller, Onondaga; both leaders in the oral tradition.