SYRACUSE, N.Y. - The Guswentah has long symbolized, from the Haudenosaunee perspective, the proper model by which Indians and European settlers should conduct relations. Also known as the ''two-row wampum,'' the belt was first presented by Haudenosaunee chiefs to Dutch colonial officials in the mid-1600s.
The belt features a white background with two parallel lines of purple beads, representing the separate paths of the Indians' canoe and the settlers' ship. If both sides steer their own vessels alongside each other without interfering with the other, the resultant harmonious relationship will allow both to prosper.
To Robert Odawi Porter, Seneca, the Guswentah's parallel paths symbolize a mutual respect for each other's destiny and independence.
''It singularly distinguishes us as a people, separate from the settler class,'' Porter said. In light of the often contentious relationship between the Haudenosaunee and New York state, Porter added that ''we must educate ourselves on the foundations of the present situation.''
A conference, ''Conflict, Colonization and Co-Existence: The Haudenosaunee and New York State,'' was held Nov. 3 on the campus of Syracuse University to do just that. It was the fourth in a series of annual conferences sponsored by the S.U. College of Law's Center for Indigenous Law, Governance and Citizenship. Porter is the center's director.
Keynote speaker Maurice John Sr., president of the Seneca Nation of Indians, said the Guswentah is still relevant.
''I try my best to work with New York state,'' John told the assembled audience. ''But I took an oath to help the Seneca Nation and my people.''
To John, education, unity and identity are crucial.
''We must teach our children or they won't know what to fight for in the future,'' he said. ''We can't go around complaining or criticizing. We must remember who we are.''
Tribes must help each other to ''create a fist full of arrows so we're strong again.'' Rather than waiting for handouts, tribes need to do all they can to protect their land bases, economies and people.
''We are a nation,'' John said. ''We must act like a nation. We must act sovereign and we must be stubborn.''
Speakers and panels
The daylong conference featured several speakers and panel discussions.
Historian Michael Oberg, a professor at the State University of New York at Geneseo, examined the origins of New York's efforts to subvert Haudenosaunee independence. While the previous colonies of New Amsterdam and New York had treated Indian tribes as sovereign nations, the new state took a different tack. In 1784, Gov. George Clinton was advised to treat the tribes as dependents rather than nations. Despite the intent of the new Constitution to federalize Indian relations, New York officials ignored the feds and, thus, ''New York rose on disposed land,'' Oberg said.
Another historian, SUNY New Paltz professor Larry Hauptman, pointed out that New York is an ''artificial creation'' built through an ''interlocking conspiracy.'' Land speculators and their relatives, who dominated the early state government, built a network of roads and canals on illegally acquired land to bring in new settlers and exploit the vast salt deposits in Iroquoia, a name for the Haudenosaunee homeland in what is now central New York.
A group of Indian educators discussed education as a means of assimilation and offered examples of their nations' educational initiatives. Lana Redeye, Seneca, reported that her nation, frustrated with the Salamanca City Central School District, is looking to start its own school. Kandice Watson, Oneida Indian Nation of New York, said that her nation offers financial incentives to students for academic performance. While OIN does not have its own school, students who qualify may attend a local private prep school and attend college on the nation's dime. (The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.)
Stephanie Waterman, Onondaga, spoke of the ''irrelevancy'' of the standard K - 12 model, which she said ''has nothing to do with us,'' referring to Indian students. She said tribes must take an education system ''that's not meant for us and [make] it our own.''
Syracuse University junior Jenna Gansworth, Tuscarora, is part of S.U.'s Haudenosaunee Promise, a program through which enrolled Haudenosaunee students who qualify for admission may study free of charge. The program, which began two years ago, currently fosters the college educations of 48 students.
''The hardest thing in college is to remember why we're here - to pursue higher goals and achieve for my nation,'' she said.
A panel on advocacy discussed state resistance and responses to Haudenosaunee assertions of sovereignty. Peter Carmen, general counsel for the OIN, said that the nation is committed to negotiations with state officials in the capital city of Albany, but would protect its interests if talks produce no results. He said progress won't come if Albany continues to defer to county and municipal officials who are cowed and misinformed by a vocal minority of anti-Indian citizen's groups.
''Strong leadership is needed to resolve hard problems,'' Carmen said, adding that Albany should ''take hard positions and not defer to municipalities who cannot solve problems.''
Joe Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation, observed that New York's ''lack of institutional memory'' continually hampers progress because of the time and effort needed to continually re-educate state officials. He said politicians need to stop thinking about getting re-elected every four years and look, as the Haudenosaunee do, to the seventh generation.
''New York needs to stop rewriting history and acknowledge [its] wrongs,'' Heath said, stressing that the Sullivan Campaign of 1779, which destroyed the homelands of the Cayuga and Seneca nations, was a war crime of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
''Face the problems and recognize the strength and wisdom of the Haudenosaunee, particularly in environmental matters,'' he said. ''Stop thinking there's an 'Indian problem.'''
Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, stressed the continued relevance of the Guswentah but added, ''Too many of us have one foot in the canoe and one foot in the ship.'' He observed that at the time of the Guswentah's creation, the Haudenosaunee were much more powerful than the newcomers, but chose to make the parallel rows equal in size.
''Our leaders,'' he said, ''understood the importance of being equal and respectful.''