Indigenous knowledge, symbolic literacy and the 1764 Treaty at Niagara

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lynn Gehl, York University
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

Kwey Kwey; Mnakinag ndoodem.  Pikwàkanagàn n´doonjiba.  Peterborough megwa ndidaa.  Giizhigaate-Mnidoo-kwe ndizhinikaaz. Nda zhaaganaashii noozwin Lynn Gehl.

It was in the year 1764 when the Treaty at Niagara took place.  This event served to ratify the 1763 Royal Proclamation, commonly thought of as Canada’s first constitutional document. In actuality, the 1763 Royal Proclamation is only one of Canada’s first constitutional documents.  Because successive  governments of Canada have promoted a particular version of history – a fiction of two founding nations – the broader Canadian public may be unaware of the significant roles Indigenous Nations held in Canada’s creation.  Perhaps this storytelling and my narrative approach, both of which are valid and legitimate ways of knowing, will serve well to convey an Indigenous understanding of Canada’s history.

New editions versus reproductions of the Wampum Belts exchanged during the 1764 Treaty at Niagara. Photo credit: Nikolaus Gehl. © Lynn Gehl


Indian Superintendent William Johnson called the congress of 1764 as a means to congeal the interests of several different groups of the newly emerging society: British, Anishinaabe (Algonquin, Mississauga, Nipissing, Odawa, Ojibway…), Cree, Huron, and Haudenosaunee.  Johnson was concerned about Anishinaabe Chief Pontiac whose freedom fighting actions resulted in the death of many European settlers and the destruction of a number of British forts.  In addition, Johnson had to safely secure the land holdings of the French people who had settled in Lower Canada, part of which is Algonquin Anishinaabe traditional territory.

The Algonquin and Nipissing Anishinaabe Nations were commissioned by Johnson as runners for the 1764 congress.  As constitutional delegates the Algonquin and Nipissing Nations travelled the land and waterscapes with a printed copy of the Royal Proclamation as well as with several strings of white wampum to signify peace and invite all of the surrounding Nations to attend.  Due to the success of these constitutional delegates well over 2,000 Chiefs from the Great Lakes region attended. 

To guarantee the successful ratification of the Royal Proclamation, to ensure a clear understanding as well as to codify the historic event at Niagara, Johnson relied on Indigenous practices of wampum diplomacy and its inherent forms of symbolic literacy. During the ratification process Johnson presented two Wampum Belts to the Anishinaabe.  These two Belts are known as The British and Great Lakes Covenant Chain Confederacy Wampum Belt and The Twenty Four Nations Wampum Belt. The former Belt codified a relationship between equal allies that was as strong as links in a chain, a relationship that required a process of polishing and re-polishing what may tarnish, just as silver tarnishes. The latter Belt represented the Indigenous Nations that participated at the Treaty at Niagara, where the chain secured around the rock, running through the twenty four Nations’ hands, and attached to a British vessel, and represented the negotiating process Indigenous Nations were to take to ensure their equal share of the resources and bounty of the land.  In turn, Indigenous Nations also gave Johnson a Wampum Belt: the Two Row Wampum Belt. This Belt codified a nation-to-nation relationship rooted in the philosophy and practice of non-interference mediated by peace, friendship, and respect.

In sum, through offering The British and Great Lakes Covenant Chain Confederacy Wampum Belt and The Twenty Four Nations Wampum Belt to the Indigenous Nations and through accepting the Two Row Wampum Belt, the British accepted a nation-to-nation relationship rooted in a policy of non-interference. This nation-to-nation relationship applied to matters such as Indigenous Nations’ right to self-government, their right to define their own citizenship laws, as well as their right to an equal distribution of land and resources required to self-govern.  Clearly these three Wampum Belts embody Indigenous agency as sovereign Nations versus subjects of the British.

Although many Canadians are unaware, in conjunction with the 1763 Royal Proclamation these three Wampum Belts and the knowledge they codify are also Canada’s first constitutional documents and thus an important element of Canada’s history that must be respected and honoured in practice.  Certainly in Indigenous Nations’ continued quest for self-determination the knowledge of this nation-to-nation relationship lives on in our hearts, minds, and practices.  In the contemporary context the knowledge codified in these three constitutional documents translates to the need for the governments of Canada to respect and commit to a nation-to-nation relationship and provide Indigenous Nations with their rightful share of the necessary land and resources that allows for our financial, jurisdictional, and administrative independence for as long as the sun shines and the rivers flow. This constitutional relationship ratified at Niagara, as Kiera L. Ladner has argued, is known as Treaty Federalism.

To create a larger space for an Indigenous hegemony, one where our right to self-determination and mino-bimadiziwin resides at the core, I have constructed new editions of these three historic Wampum Belts or alternatively these three constitutional documents. It is important that these three Wampum Belts be valued as “new editions” versus merely as “reproductions” as indeed the original meaning of a nation-to-nation non-interfering relationship remains intact in the minds and hearts of Indigenous people. I completed this task through the time-honoured and ancient traditions of Anishinaabe ways of knowing and being such as Elders, tobacco, storytelling, and learning by doing. Elder, language speaker, and ceremonialist Doug Williams offered tobacco asking me to learn the knowledge of these three Wampum Belts. I also received Wampum Belt instructions from Elder, language speaker, and ceremonialist Grandfather William Commanda.

Prior to beginning my process of weaving these three Wampum Belts I also learned from the knowledge and wisdom of others such as Annie Cooper, Paul Williams, Anishinaabe historian Alan Corbiere, and Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows.  In addition, in weaving these three Wampum Belts I relied upon descriptions and sketches found in the historic literature.  Along my journey I made tobacco offerings, paid particular attention to my dreams, and smudged all the necessary elements required. To wrap and protect my Wampum Belts my brother, Dennis, was kind and gifted me with both a bear pelt and a moose hide harvested from traditional Algonquin Anishinaabe territory.  When I completed the entire task I feasted my new knowledge bundle to honour its spirit.  In re-building this Treaty at Niagara Wampum Bundle I have articulated the knowledge our ancestors carefully embodied in the hearts and minds of the Indigenous peoples. The year 2014 marks the 250th anniversary of the 1764 Treaty at Niagara, the event that ratified Canada’s constitutional beginnings.

This is my story. Aapjigo ndoo-gchinendam Anishinaabe-kwe eyaawyan!

Lynn Gehl, Gii-Zhigaate-Mnidoo-Kwe, is Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley and a course director at York University in Toronto. Email: lynngehl at


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Props & blessings to you sistah for taking me/us on your journey. I have been educated, enriched and emotionally blessed by your revelations, and your never ending quest for knowledge from the ancestors. May you stay blessed and your creation of the Wampam Belts keep inspiring us !!

Dear Lynn. This is a story wonderfully told. Miigwetch.

I will vision a ceremony of commemoration in my community in 2014 on the date of the treaty. Perhaps many will take this up as a day of peaceful action so that we might influence the Canadian consciousness in a good way through our combined intention.

May your work fall like a seed on fresh soil and sprout a tree of new understanding watered well by our visions and actions.


It's true that WE seem to know what Nation to Nation and "non-interference" means.
But the Colonials willfully ignore that, through sheer strength of numbers.
My understanding of the structure of Canada, is that it IS indeed the result of a series of negotiations and Treaties, between the French, the English, and MANY Indigenous Nations. Different than the States, in that there was not one "defining moment" like a Revolutionary War.
Further - my belief in the structure of Canada is such that, should one or any of the parties remove themselves - the whole country falls, and ceases to be a legal entity.
We are an equal partner in Canada.
OR Canada is simply NOT a country.

My entire formal Canadian history education through high school from kindergarten included one poorly prepared document full of dates and names that was not discussed, but simply meant to be memorized for the exam. Younger people that I speak with know even less about even the critical events in the past fifty years than I do. New information is strictly controlled, and news stories about things such as the Katrina aftermath, the Gulf oil spill and the catastrophe in Japan to name only a small fraction simply disappear from the headlines. The histories of these will be drawn from the official stories and press releases and future generations will have no idea of the facts. This will not stop the suffering that will continue long after I am dead and gone. Give education back to the people.

Lynn- I really appreciate how you contextualize these belts as new editions and the cultural and political responsibility that comes with that. They are not replicas because you have taken responsibility for them and I think that is such an important distinction that speaks to how and why certain objects become sacred. I also want to thank you for helping me with my research on wampum and hope that you will get a chance to visit Fort George at Niagara on the Lake for the new visitor installation on the War of 1812. Indeed I hope you will come and speak.
Chi Miigwetch.

Hello Lynn

What a wonderful story and very well written.

Thank you. This is a very good story and very important to how Canada's people will impact their future. Perhaps it can also be used to distinguish First Nations peoples from other ethnic groups that willfully are seeking to push their culture and language over other ethnic groups as in the US and have permanently segregated themselves from the US mainstream society and culture; thereby sustaining reciprocal segregation and discrimination.

Thanks Lynn. You have articulated an important piece of Canadian history, for indigenous, settler, and immigrant people have a critical role in understanding how this place came to be. It is through pieces such as yours that we can foster mutual respect for the parts we all have played in the greater global community. For some it is a reminder, for others the first time they will be hearing this story. And you are right, it is through storytelling that facts can come to live in our hearts and minds. We cannot always redress a wrong, but to raise awareness in this way, you are helping to erase some of the ignorance that clouds current discourse.

Meegwetch. Good thoughts, Lynn.

If s. 35(1) represents a form of reconciliation - between the "laws and customs" of Aboriginal peoples with the unilateral assertion of Crown sovereignty - then these Belts have significant contemporary constitutional value (even if the Courts continue to distort Aboriginal philosophical traditions - this is why these Belts are needed in Western European political theory). The Belts are not so much "new editions" as they embody ancient political practices that are being re-situated in a contemporary moral and political world. The Belts don't simply have moral, political, and spiritual significance (cultural niceties), they have moral, political, and spiritual content. We live this "content" in Anishinabek everydayness, but we are now making it matter in contemporary constitutional dialogues over the meaning of s. 35(1). This is why our Anishinabek Constitution is so important: we are returning our living philosophies to their rightful place in our communities, and in doing so we embrace Anishinabek political practices AND empower ourselves in the hostile dialogues over the meaning and content of s. 35(1). I look forward to learning more from you...

Thank you Lynn for posting this story and for this lesson. Thank you also for staying with this journey on behalf of all. I see a day when this is taught to all as part of learning what it means to be a Canadian and to be a person in relation to the world. Relationships need to be polished (nurtured) and that means reminding and remembering together the original intentions and working together in the here and now to reorient ourselves to those intentions. Self-determination for Indigenous Peoples is a constitutional imperative and a goal for which we should strive together as Canadians.