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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I admire your passion, commitment and courage. You are an inspiration! Keep up the great work!

Miigwetch for your teachings Lynn. Miigwetch for teaching about the Treaty of Niagara. Miigwetch also for teaching about traditional education methods! I have sent the link to some of my students!

The government does not owes us anything as it now stands. I have said over and over again that we are part of the problem. By accepting Indian Act "status" we are not the nations who partook of this treaty. We are an artificial creation that the government can do with as it pleases. The Indian Act Indian was not party to any treaty. We must force our Nations to start issuing our own identification and recognizing our own people. We have to legal right to do so.

Sir William Johnson wrote to the Privy Council in England and told them that the British were in a position of losing their possessions in Canada if they did not enter into an agreement with the native people. Our warriors had just destroyed all their forts, excepting Detroit and Fort Pitt, along the western frontier.
Johnson said that we shall never want nor will our children ever suffer along with the usual as long as the grass grows and the British wear red.
The following year the Privy council set aside a huge amount of money to pay for the debt incurred by this treaty, the Indian Fund. With this they provided any and all sorts of provisions and services. Later in the 1800 these provisions were applied directly to the different reserves. If you look up the Paylists for your reserves you will see all sorts of things supplied in order to meet the conditions of this treaty.
Farming equipment, tools of all sorts, clothe, guns, shot and gun powder, teachers, material for all sorts of tradesmen to fabricate barrels, boats, build houses and on and on.
Everything we beg for from the government departments today is already owed! And they have cut us off from that Indian Fund.

There is a danger in saying the Royal Proclamation of 1763 is the basis for the Treaty of Niagara 1764.
Quite clearly the Royal Proclamation says that the King is the Sovereign of the territory and holds ultimate dominion. You have to be cognizant of the Doctrine of Discovery and the Papal Bulls that support the doctrine to understand the legal arguements the Crown uses for this declaration.
It is that same underpinning that Canada derives its asserted jurisdiction over us. So if we accept the premise of the Royal Proclamation we also accept the crowns dominion over us. So much for inherent rights to the land.

Ahneen Kwey Lynn

Miigwetch for asking for my feedback and I would like to say Miigwetch for your hard work and dedication in bringing forward this most important history of telling the truth of what our ancestors had to deal with in their time. This is a lot of information to process and one can have many different points of view, however, you have truly been directed and lead by spirit in the honor and respect you share about your journey through this process and for this I am very greatful. As a keeper of the history this is a great honor and responsibility and I feel very proud to be a woman along side you to carry forward the truths and to walk the path with the Creator by our side. It is with our Spiritual Beings that we shall bring balance and harmony back to our people. I am very supportive and very greatful that you have sacrificed so much of your time to carry out this most important work for the benefit of our brothers and sisters. This is the true history that needs to be told and you are doing wonderful work sharing and asking for our feedback. Keep up the good work Kwey.
In the Spirit of Healing & Wellness~ Red Pine Woman~

Excellent work, Lynn's knowledge on the true story of the Treaty of Niagara and its significance today is monumental. All Canadians share in the treaty, which makes native and non natives all treaty people, a most important reality.

The only challenge we have as the original peoples of Turtle Island, is for Canada to recognize our sovereignty and acknowledge and honour the treaty(s). This was the purpose of the treaties, to continue to exist in peace and goodwill, for if it wasn't for our people's goodwill in welcoming the new comers and sharing our knowledge of survival, they would not have survived. Plus without our intervention by signing the Treaty of Niagara there would be no Canadians but instead Canadians would be Americans. Just something to think about.

What you describe is important historical information and should be more widely known. With your permission, I will seek to add your piece to the course we teach on indigenous nations, but I will also use it in my courses on pre-Contact societies and states and their relationships with Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries. Often, what happened in these early years is seen as 'the past' (hence defunct) when it comes to indigenous nations, but 'historical justification for displacement' when it comes to European claims. Therefore an important part of moving forward today is to reclaim the past.

Kwey Terry,

Thanks for your valued comments. I should stress that my analysis of the T@N is one that argues the wampum belts exchanged resolve the contradictions found in the printed text of the Royal Proclamation. I did state that they too are constitutional documents.

Kwey Elizabeth,

This blog is public and so you can use the contents for course work.


As alway I am humbled to be a part of your circle in this fight for the rights of the First Peoples. Truth must be known and this is why it is so important for those with knowledge to step forward and make known what the Great Spirit has placed within their reach of discernment.