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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Hi Lynn,

This is a great collection of knowledge and I'm happy to see you share it with others. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into getting this information to the masses and I look forward to all your work.

I come away from reading this feeling more educated about this history and all the best to you in everything that you do.

Wonderful sharing of knowledge thank you. I offer that your meticulas and probubly intensive work has produced subjects for discussion.. These two belts in there pattern are a bond and in your work we can revisit this agreement. I would ask any current lawyer why we call little red stickers seals . We have stopped sealing with wax and signets but we still stick to old words and tradition. A document must be under seal to be valid in curtain curcumstance so we attach a red sticker from staples. The old way of pouring wax and sealing with a custom stamp long gone. The tradition and understanding of a symbol such as a wampum belt is as real and valid . If the British made an agreement of this nature then it is valid to use said belts as prof. I would exibet these belts and start a conversation . Indegenous peoples voices and ways of thinking need to be incuded in all conversations of this Country . Diversity is part of trianning in modern management ,the argument is many minds and diverse thought make better disissions. We can learn from the narrative . i am a dislexic i see from the side i think in different directions i hope i have made my self clear.


Chi-Miigwetch for all the kind words and encouragement. For people who would like to learn more here is a great source.

Borrows, John. “Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History, and Self-Government.” Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality, and Respect for Difference. Ed. Michael Asch. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 2002. 155-72.

Baamaa Pii,

Thanks for sharing this Lynn!
I wish that more people understood the significance of the 1764 treaty, and the constitutional status of the early wampum belts.

Your work, the guidance your spirit provides, the inevitable and essential awakening of the 'female force field' (Mama T'alla) is of utmost importance in the era of the Pachakut'i (or cosmic upheaval -a prophecy legated by our ancestors in the Andes and Amazon. The process of cultural revolution in the Qollasuyu (in what is nowadays known as Bolivia) is going through a very fascinating process of 'cosmic upheaval' as announced by the ethnotext left by our Ancestors.
The wisdom of your people, the sacred relations entertained on Turtle Island, the cosmic legacy and the strength of your nation, and of yourself, are of great importance for all the indigenous peoples of the planet, guardians of Pacha Mama and Tata Inti, within the understanding of Taqpacha (the cosmos, the universe, what can be seen and the invisible, what can be thought about and what cannot be even named). That is the vocation we share, that is the pristine way laying ahead of us, yet we have to overcome the rigorous and hard obstacles that being alive implies.

Keep on guiding us, Lynnkuraka (my sister Lynn).

Jallalla! (a salutation of joy and victory of Aymara people)


Kwey Lynn,
This was my second read, and we owe you a big miigwetch. The generousity shown by sharing your knowledge is appreciated.
This is the part of Canada's history that is not taught in our public school system, if it were there would be a better understanding and acceptance by the general public.
Bamma Pii
Bob Majaury

Over many years of walking in solidarity with the First Peoples of this part of Turtle Island we call Canada, I have gradually learned the true history of my country.  Lynn Gehl adds substanially to my learning through her presentation of this history which includes the story of Wampum Belts.
I had not realized the part played by Wampum Belts within what I think of as Ojibwe or Anishinabek territory, but Lynn writes of “The British and Great Lakes Covenant Chain Confederacy Wampum Belt” and “The Twenty-four Nations Wampum Belt”, given at the time of negotiations taking place at Niagara in 1764. In return, Indigenous Nations also gave Indian Superintendent William Johnson “the Two-Row Wampum Belt”, which had the effect of ratifying the 1763 Royal Proclamation.
It is important for current Canadian citizens to learn this history, since it reminds us of the historic relationship between us – the explorer/settler/immigrant people of Canada - and the First Peoples who have inhabited this part of North America which they know as Turtle Island for thousands of years.
Lynn points out that “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”.
I am grateful to First Peoples sisters and brothers who keep reminding us of this history. I can only hope that one day my grandchildren will be able to learn the truth of Canada's history as a part of thier regular education, which may lead us one day to be able to enter into a new relationship of “peace, friendship and respect” between us.

In 1670 king Charles iii granted to his cousin Prince Rupert the Hudsons Bay Charter, supposedly containing all the lands that drained into hudsons bay for Two elks and two black beavers, this is not a legal transaction. In 1867 the illegal provinces of upper and lower canada, nova scotia halifax and quebec confederated to purchase ruperts land for three hundred thousand pounds, canadas constitutions are and always will be illegal and the corrupt puppetry will never produce any thing worthwhile. If youd like to know more email me, i know a great deal.

Succinctly communicated. Clear, rich, full, and living.

Meegwetch for your commitment to our continued learning.

Meegwetch to the Elders that asked you to take this on.

For Lynn Gehl to create "new edition" wampum belts is a sacred and powerful act of brilliance and courage. She has opened up a direct link back through time to the historical moment of the founding of Canada, and the wampum illuminates the many contributions of First Nations peoples that made the "birth of a nation" possible. Lynn's dedication to restoring the dignity of these incredibly important wampum belts and holding space for the much-needed restoration of beauty and harmony to First Nations peoples cannot be overstated. All those who claim Canadian citizenship and benefit from living in this wonderful country take far too much for granted, and our assumptions of what constitutes an accurate historical record leaves much to be desired. The idea that there were 2 founding nations in Canada - the French and the English - is a complete lie, and has excluded the 3rd participating group of Indigenous Nations from having a voice in the national conversation. Wampum diplomacy and its inherent forms of symbolic literacy still have constitutional power today, and the original nation-to-nation relationship needs to be addressed and incorporated into what has now become a Canada of multicultural tolerance. The rights, self-determination and current renaissance of traditional indigenous knowledge needs to be respected and supported by all Canadians. We owe much to Lynn's new edition wampum belts, as they function as a powerful wake-up call to the Canadian people that cannot be ignored.