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,

Very well written, and a topic that I wish was more readily taught in the school system. Imagine, I was in my late 30s and now into my 40s, and I am only now learning this history, and only because I have had teachers like you to assist me on my learning journey!

I thank you for sharing it, and I admire your commitment to a subject that is obviously so important to you.

Leigh Ann

Hello Lynn! Hope all is well.

Thank you for sharing!

Your passion for this comes through in your writing which makes it very effective. More people need to know this history.

Audrey Camacho

Kwe Lynn,

It has become increasingly clear to me that there is much hidden, buried, and lost knowledge regarding the making of Canada. Your story highlights that it is still possible to uncover the truth and to re-discover and re-claim our history.

You are a role model Lynn. Your personal story about honoring the tobacco that was given to you and taking on this great responsibility makes me very proud of you. You have more integrity then anyone I have ever known. This is good work.

It is my wish that you be able to spread this story from coast to coast. Everyone needs to hear your story.

Lindy Garneau

Lynn--I am so proud of you and the work you've done. You have brought shadowed (hi)stories back into the light for all to see. What a tremendous gift!

Speaking as a settler, as the grand-daughter of uninvited guests to Treaty 6 area, this work is invaluable for the settler/colonizer. Thank you Lynn, for helping to bring greater awareness, and with greater awareness, greater hope. My people are not educated in our own history. We keep making the same egregious errors again and again, conveniently forgetting all that we had promised and continue "promising" (read: apology for the IRS and beginning a "new relationship").

The hope is to educate from the grass-roots, TO the grass-roots, something you are doing with such integrity. We cannot rely on the Canadian/Provincial governments to responsibly educate us (settlers/colonizers) about our pasts because the onuses would then be on us to change our current behaviour (and wouldn't that be threatening to capitalism)!

Please let me know when you have some time (spare time--is there such a thing?) in Ottawa, and when you might be able to speak to those of us who need to hear you.

Lynn: I remain amazed at the powerful legacy from your own nation that you are carrying, through reviving these wampum belts, and the manner in which they represent living reminders of Canada's obligations that they recognized at the time of the Treaty of Niagara. Many hands had helped to uncover the narrative of the Treaty of Niagara, but in making these wampum belts, you have made the story alive again.

For my own land, Mi'kmakie, Sakej Henderson in conjunctions with Mi'kmaq knowledge-keeprs made visible the legacy of how the Mi'kmaq nation, through Membertou, negotiated a concordat with Rome in 1610. In unearthing this narrative, they revealed the Mi'kmaq as actors on the international stage, whose actions were not about cleaving to Catholicism but about retaining sovereignty in the face of European presence on the territory. By negotiating a treaty with Rome at the time when the European nation-states were still subordinate to Rome, Membertou ensured that according to the international law at the time, the Mi'kmaq were brothers to the French and not subordinate to them. And yet until the huge wampum belt that was created by the Mi'kmaq to mark this treaty is revived, the narrative that Sakej Henderson unearthed will not really become living knowledge again.

Lynn, your work has demonstrated that it is one thing to unearth the histories that the colonizers have denied and distorted and twisted--it is another to revive the hopes and aspirations and strengths of our nations through reviving the wampum belts. We'alalin, Lynn!

Lynn Gehl offered about 30 of us from the Peterborough region a fascinating and absorbing workshop and feast three weeks ago at Curve Lake First Nation. We were 20 aboriginal people and 10 allies. The concept and practice of "ally-ship" will need such leaders and educators as Lynn.

Such events do much to build the alliance so needed for social change in Canada.

I look forward to the four-part series "The Eighth Fire" starting Jan 13 on CBC TV.

Waynaboozhoo Lynn,

Great Info and I look forward to our new friendship and am grateful to networking with people who share the same values. As a youth belonging to the prophetic 7th generation this belt is just but one of many important "gifts" that we are "picking back up which was lost along the trail." Oppressive Policies that breach these agreements and "Representatives" of the involved parties who are letting this happen are involved in acts of Treason to each parties Autonomy and breaking their own Nations Laws. The dismantling and reorganization of both parties Governance Structures to uphold these founding agreements needs to happen. If these Belts continue to be breached it is an abandonment of these Agreements and is seen as a Declaration of Conflict which can have inconceivable outcomes that parallel with the "liberation movements" which are currently happening around the globe and where we will find other Allies who will be responsible with Nation to Nation agreements.

Pontiac created an alliance to fight against the British who were not upholding their agreements. This can happen once again but some Elders say we will not win in that old way of fighting. We must ally with their children who are more open minded. We are seeing their children stand up to injustices, we need to ally with our neighbors who also have had enough.

I thank you for sharing this knowledge and passing it on to us younger generation.

Thanks for reminding us of these historical moments and shed light on the events taht took place during this important period. I know for a fact taht my generation is striving to seek the truth hidden by the colonial institutions and engage in a declonisation process to live in peace & harmony with all our relations and moreover to ensure taht the next generations have the same opportunities as us. Our contribution to the social fabric will be feared and criticised because our message will not be about the preservation of the satus-quo,economic developement etc , but really about unity , meaningful and positive changes . It's texts and ethno-texts (symbolic literacy) like yours Lynn that enlighten us, guides us and makes us have a clear understanding of where we need to go and what we need to accomplish. You provide the arrows with sharp tip for our bows which then allow us to tell the Debwewin and live Mino pimadizowin!

Lynn, Your study of the Treaty of Niagara in the fashion in which it was conducted is honourable. We can all take a lesson here and remember that knowledge is sacred and truth comes long before the words that might express it. This work is significant in the struggle to de-colonize our lands and the hearts and minds of the people.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 has been a particular focus of mine. I have studied the words carefully as well as measuring its form and style. For sure it is a significant document but I would never refer to it as a founding constitution of Canada. Johnson in later documents separated the conditions of Civil Governance of the new Colony of Quebec from the Indian provision. He recognized that the Crown had obligations that were beyond the scope of the colony and beyond the scope of the 13 American colonies.
So did the English Crown and that is one reason the Americans declared independence. I am certain that the Covenant Chain was instrumental in the references to the savage Indians in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Your work confirms that the Treaty of Niagra was indeed a real treaty that Canada and the Nations who agreed through wampum are legally bound to.

I am looking forward to more of your work.