In an effort to maintain a separate and peaceful coexistence, an agreement was made 400 years ago between a group of Haudenosaunee nations and the incoming European settlers who were rapidly arriving. That agreement remains valid today.
The Two Row Wampum was made with strings of wampum, or Quahog and Whelk shells that were made into purple and white beads, which were threaded onto strings, forming a belt. The white beads, located outside of two large purple rows of beads, represent the truth. The purple beads are separated into two rows, one representing the canoe of the Haudenosaunee, the other representing the sailboat of the incoming Europeans. Each row represents the separate cultures, traditions, governments and religions. In between the purple rows run three rows of white beads. These represent peace, friendship and maintaining a sense of equality forever.
“The Two Row Wampum is about peace and friendship,” said Oren Lyons, Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper and a Two Row Wampum expert. “As long as the grass grows green, water flows downhill, and the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the wampum belt has meaning. It’s an agreement—you stay in your ship; we stay in our canoe.”
“The Two Row Wampum provides an inspirational vision for how very different peoples can live together in peace, friendship and respect,” said Andy Mager, project coordinator for the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign. “It offers a pathway forward out of the violence, injustice and environmental destruction that we currently find ourselves and it offers non-Native people like myself a way to seek justice for our Native brothers and sisters.”
To better understand the purpose of the Two Row Wampum agreement, the story of Hiawatha is recalled. Hiawatha was a peacemaker who originally united the six Haudenosaunee nations.
“The legend of Hiawatha is told to remind us of the message of peace,” Sid Hill, Onondaga, is the Tadadaho, or spiritual leader, of the Haudenosaunee. “It is a reminder that all us six nations need to come together. Grand council is always held here [at Onondaga]. The wampum is sent out as an invitation.” Hiawatha, according to many historians, united the six Haudenosaunee nations—the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and later, Tuscarora, sometime around the tenth century. In 1613, a piece of paper was drawn up on the European side to record their own version of the Two Row Wampum belt.
Because of this special anniversary, there are several events planned this year to commemorate the agreement. “There are many ways for people to become involved in the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign, large and small,” Mager said. “We expect thousands of people will come to the events we organize on our trip down the Hudson this summer, and need at least a thousand people to form a human bridge over the Hudson as we paddle under the pedestrian bridge in Poughkeepsie, New York on the morning of Saturday, August 3. We are also continuing to consider a limited number of applications from people who would like to paddle with us the full distance from Albany to New York City.” (Related story: “Bringing the Two Row Wampum Treaty to Life”)
“It means peace, friendship and forever,” Hickory Edwards, a canoe maker from the Onondaga nation, said. “To live in peace, we have to maintain a peaceful existence. We have to maintain a safe and sustainable ecosystem for our future generations. Four hundred years ago, our ancestors kept this in mind for us. We have to think about our generations 400 years from now.” Edwards is making the canoes for the August event on the Hudson River.
The most important thing to know about the Two Row wampum is that it remains relevant. “It’s a one-way communication,” Jesse Jacobs, an Onondaga council chief, said. “The direction of the strings is presented so that the string ‘pierces the sky.’ The wampum is still doing its job. Using it as money was when wampum lost its true meaning. But it’s alive. It’s a living thing.”
“There’s a lot of protocol in using the wampum,” Hill said. “Lots of responsibility is with the leaders and educating our people. We need to get the word out there that it still goes on, it still exists, that we still meet as leaders from the six nations, and we are still united.”