The Remembrance Belt: Conflicting Traditions of an Onondaga Wampum

The Remembrance Belt: Conflicting Traditions of an Onondaga Wampum

One of the most intriguing wampum belts of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is one known by many names: the Remembrance belt, the Defeat of the French Record belt, the Peacemaker belt, the Prophecy belt, and—to keep life simple—the Peacemaker Prophecy belt. It is a bit of a myth that wampum belts actually had names, but these are the ones that have been attached to the belt over the years. There are just as many interpretations. The two that stand out are literally worlds apart.

The wampum in question is a long, narrow belt. It is 40.4 inches long by 2.5 inches wide, or 341 rows by 7 rows, for a total of 2,387 beads. The symbols are white on a purple background. They depict a human figure standing above an open diamond, with a long line extending from the human’s head that ends in a cross. The belt’s imagery makes it stand out in spite of its relatively small size compared to others.

Cayuga Chief Jacob E. Thomas, or Teiohonwé:thon, was one of the most revered Haudenosaunee leaders of the last century. He was able to recite the Creation Story, the Great Law of Peace, and the Code of Handsome Lake in several native languages. His interpretation of this wampum belt, which he called the Prophecy belt, is found on The Jake Thomas Learning Centre website:

This belt (Rononshonni:ton Ka’nikonri:io’ Raha:wi – Mohawk language) represents the Peacemaker who brings peace, power and righteousness.

The Prophecy Belt signifies the coming of the Peacemaker to the Earth. The line running along the belt shows his descent from the Sky-world.

In ancient times the Five Nations were all separate and divided by bitter wars. The Peacemaker brought the separate nations the Great Laws of Peace (Kaianerenko:wa) and as a result of his influence the nations formed a Confederation.

The Laws, which are sometimes referred to as the Iroquois Constitution, are recited from time to time using this belt as an aid to memory. (1)

Thomas passed away in 1998, but his interpretation is popular among the Haudenosaunee today. Mohawk Ieieia’taiéri Logan offers this personal insight into the belt’s meaning:

Ka’nikonhrí:io (Good mind) The prophecy belt signifies the coming of the Peacemaker to the Earth. Today I’m thinking of that purple heart inside the figure. I heard it taught, that’s the place where anger gets caught. When someone wrongs us and we immediately think of how we are going to get them back. Practicing Ka’nikonhrí:io means being mindful of those feelings, and learning to let them go. That line up to the sky world coming from the heart, that means elevate your mind to Ka’nikonhrí:io. And when we face hard times that elevation will be what carries us through. Mostly my post are reminders to myself. I’m thankful to have so many teachings to draw strength from. I’d be lost without them. Anyone willing to share more teachings is welcome. I am still learning.

This is an example of how wampum belts have the ability to reach through time and connect with us on a very deep, personal level. It also shows how a wampum belt can have multiple interpretations that have little resemblance to each other, yet can still impart knowledge to us.

The variety of names and interpretations is understandable. Wampum belts were mnemonic devices that aided in the recall of speeches given at the council fire. When the belts left, sometimes the stories went with them. When they were repatriated a century later, the stories didn’t always come back.

The Remembrance belt was one of several that were purchased without the consent of the chiefs in the late 19th century. Several ended up in the possession of John Boyd Thacher, the Mayor of Albany, in 1893. Four years later, Onondaga chiefs went to court to have them returned. Their attorney presented an oral tradition concerning the belts when the case went to trial in 1898. This was said about the Remembrance belt:

a company from Canada presented this belt, desiring that missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church might be settled among the Five Nations, and erect a church among the Five Nations, and that the road should be continually kept open and free between them.

Reverend William Beauchamp was one of many scholars who tried to connect wampum belts with historical events. His Wampum and Shell Articles Used by the New York Indians, published as a New York State Museum bulletin in 1901, was a comprehensive, illustrated inventory of wampum artifacts. He also surveyed scholarly opinion on each item. Beauchamp documented at least three different interpretations of the Remembrance belt:

Fig. 237 is the belt which Clark thought was a French missionary belt, and which has long had that reputation. Mr. Shea and others have felt very sure that it is a belt given to the Onondagas by Chaumonot in 1655, but this has a very slender foundation. There is no hint that he presented any emblematic belt, and no probability that any French belt would have been kept through the succeeding wars. The Jesuits allude to none so held. The groundwork of purple wampum is almost conclusive against its antiquity. On the other hand a similar belt is on record over a century later. In 1775 the Moravian Indians sent a belt to the grand council of the Delawares, which was 3 feet long, having a white cross at one end and a band through the middle. (De Schweinitz, p. 426) As the Moravians and their Indians had frequent business in Onondaga, this belt is more likely to have been Moravian than French, if its character is allowed. The cross, however, was a frequent symbol of Canada, considered a country. The sole reason for the missionary theory is found in the cross terminating the white line which reaches the man’s head toward the other end. At the feet of this human figure is an open diamond, representing a castle. Donaldson described it as showing “the guarded approach of strangers to the councils of the Five Nations;” by no means a bad interpretation. Probably in this case the cross would be the strangers coming by the path of peace, which is guarded by the warrior or chief before the castle. In 1886 Webster described this as a belt of admission to the league. It is on buckskin thongs, and strung with fine white thread. The width is seven rows or 2.5 inches.

At another part of his manuscript, Beauchamp presents information gathered from Onondaga chief Thomas Webster about this belt:

Fig. 237 A record of this: The priest told the Onondagas that a building right by the mission house—and told them that there were goods stored there for the Onondagas, but he could not open them until the king came, and a white boy who had been captured had been told by the priest that it was full of arms—and when the king came they would annihilate the Onondagas. The boy told the chief, and they held a council and resolved to open the building. The priest tried to keep them from it, but they opened the door in spite of him, and found the building full of arms. They heated an axe red hot, and hung it upon the priest’s heart, and it burnt his heart out. The French did come, and the Onondagas met them at Camden, and defeated them in a great battle, and then the Onondagas all renounced Catholicism. It was between Pompey and Jamesville, about this side of Pompey Hill. Cross means Canada. The white line a road from Canada to the Onondagas and the village at the other end. These symbols are correct, but the only historic truth is that of the almost bloodless French invasion.

In 1931, Noah T. Clarke published “The Wampum Belt Collection of the New York State Museum” in another one of the museum’s bulletins. His entry for the Remembrance belt repeats what was presented by Beauchamp and adds only the following to the debate:

Arthur C. Parker believes the belt “records the treachery of a French missionary at Onondaga who sought to summon the French army from Canada” and memorizes the French invasion against the Five Nations. At the same time “it is an admonition against the French religion.”

In 1972, Ray Tehanetorens Fadden published essentially the same story that Thomas Webster told in his Wampum Belts of the Iroquois:

DEFEAT OF THE FRENCH RECORD BELT

This is an Onondaga belt and was made as a record. A French priest who was stationed at Onondaga told a French boy captive of the Onondagas that a French army was to invade the Iroquois Country, starting with the Onondagas. He, the priest, was secretly storing gun powder and other military supplies in a small house in back of the mission, supplies that he received from time to time from French traders who visited Onondaga. The boy who lived with the Onondagas and who was adopted by them, liked their ways, and considered himself an Onondaga, told the Chiefs. The Onondagas then demanded to see the inside of the little building behind the mission. The priest refused, saying that the log building was a holy place and that only he could enter. The Onondaga forced their way in and found the boy’s story was true. They killed the priest and renounced Catholicism. They met the French army and defeated it. The belt was made as a record of the event so that they would not be taken in again, fooled by words. The cross at the top of the belt represents French Canada. The long line to the figure of the man is the trail of the priest from Canada. The human figure is the priest and the diamond-shaped design at the bottom represents Onondaga.

How do we account for the discrepancies between the Onondaga story recorded in the 19th century and the version told by Chief Jake Thomas in the 20th? To answer that question, we must consider events of an earlier time.

It is said that after the American Revolution, when a great part of the Confederacy departed for Canada, the Confederacy’s wampum was divided between those that left and those that stayed behind. The Remembrance belt was part of the collection that remained in Onondaga. The other half went to the Six Nations Reserve in Canada. The Prophecy belt or Peacemaker belt interpretation, described at the beginning of this article, does not appear in the historical record. Its absence does not disprove the interpretation, but it does suggest that it may be more recent.

Chief Thomas was no stranger to the academic literature on the Haudenosaunee. He was likely aware of the wampum material written by William Beauchamp and others associated with the New York State Museum. He certainly knew of Tehanetoren’s book, as his materials have long been on the bookshelves of Longhouse people from one end of the Confederacy to the other.

There is no indication why he chose to ignore the Onondaga “missionary” interpretation in favor of the Peacemaker story. It may be that his was simply a new interpretation or “reading” based on the iconography alone. This is not to say that Thomas simply made it up. He had the intellectual freedom to question the missionary interpretation of the belt.

In 1989, Chief Jake Thomas compiled a written version of the Great Law of Peace that incorporated illustrations of well-known wampum artifacts within the text. The cover stated that it was a revision of material written by Seth Newhouse in 1897. The Prophecy belt was not among the wampum included in this manuscript. One might consider this evidence against the interpretation’s antiquity. (8)

No French Jesuit was ever killed at Onondaga, which led William Beauchamp to doubt the entire story told by Thomas Webster. The death of the missionary in his interpretation may have been allegorical. French Jesuits did attempt a mission to Onondaga in the mid-17th century. When one considers what happened there, it becomes easy to understand why the Onondagas might want to memorialize it in wampum.

Sainte Marie de Gannantaa was established on the eastern shore of Onondaga Lake in 1656. It lasted only two years. The abandonment of Sainte Marie was described in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. The hurried departure of the 53 French occupants became an “escape” from predicted treachery by the Onondagas. Father Paul Ragueneau’s first-person account is worth quoting at length here:

Your Reverence will be glad to learn the particulars of our departure from Sainte Marie among the Iroquois, in order to join your Thanksgivings to those which we owe to the divine Goodness for bringing us out, in a truly marvelous manner, from a place whither his love had not conducted us without miracles. We nearly perished on our way up; death awaited us upon our arrival; our departure was always considered impossible; and yet ecce vivimus, — we are alive, and have had the good fortune to place in possession of eternal life many of those who were preparing to drink our blood, and to cast our living bodies into their fires.

The resolution being formed to abandon those regions where God, by our means, had gathered the little number of his elect, the difficulties of its execution, for which we were lacking in all things appeared insurmountable.

To supply the want of canoes, we had secretly constructed two boats of a new and excellent model for shooting the rapids. These boats drew but very little water, and carried a heavy load, fourteen or fifteen men, and fifteen or sixteen hundred livres in weight. We had also four canoes of the Algonquin pattern, and four of the Iroquois, which were to complete our little fleet for fifty-three Frenchmen.

But the difficulty was to embark unperceived by the Iroquois, who constantly beset us. The conveyance of the boats, canoes, and all the equipment, could not be accomplished without much noise; and yet, without secrecy, there was nothing to hope for but a general massacre of our whole company, at the moment when it should be perceived that we had the least thought of taking our departure.

Therefore, we invited all the Savages in our neighborhood to a grand feast, where we exerted our utmost skill and spared neither the drums nor the musical instruments, in order to lull them to sleep by an innocent charm.

He who presided at the ceremony played his part with such skill and success that each one was bent on contributing to the public joy. They vied with one another in uttering piercing yells, now of war, now of glee; while, out of complaisance, the Savages sang and danced in the French manner, and the French in that of the Savages. To encourage them more and more in this fine game, presents were distributed to those who best played their parts, and who made the most noise for drowning the noise made outside by two-score of our men in transporting all our outfit. When the lading of the boats was entirely completed, the feast came to an end at the appointed time; the guests withdrew, and, sleep having soon overcome them, we left our house by a rear door and embarked with little noise, without saying Farewell to our Savages. They were playing a shrewd part, and thought to beguile us with fair appearances and attestations of good will until the time fixed upon for our slaughter.

Our little Lake, over which we paddled silently in the darkness of the night, froze as we advanced, and we feared that we should be stopped in the ice after escaping the fires of the Iroquois. From this disaster, however, God delivered us; and, after proceeding all night and the whole of the following day, past water-falls and frightful rapids, we at length reached Lake Ontario in the evening, twenty leagues from our starting point. (9)

The French lost three men later in their journey, but the rest eventually reached New France. The Relations tell us what happened when the Onondagas awoke from their slumber:

You will have noted above, in the second Chapter, how our Fathers and our Frenchmen withdrew from their settlement built on the shore of lake Gannantaa, near Onnontagué. This was done in the night, noiselessly, and so skillfully that the Iroquois, whose cabins were at the doors of our house, were utterly unconscious of the conveyance of canoes and boats, of the carrying and shipment of baggage, and of the embarkation of fifty-three persons. They were robbed of this consciousness by sleep, in which they were deeply sunk after their lusty singing and vigorous dancing. But at length, night giving place to day, darkness to light, and sleep to awakening, these Barbarians issued from their cabins, walked about our house, which was securely locked, and wondered at the Frenchmen’s utter silence. They saw no one come forth to go to work, they heard no voice. At first they thought that all were at prayers or in council; but, as the day advanced and the prayers did not reach an end, they knocked at the door, and the dogs, purposely left behind by our Frenchmen, gave answering yelps. The crowing of the cock which they had heard in the morning, together with the noise of these dogs, made them think that the masters of these animals were not far away, and they recovered their lost patience; but at length, the Sun beginning to decline and no one answering either the voices of the men or the cries of the animals, they climbed into the house to see in what state our people were amid this fearful silence. Here their wonder was changed to alarm and perturbation. They opened the door; the chiefs entered, and went all over the house, ascending to the loft and going down into the cellar; but not a Frenchman appeared, alive or dead. They looked at one another, were seized with fear, and believed that they had to do with demons. Not a boat had they seen, and even if they had, they did not imagine our Frenchmen so rash as to consign themselves to currents and breakers, to rocks and frightful dangers, amid which they themselves, though very dexterous in shooting these rapids and cascades, often lose their lives. They persuaded themselves that their visitors had either walked off on the waters, or flown away through the air, or, as seemed to them more likely, had hidden in the woods. They made search for them, but without success, and then decided, almost as a certainty, that they had made themselves invisible, and that they would come and pounce upon their Villages just as suddenly as they had disappeared. This retreat, miraculous in their estimation, showed them that our Frenchmen were aware of their treachery; and the sense of their guilt and of their murderous intentions threw them into the utmost terror. They were everywhere on their guard, and remained in arms day and night, every moment imagining that the vengeance of the justly-angered French would burst over their heads. (10)

Of course, there were no Frenchmen left at Sainte Marie to witness the Onondaga’s astonishment at finding the fort devoid of life. The Jesuits do not explain how they acquired this information.

The Roman Catholic Church never resumed missionary efforts at Onondaga, and it has no real presence there today. Pride in this fact may have helped to sustain the oral tradition the Onondagas associate with this belt. But missionary work continued to play a major role in Onondaga history. The French established a mission near Montreal less than a decade after the abandonment of Sainte Marie, and significant numbers of Onondagas, Oneidas and Mohawks went to live there. In the middle of the 18th century, great numbers of Onondagas were drawn to another mission at La Presentation, or Oswegatchie, where Ogdensburg stands today. This diminished the population of Onondaga considerably. Some of the “Oswegatchies” returned to Onondaga when the community broke up in 1806. The rest merged with Akwesasne.

Although it was only there for a short time, the memory of the 17th century mission lives on at Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois, a “living history” site in modern-day Liverpool, New York. The adjacent museum was recently renamed the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center and now emphasizes a Haudenosaunee perspective on history. It will be interesting to see how the museum addresses the Remembrance belt and its conflicting traditions.

Darren Bonaparte, a Mohawk historian from Akwesasne, is the author of Creation & Confederation: The Living History of the Iroquois and A Lily Among Thorns: The Mohawk Repatriation of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha. Both books are available from Amazon.com.

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