The Two Row Wampum and Me

(Reading Time: 5 minutes)

“Clean up on aisle five!” I often heard this working alongside the Indigenous Education department. It was a humorous way to show that it might be necessary to help people understand how to approach Indigenous knowledge and topics. If it wasn’t done in a good way, with peace, friendship and respect and without appropriation, then harm would result.

Jolene John, Indigenous Education Lead, made and gave me the beautiful quahog shell bracelet I’m wearing in the image above. The quahog shell was used to make wampum belts and bind words in important promises. Wampum belts remind us of these promises and how humans are to treat each other and care for our Mother Earth.

The bracelet is a recognition and celebration of our work together. It reminds me daily of my commitment to work as a treaty partner in the spirit of the Two Row Wampum. I share my learning with you with the hope that it will move your head and your heart.

Kristina Zito, Indigenous system social worker, Elizabeth Doxtater, artist, painter, writer and poet, and Jolene introduced me to and taught me about the Two Row Wampum, one of the first promises and agreements made between Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, specifically the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and Europeans. You can learn more about it in Restorative Journey (p.18) and in this detailed video from Six Nations Polytechnic Deyohahá:ge Indigenous Knowledge Centre: Treaty Relations and Two Row Companion. Both of these are well worth your time.

The treaty agreement is a long belt in white and purple quahog shell beads.

A Two Row Wampum created collectively by treaty partner participants in a learning session, alongside a canoe.

The white represents a river and the two purple lines represent two vessels: a canoe and a ship. They are travelling together, equal and respecting each others’ language, culture, beliefs, governance, and territory. The wampum symbolizes how we treat each other with eternal peace, friendship and respect.

The Two Row is such an evocative symbol. I find it easy to imagine these two vessels travelling along and respecting each other. The thing with symbols, though, is while they can be lovely to look at, point to and talk about, if we don’t bring them to life in our actions, they remain stagnant and essentially meaningless.

When I first approached the work of reconciliation, l wanted to take action, I wanted to fix things, and I wanted to show that I was sorry for the cultural and actual genocide of Indigenous people in Canada. My intentions were good, but my actions were like an elephant in a garden as I blundered around, looking at this or that and trying to sort things out.

I remember some of the first interactions I had with members of the department. I proposed my colonial solutions, and then there would be a pause. A long pause. They would gently and firmly explain (sometimes for a second or third time) the truths I needed to understand about the long history of forced assimilation, loss of family, culture, territory, language, governance and beliefs. How education had been a trojan horse for genocide. How people fraudulently claim to be Indigenous and how harmful that is. How the very fabric of our institutions is problematic and racist because of our shared history. All of that doesn’t just go away or get fixed by a tidy solution.

Still, we all persisted. It was so important to all of us that we could do this side by side, for ourselves and also those coming after us. We worked through misunderstandings and mistranslations. Then there came a time when I made a big mistake that threatened the careful trust we had built. Even after all our time together, I didn’t consider what was needed for our work and imposed my thinking on a major decision. When I realized the impact of what I had done, it was with the knowledge that rebuilding would take time. Trust broken is much harder to repair than building it in the first place. It was only through our shared willingness and courage to confront hurt and harm that we could get beyond it.

We found and read the text Towards Braiding by Elwood Jimmy and Vanessa Andreotti. My mind and heart truly opened to what we were trying to do together. Towards Braiding helped me to understand the profound difference between colonial (or brick) and Indigenous (or thread) ways of being, knowing and doing. This understanding can only come when both the heart and head are engaged – it’s not an intellectual exercise. The only way forward towards reconciliation was step by step, carefully, honestly and slowly.

I sense in my being what the Two Row Wampum means for me. I need to listen with a kind ear, reflect, accept, understand, and listen more. I need to keep my mouth closed and set aside my supposed solutions, next steps and plans. I need to work alongside, without taking up space, and then use whatever influence I have to create understanding and change with other treaty partners. These are my first steps and I’m still so young in this work. I will continue.

Indigenous people and communities across Turtle Island know exactly what to do and how to do it as they heal from centuries of discrimination and harmful government laws and policies. They know how to care for themselves and all their relations and they’re doing it right now.

As treaty partners, we need to respect that and offer the hand of friendship and peace with no strings, asking, how can we help?

Then maybe we won’t need that mop on aisle five.


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