The Disputed Myth, Metaphor and Reality of Two Row Wampum

Darren Bonaparte

As a Mohawk historian who uses wampum belts to tell our story, I have always loved the Two Row Wampum Belt and its metaphor of the native canoe and European ship sailing side by side down the river of life. Nothing pleases me more to see this acted out in modern times on the Hudson River this summer, with parallel rows of canoes, kayaks and watercraft—including an impressive, newly-carved dugout canoe serving as flagship. The principles of peace and friendship are exactly what the original wampum belt weavers had in mind when the Two Row was first made, and those principles are well-represented by the paddlers today.

Last year’s public debate on the historical background of this event, on the other hand, came up short in the peace and friendship category. I bit my tongue and steered clear of this one, even though it concerned a particular area of history that has become a focus for me, and even involved several acquaintances I’ve made along the way. Recently the Journal of Early American History entered the fray with a special free issue devoted to this historical debate. While wisely avoiding the claim of being the “final word” on the subject, the editors of the journal have presented significant contributions on this early period of Dutch/Haudenosaunee contact.

The Journal hammers the final nail in the coffin of what has come to be known as the “Van Loon” document that started the whole controversy in the first place. It might be more accurate to say that a fresh set of nails has been applied to the recently exhumed coffin nailed shut by scholars long ago. This comes in the form of a linguistic autopsy by Dutch experts that points out that many expressions in the document simply did not exist at the time it was allegedly written. Previous scholarship showed that the Mohawk names in the document would not have been written the way they were, either. One of these was actually a village name in use today.

Of the document, nothing more needs to be said, but if the document owners are still not convinced it was a forgery, they can always try the guys on Pawn Stars and see what they think.

The Journal’s editors suggest that although the Van Loon document is no doubt a fake, the Haudenosaunee oral tradition is well substantiated by the historical record. A careful reading of the articles suggests that this is not exactly the case.

Paul Otto, for instance, casts doubt upon the availability of purple wampum beads 400 years ago and suggests it did not become commonly available until the 1630’s, well after the proclaimed date of 1613.

This is only troubling if you’re fixated on the year 1613, the date Van Loon wrote chose for his forgery, and the basis for the 400th anniversary commemoration.

Cornell history professor Jon Parmenter, meanwhile, draws attention to another scholar, Kathryn Muller, who he says could not verify the classic boat and canoe metaphor earlier than the 1860’s. Parmenter insists that it really is as old as the Haudenosaunee say it is, and that it is substantiated by the historical record. None of the documents he cites, however, mention anything about a boat and a canoe sailing side by side down the river of life. They do mention a ship being tied to a tree by a rope, which then becomes an iron chain tied to a rock, and eventually a silver chain wrapped around a mountain. This is the evolving imagery of The Silver Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship, an alliance the Haudenosaunee made with the Dutch and extended to the English when New Netherland became New York in the 17th century.

“On two such occasions the sources refer to a ‘Chain Belt,’” Parmenter writes, “but no documented example provides a specific correlation with a Two Row-patterned belt.” He downplays this by noting that wampum belts were taken apart and woven into new belts all the time, and descriptions about wampum belts in the historical record were “notoriously vague.”

Parmenter notes that the Mohawk word for a wampum belt is Kahionni, interpreted in one early source as a “river made by the hand of man.” It would thus not be totally out of character for our ancestors to employ a nautical reference in a belt. He criticizes Muller for not searching hard enough for the boat and canoe, but he finds no specific mention of them in the colonial records either. The closest he comes is an incident in the 17th century when a Haudenosaunee envoy to New France stood up in canoe on the St. Lawrence River with wampum belts draped over his arms, which Parmenter interprets as a literal “re-enactment” of the Two Row. While not particularly convincing as evidence, it does make for a striking image.

There actually is mention of a Two Row belt in the historical record, but it is easy for one or two of these old sources to slip by even the most studious of researchers. The interpretation says nothing about a canoe, or a ship for that matter. In 1748, Conrad Weiser held a council with the Wyandots and left the following account of their speech in his journal:

“That above fifty Years ago they made a Treaty of Friendship with the Governor of New York at Albany, & shewed me a large Belt of Wampum they received there from the said Governor as from the King of Great Britain; the Belt was 25 Grains wide & 265 long, very Curiously wrought, there were seven Images of Men holding one another by the Hand, the 1st signifying the Governor of New York (or rather, as they said, the King of Great Britain), the 2d the Mohawks, the 3d the Oneidos, the 4th the Cajugas, the 5th the Onondagers, the 6th the Senekas, the 7th the Owandaets [Wyandots], the two Rows of black Wampum under their feet thro’ the whole length of the Belt to signify the Road from Albany thro’ the 5 Nations to the Owendaets; That 6 Years ago, they had sent Deputies with the same Belt to Albany to renew the Friendship.”

Many people call the Two Row belt Kaswentha, which has been translated by one Mohawk elder as “it brightens the mind.” In times past it was called Tekeni Teiohate, or “two paths,” which is in line with the Wyandot belt described above. In the colonial era, roads were two simple paths cutting through the wilderness, as opposed to the single native footpath prior to European contact. These parallel paths were made by the wheels of wagons carrying trade goods back and forth, and would thus represent the “path of peace” as well as commerce. As a Haudenosaunee chief once famously said, “We take trade and peace to be the same thing.”

At the beginning of many councils, one of the many formalities that took place was the symbolic clearing of the road between nations of any weeds, brambles, and thorns that may have grown over it since the last time the nations met. Historical accounts do not mention if a wampum belt accompanied this part of the speech, but it was common to hear this expressed. The “clearing of the road” was the on-going theme of colonial/native relations, so it makes sense that our ancestors would have preserved belts of this nature.

In descriptions of the Covenant Chain given by leaders such as Onondaga Chief Canasatego in 1744, the natives are represented by land-based symbols. First it is a tree, a rock, and then a mountain, which suggests stability and permanence, whereas the European ship is tethered to the shore by trade, and therefore is transitory in nature. The Wyandot road metaphor is also land-based. By the time of this belt’s creation, Great Britain’s colonies were well-entrenched and using land-based metaphors such as forts and settlements in the wampum belts they made and gave to natives.

It should be noted here that there are at least four different belts with two parallel rows known to exist today. The length, width and spacing of rows varies from belt to belt, as do the interpretations collected about them in the 19th century. The ship and canoe is just one interpretation. Another is said to represent the choice between the Americans and the British in the American Revolution. Another represents non-interference of natives and settlers without specifically mentioning a ship or canoe. The last one is thought to be a copy of one of the other three due to a similar bead array. (The Wyandot belt described by Weiser has not yet been found.)

Considering the fact that so many of these belts left our hands in the 1800’s, and have only recently started coming back, we should expect questions to arise about their true meanings. Wampum belts were memonic devices that helped our leaders to recall speeches given at the council fire. When the belts were sold off or stolen, their stories sometimes went with them, or disappeared completely. That we are able to connect any belts with their proper historic context is remarkable.

I welcome further discussion about the Two Row Wampum. Hopefully this can take place without the level of emotion that characterized the Van Loon debate. To consider alternate interpretations of wampum is not an attack on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy or the integrity of their oral traditions. If done in the spirit of peace and friendship, the quest for knowledge can’t help but “brighten the mind” of all who pursue it.

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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