Parallels that bring peoples together

The Rochester area is justly proud of the role it played in the abolitionist movement, through heroes like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Amy and Isaac Post, and lesser-known figures like William Clough Bloss. Of course, we remain deeply divided by race and plagued by racism. Still, the question of justice for African-Americans is high on the local agenda. And Latinos/Latinas are similarly having their voices heard and their issues addressed.

But another aspect of racism and historical injustice gets less attention here, even though you might say it’s more firmly rooted in our soil than even slavery used to be. I’m talking about the long oppression and continuing dispossession of Native Americans.

It’s often taken for granted that what’s now the city of Rochester was, as they say, off the beaten path for Native peoples in pre-Contact and Colonial times. True, this wasn’t the epicenter of Native populations, mostly because more productive and inviting lands were to the south. Nonetheless, there’s an “Indian Trail” that runs through Mount Hope Cemetery, marking an ancient upland footpath that circumvented the Genesee River wetlands. And the University of Rochester has placed a historical marker near the Interfaith Chapel that acknowledges, however patronizingly, that an Algonkin village once was located there in a so-called “primitive wilderness.” But most attention to Native culture in the region focuses on centuries-old Seneca Nation population centers in the upper Genesee Valley and the Finger Lakes, with special emphasis on Ganondagan, the state historic site in Ontario County.

Lately, however, the city and at least one inner-ring suburb have come to terms with local Native history. Unfortunately, this results from a proposal to build a Seneca Nation casino here under the rubric of “development.” Some business interests and politicians have lusted after a casino downtown; the Senecas themselves and an entrepreneur have floated the idea of building one in Henrietta, near the Thruway. Any such plan involves all kinds of treaty issues, of course – never mind planning and zoning. But progressives are, or should be, united in opposition to a casino, which in economic terms just shifts money from one pocket to another, benefiting a few but addicting many patrons – and draining economic activity from other local businesses. [More after the jump]

 

Still, even if we’re talking about casinos, we can’t sidestep questions of Native American sovereignty and territorial rights.

There is not nearly enough space here to deal with the attractions and distractions of casinos, the reasons that Native nations (not without internal dissension) have pursued casino development, and how sovereignty fits into all this. But luckily, a new regional initiative that addresses such issues and a lot more has been making waves – literally and figuratively – and has the potential to advance the cause of Native rights through creative action.

Meet the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign.

Based in Onondaga Nation Territory and the Syracuse metro area, the TRWRC is a self-described “partnership between the Onondaga Nation and Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON)… to achieve justice by polishing the chain of friendship established in the first treaty between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch immigrants. Environmental clean-up and preservation are the core components of our campaign.”

The Two Row Wampum commemorates a treaty that, by Native tradition, was negotiated in 1613 between Dutch navigators in the time of Henry Hudson and Mohawk Nation representatives near present-day Albany. The existence of this particular treaty is not confirmed by contemporaneous Dutch or other written sources and therefore has sparked some controversy, but Haudenosaunee tradition is probably no less accurate, in the fullest sense, than the fragmentary and often contradictory European records of that era. In any case, when Dutch-financed expeditions made their way up the tidal portion of The River That Flows Both Ways (a.k.a. the Hudson), they must have made formal arrangements with the Native peoples who controlled the region.

The wampum belt itself is a mnemonic-symbolic record of what must have occurred in or around 1613. The wampum features two parallel purple stripes lengthwise, one representing Native peoples, the other, the newly-arrived Europeans. The design emphasizes equality and shared purpose; the rows are the same width and length, and though as parallels they must keep a respectful distance from each other, they “float” on a background of white beads that symbolize peace.

It should be noted that other nations were involved back then, in complex and sometimes painful ways. The Mohawks, for example, were in direct competition with the Mahicans, who occupied the strategic locations along the Hudson that the Dutch first visited. And downstream were the Lenni Lenape and others, through whose territory the Dutch would have had to negotiate safe passage.

The too-often-romanticized fur trade would, especially in the second half of the 17th century, cause friction between various Native peoples, the Dutch, the French, and then the British. Horrible bloodshed would occur, especially during the so-called Beaver Wars from the 1640s onward. And diseases like smallpox and the plague would drive some Native populations to the brink of extinction. Some nations could be “absorbed” by stronger neighbors. It’s doubtful that anyone’s hands were clean – Native peoples are no more immune to a lust for power and dominance than other human beings; indeed, to claim a special status for them in this respect is to deny them their humanity.

But the Two Row Wampum Campaign is not about “historical re-enactment” or reviving old conflicts or alliances. Indeed, the Onondaga Nation, representing the Mohawk Nation and other members of the Confederacy, has made a point of including and celebrating nations like the Mahicans and Lenni Lenapes who may have been their enemies or opponents or mere competitors long ago. And this is an important point, since the Two Row Wampum is all about a shared future – bringing Native peoples and Euro-Americans and everyone else together to save our planet.

And so the Two Row has targeted a pair of environmental issues of grave concern: on the global level, addressing climate change, in cooperation with indigenous and all other peoples worldwide; and on the local level, stopping the poisoning of underground and surface water supplies, whether the pollution comes from “conventional” industrial activity or agriculture or from newer technologies like hydrofracking for gas or oil. (The Onondagas have asserted sovereignty over Onondaga Lake so they can clean up this horribly polluted but no-less-sacred lake, once and for all.)

I’ve deliberately held off talking about my experience this summer – the experience of a lifetime, without much exaggeration – canoeing down the River That Flows Both Ways with the Two Row Campaign. Not that I don’t want to wax effusive about this. I could write thousands of words about this amazing flotilla of 200 paddlers in 350 canoes and kayaks, joined by an enormous support staff, a parallel “peace walk” onshore, and myriad supporters at every stop along the 140-mile route from the boat launch in Rensellaer to Pier 96 in Manhattan. And I’ll be writing poems as well as journalistic pieces about this experience for years to come.

But right now, I’d like readers to concentrate on the political, social, and economic implications of such an initiative – and for MJ members, this means special attention to the racial justice implications. There’s no question we could do more to show support for Native rights. As for the Two Row specifically, we have to concentrate not only on the Campaign, but on the wampum itself. Just what is it telling us and asking of us from down the centuries? The answer to that should be as clear as “unfracked” well water.

 

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  • commented 2013-10-11 11:42:53 -0400
    As we approach the Columbus Day holiday and as the stores fill with Halloween costumes and Thanksgiving decorations featuring “Indian” garb and the Onondaga people fight to have the name of the Washington Redskins football team changed, I am struck by how much the white European descendants still engage their privilege by refusing to treat the Native people with respect as equals and instead keep them in a position of “other.” And then they justify these positions as history and tradition. How ignorant and unjust.

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