Niagara Treaty mural by Phil Cote, Massey College, University of Toronto. Image courtesy Phil Cote.
In 1763 King George III of England issued the Royal Proclamation which recognized the sovereignty of First Nations, and claimed to establish England as the only nation that could negotiate treaties with First Nations. England had just defeated France in the Seven Years War and had taken over the French forts in the colonies, but First Nation leaders like Pontiac, Guyasuta and Minaweweh did not welcome the British on their lands nor did they recognize their claims.
In order to take over the land holdings in the French colonies and to get recognition of the Royal Proclamation’s terms by First Nation leaders, England had to follow the protocols of Indigenous governance. Under his wife Molly Brant‘s direction, British representative William Johnson got wampum belts made and sent runners to 2000 First Nation leaders between Mississippi, Nova Scotia and Hudson Bay, inviting them to meet at the Crooked Place (Niagara Falls) in the summer of 1764. Representatives of twenty-four nations, including Wyandot, Menomee, Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and other First Nations belonging to the Western Lakes Confederacy, travelled for weeks to attend this meeting that would ratify the Royal Proclamation and define the relationship between the governing parties. Under this treaty, which was an alliance treaty — not a treaty for land (Isaac Murdoch, personal communication, January 12, 2019) — settlers were forbidden to access First Nation territories without First Nations’ consent obtained through treaties. By using wampum diplomacy, settlers and Indigenous parties entered into a sacred relationship defined by this term and by the following agreements, for as long as the grass grows, the rivers flow, and the sun shines.
BRITISH AND WESTERN GREAT LAKES CONFEDERACY COVENANT CHAIN WAMPUM BELT: Unbreakable Nation to Nation Friendship
William Johnson presented the British and Western Great Lakes Confederacy Covenant Chain Wampum Belt to the First Nation leaders. With this Wampum Belt they agreed to be equal partners and allies in a friendship that was as strong as a silver chain, but like silver, the relationship would tarnish over time and would require polishing. Every few years, with successive governments, new generations of leaders were to come together to review and uphold the terms of this agreement.
TWENTY FOUR NATIONS WAMPUM BELT: Mutual Aid
Johnson also presented the 24 Nations Wampum Belt which features a row of 24 First Nation figures connected to the land, Turtle Island, on one end and a British ship on the other. With this belt, the British made a promise to provide an inexhaustible shipload of necessities for First Nations should they ever require assistance (Ogimaa Assikinawk, keeper of the Niagara wampum belts, in Mills, 2017).
Kaswentha (Two-Row Wampum): Non-Interference
Haudenosaunee leaders gave Britain the Two Row Wampum Belt to establish a relationship between settlers and First Nations that was characterized by non-interference. Robert Williams Jr. describes the law of the Two Row Wampum in Borrows (1997): “There are two rows of purple, and those two rows have the spirit of your ancestors and mine. There are three beads of wampum separating the two rows and they symbolize peace, friendship and respect. These two rows will symbolize two paths or two vessels, traveling down the same river together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian people, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be for the white people and their laws, their customs, and their ways. We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our own boat. Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.” When honouring the Two Row Wampum, one’s actions cannot interfere with their treaty partners’ ability to speak their languages and to practice their laws, their ways of knowing and their cultural and spiritual traditions.
The Niagara Treaty was a treaty made between the Crown — not Canada — and the 24 First Nations listed above. When Canada was later established through an Act of British parliament (Venne, 2017, p.14), it did not enter a treaty with First Nations. This implicates Canadians as participants in a settler colonial state.
Within its first decade of existence, Canada enacted genocidal laws against First Nations while it expanded across the continent via encroachment and dubious treaties. Isaac Murdoch states that these treaties did not honour the oral agreements that were made and they were filled with lies and shenanigans, executed with First Nations who were under extreme duress from population loss due to diseases brought by Europeans. Murdoch questions the legitimacy of these treaties since they were founded on lies and coercion, and calls for real people to get together today and come up with new ideations for how to live here, in a way that honours the integrity of the Natural Laws from the land (January 12, 2019).
 In his presentation for the Indian Residential School Survivors Legacy Celebration at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto (October 10, 2018), Alan Corbiere explained how Minaweweh’s name has been mistranslated into English historical documents as Minavavana. Corbiere provided clarification that there are no v’s in the Ojibwe language, and that Minaweweh means “Good-sounding”.
 Molly Brant and William Johnson were married within Mohawk tradition, but not through the colonial system which would have removed Brant’s matriarchal rights (Terry-Lynn Brant, Mohawk Seedkeeper, personal communication, July 16, 2018).
 The shining of the sun has been widely interpreted as an indication of eternity, however, this reference, according to Isaac Murdoch’s elders, was used to indicate the British empire. (Isaac Murdoch, personal communication, January 12, 2019)
Corbiere, A. (2014). Watch: Alan Corbiere on the Niagara Treaty. University of Toronto, Centre for Indigenous Studies.
Borrows, J. (1997). Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History, and Self-Government. In Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality, and Respect for Difference.Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. 155-172.
Borrows, J. & Coyle, M. (2017). The Right Relationship Reimagining the Implementation of Historical Treaties. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 62.
Chiefs of Ontario (2014). 250th Anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara.
Hunter, A.F. (1901). Wampum Records of the Ottawas, Figure 25, Belt No. 1 & Figure 26, Belt No. 2. In Annual Archaeological Report, 1901, Provincial Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario, Ontario Archaelogical Museum, Toronto, 52-55.
Mills, A./Waabishki Ma’iingan (2017). “What Is a Treaty? On Contract and Mutual Aid.” In The Right Relationship Reimagining the Implementation of Historical Treaties, edited by J. Borrows and M. Coyle, 208-247, (239). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Switzer, M. (2011). We are all Treaty People. Union of Ontario Indians.
Venne, S. (2017). “Crown Title: A Legal Lie.” In Whose Land Is it Anyway? A Manual for Decolonization, edited by P. McFarlane & N. Schabus, 14-17.
Replica of Two Row Wampum made by Ken Maracle. Image courtesy Aboriginal Education Centre, TDSB.