They started back in July, a group of paddlers in kayaks and canoes, carrying with them a replica of the Two Row Wampum Belt, which represents a 400-year-old treaty between the Haudenosaunee people, who have lived in this area since the beginning of time, and the more recently arrived white people. The Haudenosaunee still have the original wampum belt, I’m told, but I guess it’s safer to bring a replica when you’re traveling in a hand-carved wooden canoe on large, powerful river.
Wampum are beads made from white and purple shells. The two lines of purple on the Two Row Wampum Belt represent the native people and the non-native people, respectively, traveling on parallel paths down the river of life, with the expectation that they will respect each other’s cultures and traditions.
The Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign is an educational and activist attempt to remind everyone that this 400-year-old treaty is still in effect. Native people and non-native people are coming together in an effort to strengthen friendships, build community, and foster respect between cultures. The big event of the campaign is the final leg of the canoe/kayak trip, a two-week journey down the Hudson, with one row of native paddlers and one row of allies, traveling side-by-side.
On Sunday of this week, the small group of paddlers who had brought the wampum belt to Albany were joined by native people from all over the country, as well as non-native allies. More than 100 kayaks and canoes launched that morning to continue the journey. Every stop along the river features educational and cultural events, as well as food provided by a swarm of volunteers.
The Two Row flotilla won’t stop until we reach Manhattan. We’ll pull into Pier 96 on the west side, and then we’ll march the Two Row Wampum belt to the United Nations. I say “we” because my son With-a-Why and I join the flotilla tomorrow. We’ve already strapped the yellow kayak to the car, packed up our camping gear, and filled the dry bags.
For the next week, we’ll be part of the community of paddlers who hope to raise awareness as we travel down the river. The trip is about building respectful relationships, and that includes our relationship with the earth. The lake that the Onondagas consider sacred is often regarded as the most polluted lake in North America, used as a dumping ground by industries back in the 1940s. The river we’ll be traveling on is polluted as well: people keep warning me to keep my head out of the water, especially as we near the city. The threat of hydrofracking, which could pollute huge amounts of groundwater, still hangs over many areas of the state. Clearly, when it comes to cleaning up our relationship to the earth, there is work to be done.
We’ll be carrying this message as we travel down the river. I’ll be offline, but I’ll return with stories sometime in August. If you live near the river, come out to one of the events — or at the very least, wave to us as we travel, two rows of paddlers, through your community.
Chief Irving Powless holding the Two Row Wampum belt. The top photos shows Haudenosaunee leaders beginning the journey with their traditional words of thanksgiving. Both photos taken by the Syracuse Peace Council.