Skip to content

Wampum belt like beaded poppy

It's important that we put to good use that two minutes of silence we observe at 11 o'clock each Remembrance Day. It's not a lot of time for us to sacrifice, considering what thousands of men and women wearing uniforms gave up.
It's important that we put to good use that two minutes of silence we observe at 11 o'clock each Remembrance Day. It's not a lot of time for us to sacrifice, considering what thousands of men and women wearing uniforms gave up.

As the last post sounded on the sunny morning that greeted this year's Nipissing First Nation ceremony, I thought about how I had only managed to lose two plastic poppies this year, and how I would lay the third on the memorial's steps where organizations and governments were going to deposit their plastic poppy wreaths.

I also thought about how I would love some day to see the fields of the real blowing poppies that inspired Col. John McRae's "In Flanders Fields", not so awful far away from the muddy foxhole in France where Private Robert Franklin of the Alnwick Indian Band-- now Alderville First Nation -- wrote a letter in November, 1917 to a friend.

As recounted in Peter Edwards' 2001 book "One Dead Indian: The Premier, the Police, and the Ipperwash Crisis", Private Franklin wrote about his optimism over reports from home that Canada was considering extending voting rights to Indians, in light of the amazing fact that over 3,000 of them had volunteered to serve in the military in World War I.

"You quite understand how humiliating it is to be held as a ward of the Government," wrote Franklin, adding that he and companion Jake Jacobs from Six Nations "...discuss the franchise question while Fritz is dropping his bombs on us."

As president of the Grand Indian Council of Ontario -- forerunner to the Union of Ontario Indians -- F.W. Jacobs would later press for the right to vote outside reserves.

"We Indians, like all humanity, are endowed with the same instincts, same capabilities, and it only remains for the Government to give us a chance to develop these qualities," he would say.

Robert Franklin Jr. was my great uncle, and I hold dear a battered two-franc note he sent my grandmother Nellie Marsden from the French front. My grandmother also gave me a five-franc note sent her from North Africa in 1943 by my Uncle Larry, one of three brothers who joined the Canadian Army in World War II. All their names are carved in the granite of Alderville's impressive 50-foot-tall cenotaph which was erected in 1927 in the centre of the reserve, alongside Highway 45 just east of Cobourg, Ont.

My grandfather, Moses Marsden's name is also inscribed on the monument, even though he was too old to serve when Canada entered the war in 1914. Determined to play a role, he helped form a military band which wore uniforms and played John Philip Sousa marches to support the war effort in surrounding communities. In all, 38 of Alderville's 63 adult males volunteered for military service, even though they were exempt by treaty right.

Historians tell us that this level of military service was unrivalled by any other identifiable group of people living in Canada during the 20th Century's two world wars. In actual fact, First Nation warriors fought for Canada long before there even was a Canada.

When they accepted two wampum belts from Sir William Johnson in July, 1764 near Niagara Falls, the Chiefs and headmen of 24 Indian Nations of the Western Great Lakes region made a solemn commitment to support British interests in North America. That promise was a crucial factor in 1812 when American invaders were beaten back by British soldiers bolstered by such fearless warriors as Tecumseh -- whose Shawnee Nation had been among the 24 represented at Niagara.

Their allegiance to the British during the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 resulted in the subsequent destruction of many First Nation villages and the forced relocation of their occupants north to Canada. Among the refugees were direct descendants of Tecumseh, the Shahwanos, who settled across the new border in Chippewa territory, in a place they called Aazhoodena, which is now called Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation.

A couple of weeks before Remembrance Day, Elder Norman Shawnoo's family gathered in a small building beside the Kettle and Stoney Point fastball field to hear about plans for the creation of a new replica of the British/Western Great Lakes Confederacy Covenant Chain Wampum Belt, one of the two presented to the 24 Nations at Niagara in 1764. This replica will be fashioned in the traditional way from Quahog shell beads by a woman of the Shawnee Nation who lives in Ohio.

Like a current replica made of porcelain beads in 1980, the new one will be about five feet long and feature the numerals 17 and 64, separated by links of a chain and a central image of two figures whose hands are joined in friendship. The purple and white beads -- precisely 10,076 of them -- will be woven on a special hand-made loom.

Ceremonies will endow the new replica with the same spirit and meaning as the original belt, which has been lost to history. It will play a major role in the 2012 Bicentennial Celebrations of the War of 1812, representing the contributions of First Nation warriors to preserving Canadian sovereignty. It will also be a centrepiece of plans to re-enact the 250th anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara in 2014.

And it should be a sacred item brought out for public attention each Remembrance Day, because it speaks to the sacrifice of First Nations warriors that have benefited all Canadians. Its meaning is more unique and historic to us than plastic red poppies.

This is the kind of First Nation-specific connection that Bernadine Boissoneau has tried to create in the crocheted poppy pins she has been producing for the past six years.

"I grow my own sweetgrass," the Garden River woman tells me, describing how she circles her poppies with a braid of sweetgrass and attaches a clasp on the back to avoid them slipping out of coat lapels like the flimsier plastic ones so frequently seem to do. "It's a way of recognizing that you're Native.

"Unless you're brown, people don't usually know."

---------

Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Misssissaugas of Alderville First Nation. He is director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.

------------



Comments


About the Author: Maurice Switzer

Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation
Read more