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Wampum belt speaks language all nations can understand

A wonderful history teacher has begun sharing old stories with me, shedding light on the past in a way no textbook ever could.
A wonderful history teacher has begun sharing old stories with me, shedding light on the past in a way no textbook ever could.

My new teacher is small – only about four feet high – but mighty, with a message that can be understood by people of all ages, cultures, and languages.

I’m referring to “Gchi-miigisaabiigan” – “the Great Wampum Belt”, as M’Chigeeng historian Alan Corbiere calls the collection of blue and white beads that represents one of the most famous agreements ever sealed between Europeans and North American Indians.

The belt we keep at the Union of Ontario Indians office is a replica of the one given in 1764 by Sir William Johnson – British superintendent of Indian affairs for the North American colonies – to the leaders of 24 nations of Algonquin, Huron, and Iroquois peoples. Properly referred to as the British and Western Lakes Confederacy Covenant Chain, the belt’s design features two figures with hands clasped in friendship, the date 1764, and five white-beaded “links.” This was a reference to the Iroquois tradition of using lengths of silver chain to symbolize treaties of peace and friendship with the British in the early 1600s. The message was clear: friendships – like silver – need to be periodically polished if they are to retain their original shine.

Johnson offered the covenant chain wampum – and another one with 24 figures beaded onto it – in gratitude to the Indians for their allegiance during the Seven Years’ War which brought an end to France’s hopes for North American dominance. It was also intended to ensure their loyalty in the future, as well as reinforce the previous year’s Royal Proclamation that recognized Indians as nations whose traditional territories were to be respected by settlers.

All this information is available in history texts or encyclopedia volumes. But Gchi-miigisaabiigan has a voice of her own.

For one thing, she has convinced her students that it is not appropriate to treat her as a mere “copy”. Certainly, the 10,000-bead belt given by Sir William Johnson may have been lost in a fire on Manitoulin Island, or buried with one of the Chiefs to whom it was entrusted for safekeeping. But to dismiss the one commissioned 20 years ago by the Union of Ontario Indians as any less meaningful than the 1764 version diminishes her value as what academics call a “mnemonic” device – a tool to assist memory recall.

After all, I posed to a group of Trent University students a few weeks ago, Christians don’t refuse to attend church because the Bible their minister reads from isn’t the original one printed by Gutenberg 600 years ago, Do the words in copies rolling off the printing presses today hold less significance than those in the very first edition?

Do lawyers and politicians everywhere not revere the principles of the Magna Carta because they don’t have the original version on their desks?
Gchi-miigisaabiigan speaks as loudly to us as ever. In fact, when I share her stories with various groups, I feel like a ventriloquist’s dummy, opening my mouth to speak the promises she has carried for 242 years.

So we have begun giving her the respect she deserves. She resides in a handsome red cedar case provided by Wasauksing craftsman Ken Tabobondung, decorated with his trademark dabs of paint “beads “in traditional Anishinaabe floral designs. And Mary Anne Geroux designed a carrying bag on which she sewed eagles and wolves, dragonflies and butterflies, and red and gold autumn leaves.

And when the wampum belt joins a teaching circle, she is smudged, like all the other participants.

People watch and listen to her with fascination. She has been hugged by hundreds of children at the annual Canadian Aboriginal Festival at Toronto’s SkyDome. Everyone wants their picture taken with her. Last week she posed with a group of Rotary Club exchange participants from Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa.

“An Elder told me once that the reason white people write so many things down is that they have such bad memories,” I recalled. This prompted a little smile from Orchidea Massarongo, a proud black woman who works as a lawyer and university lecturer in Maputo. She had told me over lunch that there are very few speakers of dozens of tribal dialects in Mozambique.

“After Portugal colonized us, it was against the law for anyone to speak anything but Portuguese,” she said.

Gchi-miigisaabiigan has survived worse… and lives to tell the tale.


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


About the Author: Maurice Switzer

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