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Teaching treaties one brick at a time

Story and photo by Marci Becking The world’s first Lego wampum belt was unveiled at the Nipissing/Canadore Campus on the first day of spring.

Story and photo by Marci Becking

The world’s first Lego wampum belt was unveiled at the Nipissing/Canadore Campus  on the first day of spring.

The 850-piece replica of the Treaty of Niagara Covenant Chain Wampum Belt was made by 8-year old Alex Hebert, citizen of Dokis First Nation who lives in Sturgeon Falls.

Several participants in Maadhookiiwin – a symposium exploring the feasibility of establishing a treaty learning centre in the Nipissing region – pointed to the plastic brick wampum belt as an example of how information about treaties could be shared with students  as young as Alex.

“It took five hours to make scale the belt to fit the base plates,” said the Grade 2 student who attends White Woods Public School. 

“When I figured out how many of the purple and white bricks we needed, my mom ordered them from Lego.  It took me another four hours to build the belt.”

The Lego belt measures 30 inches in length and is a template for teaching kits that will be developed by the Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) communications unit. 

It was displayed on a table with three wampum belts that were given to 2500 First Nations leaders at the Treaty of Niagara Congress in the summer of 1764.

Maurice Switzer, UOI director of communications,  says that he’s shown the  Covenant Chain to thousands of people of all ages and has never met a single person who doesn’t understand the meaning of the wampum belt’s central image of two people holding hands –  “friendship, peace – sharing.”

Consensus among the 40 participants in the March 20-21 Maadhookiiwin (“Sharing”) symposium was that there is a need for a treaty learning centre. 

Ontario’s Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs funded the event, which was staged through a partnership of Nipissing First Nation, Nipissing University, Canadore College and the Union of Ontario Indians.

“We were  looking for inventive ideas about how to create greater awareness among Ontario residents about the Treaty Relationship that made Canada possible,” says Switzer, who emceed the symposium at the Nipissing-Canadore Learning Library.

An opening night panel discussion “Treaties: Past, Present and Future”, featured M’Chigeeng First Nation historian Alan Corbiere, Serpent River FN Chief Isadore Day Windawtegowinini – who serves as Lake Huron Treaty Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation – and Anishinabek Youth Representative Quinn Meawasige, also from Serpent River.

Alan Corbiere said that the shells from which wampum belts were made demonstrated the belief that treaties were agreements that went “from the depth of the waters to the skies.” 

Chief Day said public awareness of the origin and significance of treaties is just one step on the road to having them implemented as guideposts to the relationship between the Crown and First Nations. 

And Quinn Meawasige said school curricula are sadly lacking in information about treaties and what they mean for Canadians.

The following morning, the invited educators, students, elders, treaty researchers, and policy analysts went into break-out groups to generate ideas about ways to expand public awareness about  treaties.

Meanwhile, Alex Hebert was learning that the purple Quahog shell beads in wampum belts are scarcer than the white ones, just like plastic Lego bricks.

“The purple Lego bricks only come in 1×1 and 1×2 sizes so you have to use more of them,” says Alex.  “I’ll have to show Lego what I did and get them to make bigger purple bricks.”

Alex also learned that the Treaty of Niagara is 250 years old this July and how treaties are important still today.

“I now know about the Crown and broken promises,” says Alex.

Switzer told Maadhookiiwin participants that the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples encouraged First Nations to play a role in educating the Canadian public about their history, cultures, and contemporary issues.

“Public awareness is a big part of what the UOI communications unit does. Fun and educational projects like this Lego wampum belt will help us teach children at a younger age about the treaty relationship.”

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