Sleeping under the Rip Van Winkle Bridge on an August night, the dew sparkles in the lights from the tractor-trailers passing overhead, crossing the Hudson River toward the Catskill Mountains. Tents rise from the wet lawn like hundreds of brightly colored mushrooms. I can hear, above the music of the crickets, the low voices of a few last singers by the fire. The heavy summer air is touched with the sighs of deep sleepers, well-earned oblivion for sunburned shoulders and aching backs bent to the paddle. By day we travel in two distinct lines on the water, but at night our tents and our snores intermingle.
Named for the fictional Dutchman who fell asleep in these mountains in a famous nap that lasted for decades, this bridge marks the halfway point in a journey that commenced many days earlier upstream – or, depending on how you count it, four centuries ago. The trip began at a bubbling spring on the Onondaga Nation, where lead paddler Hickory Edwards filled a jug with pure water that travels with us in a sealed box now lashed to the front of his kayak. After filling the jug, Hickory and a small group of paddlers slid their boats into Onondaga Creek, in the heart of the great Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy, and turned southward. The sacred water shares that box with another treasure, the Guswenta, or Two Row Wampum, and leads our flotilla down the Hudson.
All of this took place in the summer of 2013, which marked the 400th anniversary of the first treaty between the original peoples of this continent and the European settlers. The treaty set forth the foundation for relations between sovereign Indigenous nations and the newcomers, and, as far as the Haudenosaunee are concerned, those principles endure to this day. “The Two Row is the oldest and is the grandfather of all subsequent treaties,” says Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, who has represented the Haudenosaunee at the United Nations and elsewhere. Onondaga Chief Irving Powless recounts that when the Dutch began to settle in Haudenosaunee territory, the Native People negotiated an agreement for peace and friendship. The Dutch proposed that the two peoples be as “father and son.” The Haudenosaunee countered that “we shall be as brothers.” The Haudenosaunee prevailed. The treaty recognized that while the two nations had very different languages, religions, governments, and lifeways, they could still live side-by-side, sharing life in the generous Haudenosaunee landscape.
Chief Powless says that when the Dutch wrote the agreement on paper, the Haudenosaunee said: “We think that in the future, there will come a time when you will not have your piece of paper. Because we are meeting for the health and welfare of our people, we should make sure that this agreement lasts a long time.” So the Haudenosaunee recorded the treaty in their traditional way, in a wampum belt of purple and white beads crafted from quahog shells. The white background represents the lands of the Haudenosaunee and the metaphoric River of Life, which supports all beings, ancient and newcomer alike. With the Guswenta draped heavily over his forearm, Chief Powless points out the two broad purple bands running down the center of the belt, the “Two Rows.” The two rows of purple represent the separate paths of the treaty partners: the Dutch in their sailing ship and the Haudenosaunee in their canoe, both traveling the River of Life as equals. He explains that the two rows are parallel, a reminder of the agreement for mutual respect. While both nations share the river, the ship must not try to steer the canoe and the canoe does not interfere with the ship. The two purple bands are separated by three rows of white beads, which Chief Powless explains represent “peace, friendship, and forever.” The end of the belt is not finished, to signify that the agreement continues in perpetuity.
The framers of the agreement were prescient. Indeed, the paper treaty has been lost to time, and with it the commitments it carried. Onondaga Chief Jake Edwards says the “Haudenosaunee people have upheld the agreement for 400 years. We have not tried to change the language, government, or religion of the newcomers.” But for nearly 400 years the reverse has not been true.
From our campsite under the bridge, I can look across the Hudson to the bluffs where my Potawatomi grandfather came to live as a young man, after being released as a new graduate from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Stripped of his language and religion in the government re-education schools designed to “Kill the Indian to Save the Man,” he tried to go back to our tribal lands in Oklahoma, but there was little to return to in the Dustbowl days. Those weren’t our homelands anyway; they were a last resort after forced removal from our ancestral territories in the Great Lakes. This is the story shared by millions of Native People, a direct violation of the first agreement between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee, a covenant that was meant to last forever.
The Onondaga Nation, perhaps the oldest continuing democracy on the planet, protected much of its lands and lifeways from the European settlers’ encroachment through skillful negotiations, beginning with the Guswenta and continuing through subsequent treaties based on the same principles of sovereignty and mutual respect. Nevertheless, their lands – though guaranteed by treaty “as long as the grass is green” – were reduced through illegal taking to a tiny fraction of the ancestral territory. Not only have their lands been taken, but their ancestral territories have been severely degraded by industrial contamination, mining, and “development” in contravention of traditional Haudenosaunee responsibilities to care for Mother Earth.
In 2005, the Onondaga Nation filed a federal lawsuit to address these wrongs, calling for recognition of their aboriginal title to territories guaranteed under a treaty signed by President George Washington. This historic lawsuit sought to reclaim title – not in order to displace centuries of settlers who have become neighbors – but for restoration of the environmental damage inflicted on the Onondaga homeland and for cleanup of the sacred Onondaga Lake, which had become the one of the most chemically polluted lakes in the country. The Onondaga seek legal title to their former lands so that they may have a voice in how they are cared for. The preamble to the Onondaga Land Rights Action reads: “The Onondaga People wish to bring about a healing between themselves and all others who live in this region that has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time. The Nation and its people have a unique spiritual, cultural, and historic relationship with the land, which is embodied in Gayanashagowa, the Great Law of Peace. This relationship goes far beyond federal and state legal concepts of ownership, possession, or legal rights. The people are one with the land, and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations. The Onondaga Nation brings this action on behalf of its people in the hope that it may hasten the process of reconciliation and bring lasting justice, peace, and respect among all who inhabit the area.”
The Onondaga Nation did not go to court alone. They were accompanied by busloads of community members who packed the courtroom in support of the land rights action and environmental restoration for the territory. The grassroots organization of allies, known as Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, or NOON, has partnered with the Indigenous community in developing cross-cultural understanding, mutual respect, support for native land rights, and the environmental protection vision of the Onondaga Nation.
After many delays, federal courts dismissed the lawsuit, citing a number of factors ranging from the Doctrine of Discovery to the notion that upholding Indigenous land rights would be disruptive to established communities. Denied justice from the United States, the Onondaga have taken their claim for human rights violations to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Rather than being “disruptive of community,” their struggle has been generative – creating a community of broad support, including the community sleeping that night together beneath the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.
When the Two Row Wampum was created, it was understood that from time to time the two peoples would have need of one another as brothers. This anticipation of mutual aid was represented by the symbol of a chain linking the ship and the canoe across the river. It was said that this chain should not be of iron, which could rust away, but of silver, so that it would last forever. Acknowledging that silver tarnishes, the people spoke of “brightening the chain” – or polishing the relationship between nations so as to remind us of our mutual responsibility to one another and to the River of Life.
The Two Row Wampum Renewal campaign, an outgrowth of the relations between Onondaga Nation and the ally group NOON, commemorates this grandfather of treaties. The epic canoe trip reaffirms the promises between communities, and calls upon government leaders to do the same. And so we paddle, all the way from Onondaga Nation to the United Nations, brightening the chain as we go. This journey is a pilgrimage to restore right relations between peoples and between people and the land.
On an August morning, the chain links between the two rows are forged from laughter, from simple acts like the passing back and forth of bags of trail mix and bottles of sunscreen. Tents packed, sleeping bags rolled, more than a hundred canoes and kayaks push off from shore and assemble in two long rows on the river, bow to stern. Native paddlers on the west, allies on the east. Hickory is at the head of the line, and when he shouts “Paddles Up!” hundreds of paddles rise like upright flags before dipping into the Hudson. We are off – a flotilla to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum, an epic journey to reclaim, and spread, its message.
The canoe line of Indigenous paddlers includes representatives from more than 20 Native nations, from as far away as Alaska and as close as the surrounding hills. The line of allies is similarly diverse, made up of teachers and clergy, scientists, custodians, gray haired elders, children paddling in the middle, singers. The flotilla grows in numbers and strength every day, until more than 200 vessels paddle side by side. Some paddle for just the single day they can get off from work; others go the entire distance. People greet us along the shore, shouting encouragement from bridges and docks and city parks. One day hundreds assemble across a bridge as we pass below. Another day, Pete Seeger meets us at a riverside festival in Beacon to sing a Seneca canoe song in his beautiful, threadbare voice. We are accompanied downriver by a police escort, by a replica Dutch sailing ship, by great blue herons that come and go. Nearly every day we spot an eagle, which we understand as a blessing for the journey.
This is a journey of resistance and restoration. Resisting continued degradation of native homelands, through industrial contamination and the threats of gas fracking. Resisting the business-as-usual that perpetuates injustice and threatens all beings who rely on the River of Life. Restoring the knowledge of ancient waterways among the people, restoring cultural pride in standing up for the treaties, restoring right relationship among nations, and restoring right relationship with the earth.
The Hudson is a mighty big river and tidal at its lower reaches, which gives it its Onondaga name, “River that Flows Both Ways.” Some days the paddling is easy. Others we fight the winds and the tides all day. When energy flags or the headwinds demand a lot of aching backs, the chant begins, a call and response between the rows. From the west comes the call “Two Row!” answered by the east, “Wampum!” in a drumbeat chant that matches our paddle strokes. Back and forth the voices ring: Two Row! Wampum! Two Row! Wampum! One windy afternoon we pass a young mother standing on a wooded shore, holding her son by the hand. As we call out “Honor the Treaties! Protect the Earth,” she puts her hand over heart and calls back to us, “We will.”
Since governments haven’t honored the agreements, the people must lead.
But government leaders have not honored that agreement, neither to the treaties nor to the earth. And if our leaders don’t lead, then we have to. If the courts will not honor national commitments to treaties, then we have to create a social movement that propels them toward justice. And so each evening, as our boats land for the night, we are met by community members, ready to help pull tired paddlers on shore and feed us dinner. One night a Ramadan feast with a Muslim community, another a picnic with an African-American church group, reminding us that we are all hungry for justice and share a common future. Through the extraordinary planning of the campaign crew, each evening is an educational event for the community through which we are paddling. There are speakers and dialogues, posters and dances, all designed to raise awareness of Indigenous rights and struggles, of the threats of climate change and fossil fuel extraction. If they are inspired to action, participants are invited to sign the Declaration of Intent, which states in part: Since the beginning of the relations between our peoples, the Two Row Wampum Treaty has been the alternative to removal, assimilation, patronizing (trust/protector) relations and the policies of attempted genocide. We hereby promise to renew the Two Row, to polish the silver chain of friendship between our peoples beginning today and for many generations to come. By the end of the trip, the Declaration of Intent has amassed thousands of signatures.
Finally, the journey culminates at the United Nations, where our celebration merges with observance of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Hundreds of supporters meet the paddlers coming into Manhattan. The Consul General of the Netherlands is there to greet us, and to reaffirm the principles of the agreement made 400 years ago.
But that is not the end, because Hickory is not done paddling. He continues, out to where the river meets the ocean. And there he takes the jug to mingle pure Onondaga spring water with the sea. “Our ancestors made this great agreement on our behalf 400 years ago,” he says. “Now is the time for us to think about the people living in the next 400 years.”
It’s fitting that during the course of the journey we spent a night sleeping beneath the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. In Washington Irving’s famous short story, Van Winkle’s deep sleep of oblivion is induced by elixirs given to him by the ghosts of Henrik Hudson’s Dutch sailors. When he wakes 20 years later, the world has changed. A revolution has taken place; the portrait of King George in his favorite tavern has been replaced by one of President Washington – a change, I have to add, that had profound consequences for Indigenous Peoples. We who are sleeping beneath the bridge hope to wake to a changed world – not by sleeping through the revolution, but by paddling toward it. We have to join together and paddle against the wind, paddle against the tide, singing our hearts out, seeking what Onondaga Clan Mother Audrey Shenandoah called, “justice not only for ourselves, but justice for all of creation.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi) is the author, most recently, of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.-->
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