Sharing with you things that are on my mind...Maybe yours too. Come back to Wrights Lane for a visit anytime!

27 September, 2011

THE STORY OF FIRST NATIONS TREATY BELTS

Aboriginals had treaties with each other long before European fur traders or settlers arrived in what is now called Canada. Aboriginal nations would use oral treaties to settle land disputes and end other conflicts, including war. Trade and marriage arrangements were commonly made between tribes as well.  When the Europeans arrived, they brought with them their own methods, especially the written treaty. Particularly after the conquest, when the British gradually began to establish a strong hold on the continent, Aboriginals were not always happy with the outcomes of these written treaties - for governments of the time sometimes did not include oral promises made to the Aboriginals in the written treaty. This forms the basis of many land claims today, as Aboriginal leaders demand to be given what they were promised.

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Living in Southampton, we are often exposed to bits and pieces of Canadian history that have been conveniently glossed over and are completely new to us. Sadly, the average Canadian has a very narrow understanding of "treaties" and the long historical and cultural significance between the British and First Nations peoples.

The Saugeen Ojibway Nation, a literal stone's throw north of us on Lake Huron, hosted a special Wampum Belt Assembly this past weekend for the purpose of presenting "Treaty Belts" to Saugeen. I thought that readers of Wrights Lane might appreciate learning, as I did, about the significance of these colourful belts that are truly a work of art.

The four belts that were presented consisted of the Covenant Treaty Belt, the Anishnaabe Friendship Belt, the Peace Belt and the 'Dish with One Spoon' Inter-treaty Harvesting Agreement Belt, each with historical cultural meaning.
Alan Corbiere explains history of "The Treaty Belt". 
--Saugeen Times Photo
Alan Corbiere, head of the Ojibway Cultural Foundation at West Bay or M'chigeeng on Manitoulin Island, is known for his writings on the importance of language and, through his traditional storytelling, has been educating both aboriginal and non-native peoples about the culture and history of the First Nations. "The treaties were agreements," he says. "They were not surrenders but were an alliance agreement between equals."

He went on to explain that the Royal Proclamation said, " .... the Indian Tribes of North America shall be recognized as Nations who have citizens who shall be unmolested in their own lands and all dealings will be nation to nation, government to government and their lands shall not be tempered with or treated lightly."

"There is nothing more important to know about First Nations than the belts ... they say who we are and that we were part of the founding of this country and they endorse our rights for the future and that our children and grandchildren have the same rights as everyone else."

Randall Kahgee, chief of the Saugeen First Nations #29 Reserve, added that the treaties involved more than just transfer of lands. "They are entrenched in the Canadian Constitution and are living, breathing documents that must be respected.  The fact that the treaties protect relationships to the land and waters, language and culture, is an understanding that is not told.  It is a constant struggle to remind the Crown what our treaties are all about."

The belts will now be on display at Saugeen First Nation and the history will continue to be told through them.

By means of further explanation, most of the settled lands of Canada, in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, were transferred from First Nations to the Crown (the Government) through treaties. Today both sides agree that the so-called Indian Treaties are agreements between the Crown (the Government) and First Nations, in which the First Nations exchanged some of their interests in specific areas of their ancestral lands in return for various kinds of payments and promises from Crown officials. However, each side has a different interpretation of what was intended by the agreements.

The Canadians (British) and the First Nations were at the same meetings, listened to the same speeches (translated) and signed the same pieces of paper. Yet they had (and still have) two totally different concepts of what the treaties were about, and what each side was promising. The differences in understanding are rooted in two totally different world views, and two totally different concepts of land ownership, and two colliding purposes.

The concept of private ownership of land by an individual, who could build a fence and keep others out forever, was totally foreign to First Nations people.

First Nations had an oral tradition. They passed down important information by the spoken word during important ceremonies and at celebrations. What was said was what was important to them, not what was written on paper. Though they did not have a written tradition, in the European sense, they recorded important events by sewing beaded wampum belts. Wampum belts signifying treaties became sacred objects that were brought out at certain times.  Elders would then recite the terms and
understandings of the agreement commemorated by that ceremonial wampum belt.

Granted, we are not walking encyclopedias.  It is virtually impossible to be familiar with, and to have a full appreciation of, all cultures of the world.  That is a discipline unto itself.  But it is nice to get to know our next-door First Nation neighbours just a little better.  After all, they were here first.  Maybe we can even learn something from them! 

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