Select Page

Check out this essay I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen about the breakthroughs that occurred once I busted myself out of the colonial thinking boxes in my mind.

Read the essay on the Ottawa Citizen

A personal act of atonement toward Indigenous peoples

As a settler with unconsciously colonial thinking, I am striving to repair my attitudes. The two-row wampum belt has been an important part of that journey.

I recently worked with some Indigenous people for whom the two-row wampum belt is the basis of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. It was so real to them that, as I got to know them better, it stopped being an historical artifact and became real to me too.It’s teaching me how to transform a colonial relationship into the kind of mutually respectful treaty relationship that reconciliation requires.From what I’ve learned, wampum belts were used to commemorate agreements among Indigenous peoples in North America long before they were used to solidify relationships with European newcomers. Their shell beads were stitched onto leather bands in particular patterns laden with symbolic meaning.

The two-row wampum belt shows up in the European records as early as 1613, associated with a treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, and understood by the Haudenosaunee to serve as a model for all future treaties. It features two rows of purple shells on a bed of white ones, with three shells connecting them. The two rows represent the two distinct peoples, one in a birchbark canoe and the other in a ship, going down a river side-by-side but each in their own vessel filled with their own institutions and traditions. The three connecting beads represented peace, respect and friendship.

There is some dispute among scholars about whether the two-row wampum was one of the belts gifted to representatives of the Crown at the 1764 Treaty of Niagara, where many Indigenous nations, including the Nishnaabeg of the Western Confederacy, met with colonial officials to seal the 1763 Royal Proclamation into a mutual agreement. But the Nishnaabe of the Stoney Point Reserve on Lake Huron, whom I got to know and work with, were raised on stories from their forebears of it having been there.

I had travelled to the area because a subsequent treaty, in 1827, had legitimized my Scottish great-great-grandparents settling in traditional Nishnaabe land in present-day southwestern Ontario. Having learned that treaty responsibilities are passed down from one generation to the next, I wanted to learn what my responsibility to the treaty relationship might be. I aimed for the Stoney Point Reserve because the same 1827 treaty had reserved this land as exclusively Nishnaabeg territory in perpetuity. In 1942, the federal government appropriated the reserve to create the Ipperwash Army Training Camp but didn’t return it after the war, and Nishnaabe actions to reclaim it in the 1990s had led to the police shooting death of Dudley George.

I … became aware of what the treaty side of my heritage had to teach me, including the two-row wampum belt.

Subsequently accepting an invitation from Dudley’s aunt, his sister and cousin to help turn the broken-treaty story behind that death into a book was, for me, an act of atonement and reparation. As working relationships deepened into friendships, it also became an opportunity for me to repair myself — as a settler with unconsciously colonial and even white-superiority thinking still in me.

As I was challenged to confront and move beyond the boxes of this thinking, I also became aware of what the treaty side of my heritage had to teach me, including the two-row wampum belt.

After a day recording stories or reviewing drafts of the book with the Nishnaabe co-authors, I’d find myself turning over the belt’s imagery in my mind. It seemed to me that I was stitching back at least the connecting beads of respect and friendship.

But the peace bead remained a gap. As Martin Luther King Jr. maintained, peace is not just the absence of war but the presence of justice. Justice here, in the two-row belt’s depiction of two vessels going down the river of life together, surely means sharing space over time. Then, it meant mostly geographic space. Now, it means more institutional as well as physical space.

This is the challenge of reconciliation for settlers like me. It’s not just to open the box of colonial thinking in which so many of us were raised. It’s to also open our imaginations to transform institutional spaces like museums where Indigenous curators, perhaps in partnership with non-Indigenous ones, can retrieve artifacts like the two-row wampum belt from their glass boxes and reframe them as part of a mutually respectful retelling of Canada’s stories.

Award-winning author Heather Menzies’ forthcoming book is Meeting My Treaty Kin: A Journey Toward Reconciliation. (OnPoint/UBC Press). Menzies is a two-time winner of the Ottawa Book Award, an adjunct professor at Carleton University and a member of the Order of Canada.

Tell me about breakthroughs you’ve experienced.