North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Sovereign People: Ancestry in the Land

George Washington Covenant BeltThe Great Peace

Before the arrival of the Europeans, an unending series of wars and feuds among the Iroquois nations nearly destroyed their civilization.

A visionary Huron named Deganawida appeared in Iroquois territory with a message of peace—thirteen laws that promoted peace without violence. An Onondaga man named Hiawatha became a strong supporter of the "Peace Maker."

Hiawatha, a great orator, traveled to the other nations and submitted the plan for their consent. A Mohawk woman was the first person to approve the plan. Her actions symbolized the importance of women to the Iroquois political process. The Iroquois chiefs subsequently approved the plan.

Only the Onondaga chief Thadodaho stood in opposition. Hiawatha explained his vision and finally won Thadodaho's approval--with one concession. Thadodaho said he would join only if he would be considered "first among equals." To show respect for the reluctant chief, meetings of the Iroquois Confederacy were always held in the principal Onondaga village, and the Onondaga chief served as the Council Leader.

Wampum

Since they had no writing system, the Iroquois depended upon the spoken word to pass down their history, traditions, and rituals. As an aid to memory, the Iroquois used shells and shell beads. The Europeans called the beads wampum, from wampumpeag, a word used by Indians in the area who spoke Algonquin languages.

The type of wampum most commonly used in historic times was bead wampum, cut from various seashells, ground and polished, and then bored through the center with a small hand drill. The purple and white beads, made from the shell of the quahog clam, were arranged on belts in designs representing events of significance.

Certain elders were designated to memorize the various events and treaty articles represented on the belts. These men could "read" the belts and reproduce their contents with great accuracy. The belts were stored at Onondaga, the capital of the confederacy, in the care of a designated wampum keeper.


Image: George Washington Covenant Belt (Reproduction)
Jake Thomas, Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, Cayuga, 1995-1996
The original Washington wampum belt is most often identified with the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794, which pledged peace between the United States and the Six Nations of the Iroquois. However, it was probably a gift to the Iroquois Confederacy from the United States at a treaty signing in 1789.

This is a reproduction of the original belt, which is constructed of white and deep purple shell beads made from the quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria). The original belt stays in the custody of the Onondaga Nation, the keepers of the League central fire.
Plastic (electrical wire insulation), nylon artificial sinew, Rit brand commercial dye; 36329-1

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