Losing the Peace: The Beaded Blockchain of Kahionni
A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain. —William James
This is the second in a series.
Last week we looked at the way that cultural heritage was preserved through the distributed ledger of wampum, or kahionni, based upon both proof of work and proof of trust. Through the Two Row Gä•sweñta’ Belt, early colonial-era cross-cultural negotiations in New England could be governed by mutual respect, reciprocity, and renewal. From the standpoint of the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nation Iroquois, the relationship was one of sovereign interdependence. The various parties—Indian, French, Dutch, English—would agree to share the same space while each retaining separate nationhood.
The Indians learned to their misfortune that the French were not as keen on the compromise as the Dutch were. In 1687, Louis XIV decided to put an end to the well-organized Iroquois League and dispatched the Marquis de Denonville with orders to use whatever force necessary to drive the then Five Nations from the Hudson region. David Graeber and David Wengrow tell what happened in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021):
Feigning interest in a peace settlement, Denonville invited the League council, as a body, to negotiate terms in a place called Fort Frontenac (after the former governor). Some 200 delegates arrived, including all the permanent officers of the confederation and many from the women’s councils as well. Summarily arresting them, Denonville shipped them off to France to serve as galley slaves. Then, taking advantage of the resulting confusion, he ordered his men to invade the Five Nations’ territory. [Quebac Governor] Lahontan, who strongly disapproved of the proceedings, got himself into trouble for trying to intervene and stop some underlings from casually torturing the prisoners—he was ordered away, but in the end spared further sanction after protesting that he had been drunk. Some years later, in a different context, an order was put out for his arrest on grounds of insubordination, and he had to flee to Amsterdam.
Fortunately for the survival of the Indians, the head of the Haudenosaunee women’s council, the Jigonsaseh, had chosen not to attend Denonville’s meeting. Graeber and Wengrow tell us that she and the remaining clan mothers quickly raised an impressive army from the four corners of the Nations, including women warriors. The Jigonsaseh was a far superior military tactician to Denonville. After routing the French in New York, her forces were at the point of entering Montreal when the French sued for peace, agreeing to dismantle Fort Niagara and return the surviving galley slaves that had formerly constituted the Great Council and its officers. Of the original 200 mostly elderly high-level officials, only a dozen or so made it back from France alive.
“America is one of the finest countries anyone ever stole.” —Bobcat Goldthwaite
After driving the French out of their lands, the Jigonsaseh demobilized her army and convened the matriarchal process of selecting new officials to reconstitute a government. It should come as no surprise that thereafter the Haudenosaunee were somewhat chilly to the French and warmed to an alliance with England.
In 1677 the English and the Haudenosaunee officially pledged a strategic bond of friendship, known as the Covenant Chain alliance. This grew out of an earlier wampum treaty between Dutch traders and the Mohawks, depicted as two stick figures at either end of the belt united by a rope that ran down the middle of the belt.
The rope evolved into a sturdier iron chain in 1664 when the covenant was extended to include the English who had conquered New Netherlands. This eventually became a more durable silver chain of friendship in 1677 and was further formalized by a treaty made with Lt. Governor William Denny of Pennsylvania on behalf of the Crown in 1757. The belt, part of the Haudenosaunee ledger system, was called the “Friendship Belt.” The metaphors of the rope, the iron chain, and the silver chain illustrated steadfast and everlasting friendship and mutual respect. Custody was given to a trusted interpreter who will hold the belt for life, read It back to the Council on appropriate occasions, and pass it to a trustworthy successor.
Please bear with this lengthy narrative. I am laying the ground for why the Friendship Belt, and many of the other wampum belts, were so important. Later we will see how blind the European economic system was to that perspective.
Fractured by War
British loyalty in peace and war proved a disaster to the Haudenosaunee when the alliance suffered the defeat of the American Revolution. They had not entered into that conflict entirely blindly, or with unanimity. In order for the Great Council to officially declare war it was necessary for each state in their union to separately declare. Kathryn Murray writes:
Council after council was held but all could not agree as to what policy to follow. The Mohawks were for war. The Onondagas were neutral. The Senecas and Cayugas were lukewarm to either side. The Oneidas and Tuscarora sympathized with the struggling colonies. Even within a nation, all could not agree. Finally, Theyendinagea, a Mohawk war leader, said, "Let each nation be responsible for its own members. Let each nation decide for itself what path it will take in this war!” He held up this wampum belt which has on it the figures of two roads. They represent the road of the English and the road of the American colonies. The nations of the Iroquois could choose either road to follow.
Following the war, those who had sided with the colonies or remained neutral stayed in their ancestral home in New York. Those who were British loyalists departed and were led by Chief Joseph Brant north to Grand River, Ontario, where they founded a new Six Nations government seat. Given the scale of this exodus, much of present-day New York State was abandoned to white settlements. Today more than 45,000 enrolled Six Nations people live in Canada and about 80,000 in the United States.
What Became of the Ledger?
In the late 19th century, as the old chiefs who held the sacred belts died, more of the collection came to reside in the possession of Onondaga Chief Thomas Webster, until he died in 1897.
Syracuse Journal July 5, 1897:
Chief Thomas Webster, the keeper of the wampum of the Iroquois confederacy, is dead…. The office of wampum keeper is one of the most ancient in the Confederacy. The Websters are mentioned among the most noted chiefs of the Onondagas of recent years. They are the descendants of the marriage of Ephraim Webster, Onondaga's first settler, with an Indian.
The chief kept this wampum under his bed in his hut on the reservation. Now it is said that some of the most valuable pieces of it are missing…. The Mayor of Albany is said to have come into possession of a very valuable piece called the Hiawatha belt. The question is how did these belts disappear?
SAID Uncle Sam: I will be wise, And thus the Indian civilize. Instead of guns that kill a mile, Tobacco, lead and liquor vile. Instead of serving out a meal, Or sending Agents out to steal, I'll give, domestic arts to teach, A cake of IVORY SOAP' to each. Before it flies the guilty stain, The grease and dirt no more remain; "Twill change their nature day by day, And wash their darkest blots away 'They'll turn their bows to fishing rods, And bury hatchets under sods, In wisdom and in worth increase, And ever smoke the pipe of peace;. For ignorance can never cope With such a foe as *IVORY SOAP!*
Syracuse Post Standard July 12, 1897:
Harriet Maxwell Converse in writing about the death of Thomas Webster, said in the Buffalo Express that there may be serious trouble in holding the national condolence because of the disappearance of the wampum.
The federation agreement among the Six Nations is the most highly prized of the collection. It represents the Long House, or Council House of the Confederacy, which was always located in the Onondaga Valley flanked by small figures. To the right and left of these small figures are six larger ones with clasped hands.
Belts Made From Shell Beads
One of the other belts of wampum, it is said, sealed the treaty by which the Tuscarora (Shirt-Wearers) were admitted to the Iroquois confederation. The Tuscaroras were originally from the South Atlantic coast; were driven north by the persecution of their more warlike neighbors and were admitted into the Iroquois confederacy. Still another of the pieces of wampum is known as the Hiawatha belt. All are made from shell beads, the original wampum of the North American Indian.
[Mrs. Converse | writes: I "It is fitting that something more than a mere mention should follow Thomas Webster. He was nearly 90 years of age, and had held the wampum for sixty years. No council or condolence could be held without him. His duty to 'read the wampum’ was imperative, his office absolute and important. The sachem name cannot die, therefore, as a matter of law and necessity, a successor will be 'raised' within a year.
There will be some delay and possibly serious trouble in holding this national condolence, for the reason that most of the precious wampum has disappeared. It may be that by. the death of this distinguished man some light may be thrown upon the mystery of the loss of these laws of the wampum.’
On November 13, 1897, the Onondaga Nation sued Albany Mayor John Thatcher to recover the Webster wampum. Thatcher maintained he had legally purchased the belts and intended to maintain his ownership. A book printed on The Farm in Tennessee by Andre Lopez of Akwesasne Notes in 1977, Pagans in Our Midst, goes on to describe the travel of the lawsuit against Thatcher through the years and ends with this:
The Syracuse Post Standard, Oct. 27, 1889:
IN THE LONG LITIGATION AND NOVEL SUIT BROUGHT BY LOCAL INDIANS AND THE STATE UNIVERSITY TO RECOVER POSSESSION OF RELICS.
Will Remain With Ex-Mayor Thatcher
Decision Rendered Today
Justice Frank H. Hiscock this morning handed down his decision in the Supreme court action brought by the Onondaga nation of Indians to recover of ex-Mayor John Boyd Thacher of Albany possession of four wampum belts. The complaint is dismissed with costs, allowing Thacher to retain possession of the belts until such time as he may place them in some public place for preservation.
I am not willing to hold that on February 10, 1891, this old league, composed first of the Five and then of the Six Nations, had any active or actual existence or that Thomas Webster was at that date wampum keeper for those nations and that he held these wampums as such and that in violation of his duties sold them, or that there is any such identity and community of interest between these individual plaintiffs and members of the Six Nations in having these wampums preserved and restored to some custodian as permits the maintenance of this action. The evidence seems altogether too shadowy to sustain these propositions.
I am rather led to the conclusion that at and long before the time mentioned the league to which these wampums are said to have belonged had been dissolved; that we had come to associate even the name with a period long gone by; that the nations which composed it had become separated and to a large extent scattered and dispersed as wards of the government, and that these wampums are curiosities and relics of a time and condition and confederation which has ceased to exist and that Webster had possession of them as one who had gathered them as such relics. The evidence indicates to my mind that the Onondaga nation had ceased to treat or regard them as the property of the Onondaga nation, much less as that of the Iroquois League.
While the ruling by Justice Hiscock made a number of errors in facts and law, it was binding on the Onondaga. Among the errors were Hiscock’s declarations that the League had never had any historical existence; that it wasn’t a violation of a wampum keeper’s fiduciary trust to sell his wampum; that the League was long since dissolved and scattered; and that these belts were mere relics. There was no further appeal allowed. It seemed certain that the ledger had been broken.
This essay is one of several parts. Next week we will examine how the sacred wampum returned home and was restored to its former position.
Barreiro, Jose. "Indian Roots of American Democracy.” Cultural Encounter I. Special Constitution Bicentennial Edition Northeast Indian Quarterly 4 (1988).
_____, Indian Roots of American Democracy, NY Albany Museum: 1990
Berman, Howard R., “Perspectives on American Indian Sovereignty and International Law, 1600 to 1776,” in Oren R. Lyons and John C. Mohawk (eds.), Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution, Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light Publishers, 1992, p. 135
Graeber, D. and D. Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Penguin: 2021
Lopez, A., Pagans in Our Midst, Akwesasne Notes: 1977
Muller, Kathryn V., The Two “Mystery” Belts of Grand River, American Indian Quarterly 31:1 Winter 2007
Otto, Paul, and Jaap Jacobs. "Early Iroquoian–European Contacts: The Kaswentha Tradition, the Two Row Wampum Belt, and the Tawagonshi Document." Special issue, Journal of Early American History 3 (2013): 1. DOI 10.1163/18770703-00301005
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