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The Unity Ride and Two Row Campaign 

Return of the Natives

Last Updated: 07/03/2013 9:47 am
Jake Edwards of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs holding the Canandaigua Treaty Belt and the Two Row Wampum Belt at event in January in Syracuse.
  • Jake Edwards of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs holding the Canandaigua Treaty Belt and the Two Row Wampum Belt at event in January in Syracuse.

It has been 400 years since the creation of the Two Row Wampum Treaty between the Haudenosaunee and their new Dutch neighbors. This was the natives' way of trying to include the new folks into the Great Law of Peace, the system of governance that had been working well for them since about 1100 CE.

Our Onondaga neighbors from Western New York are making their way down the mighty Hudson this summer by canoe stopping to confer with whomever may be interested and to share their perspective that that treaty is a living, breathing agreement. "We said at the time, 'If the papers are ever lost, come to us and we'll still have this belt and we can remind you of what's in there,'" says Chief Oren Lyons, faith keeper of the Turtle Clan and a SUNY Albany professor. (The original treaty belt still exists, though it's no longer in Onondaga hands.)

Portions of both the New York State and US Constitutions bear some resemblance to the Great Law of Peace, though perhaps not quite enough of a one. There was, for example, the little matter of the women choosing the leaders. But the Two Row is not about forcing one culture's ways upon the other—it's about harmonious coexistence between allies. "You guys would seem to be still here, and we're still here too," said Chief Jake Edwards in an appearance at New Paltz last November, discussing the Two Row Renewal plans. "So as far as we're concerned, the treaty hasn't gone anywhere either.

"There was a good bit of discussion with the Dutch about how to record this. They chose pen and ink and paper. We said, 'One drop of rain and that paper can be destroyed. We'll make a belt, that'll last.'"

And it has. Jake's nephew Hickory has made an old-school birch-bark canoe and is leading a paddle down the Hudson from Onondaga Lake outside Syracuse that will arrive on August 9 at the United Nations, an invitation from the Onondaga nation to all of us to remember that we are all still governed by the Two Row Treaty. There are times when a friend will tell you that things risk getting off track, and the fracking battle—to use one of several easy examples—is one of those times. Making decisions that take into account the well-being of the next seven generations is still the law of the land, and they're hoping we can all join in enforcing that.

The Unity Ride
Meanwhile, Dakota leaders from Manitoba, Canada, are coming thousands of miles by horseback on a Unity Ride for reconciliation and peace building, converging with the Two Row paddlers along the Hudson en route to Indigenous People's Day at the UN on August 9. When the Dakota asked the Onondaga for permission to ride through their territory, a conversation started, and it turned out that some Onondaga folks were headed in the same direction in a venture neither unrelated nor officially connected, just as both initiatives dovetail with the overall goals of the Idle No More indigenous peoples' movement birthed in December 2012.

"We used to do war," says Jake Edwards dryly, reflecting on the past millennium. "We were good at it, thought it entertained the Almighty. But nope, not so. We switched to lacrosse." The clan mothers, the elders, the storytellers, the activists­—all are coming to visit us and hold up their part of the bargain: That we should travel down the river of life side by side with mutual respect and noninterference with each other's ways, while protecting Mother Earth.

This profoundly conservative stance held great appeal to the early settlers; the travelers are hoping that we'll see the sense in taking our democracy back to its true roots. "We've had a couple of centuries of running this thing, and we've managed to pretty much create a complete mess," observes Rosendale Two Row Renewal Campaign ally Paul Bermanzohn, one of many Hudson Valley residents with and without native bloodlines who very much agree that the treaty stands and must be respected. Alongside Hickory Edwards and his folks in their canoes will be others whose forebears arrived later in the game, paddling down the Hudson in a second row of endorsement.

Major Two Row Wampum Renewal festivals including the Unity Riders will be held at Russell Sage College in Troy on July 27 and in Beacon on August 3; both feature stellar line-ups of speakers, musicians, and storytellers as well as food, crafts, kids' activities, and more. A stopover is also scheduled for the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston on August 1. For the latest on these and other local points of intersection (for example, the riders and paddlers plan to cross both over and under the Walkway on August 3), visit and

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