Revisiting Promises of Friendship, Respect & Peace on the 250th Anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara

By Taylor MacLean

Corbiere 2014 8 WEB

Several months ago, Anishinabek Nation tweeted a photo of 8-year-old Alex Herbert from Dokis First Nation completing a LEGO replica of the Treaty of Niagara Covenant Wampum Belt. The 850-piece LEGO wampum belt was designed as a way to teach children about the treaty relationship between First Nations and the British Crown.

Teaching elementary school children about treaties may seem like a daunting task; perhaps because treaties are often described as antiquated documents written in dense legal jargon. But political protocols differ by nation and culture and treaties were not solely recorded in written form. While the British used the written word, First Nations documented political alliances through symbolic representations.

Because modern-day interpretations of treaties often ignore the wampum belts used to symbolize the agreements, principles meant to govern the relationship between the Crown and First Nations peoples have been forgotten. The precision and clarity of visual symbols easily ground legal principles into directions for action, and as we approach August 1st 2014 – the 250th Anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara – it’s a good time to revisit these symbols.

The Treaty of Niagara was entered into during a gathering of British colonial officials and over 2000 First Nations chiefs from 24 First Nations. During this gathering the Royal Proclamation of 1763 became a formalized treaty, after being presented to First Nations chiefs. As an addition to the terms outlined in writing, further promises and commitments were made through oral statements and the exchange of wampum belts.

William Johnson, the superintendant of Indian Affairs, presented First Nations with the great Belt of the Covenant Chain, a wampum belt asserting their alliance through the symbol of a chain connecting First Nations’ and British houses. The First Nations presented the Two-Row Wampum belt. Made up of two-rows of purple beads on a bed of white beads, the belt symbolizes an agreement of mutual non-interference. The purple rows represent the separate paths of First Nations and British peoples. Each agreed to stay on their own path and not control or interfere with one another.

John Borrows, Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria, explains that the Royal Proclamation is often interpreted as an assertion of British sovereignty that overrides First Nations’ sovereignty. For example, the Royal Proclamation describes First Peoples as Nations, but adds that they are living under British protection. For Borrows, however, the promise of non-interference as symbolized by the Two Row Wampum, reinforced a, “…multination alliance in which no member gave up their sovereignty” (Borrows 161).

A damaging misconception is that treaty documents failed to account for differing cultural conceptions about land use and ownership and that Indigenous people signed their way into submission without realizing it. This view significantly underestimates the political expertise of First Nations people, and their active involvement in negotiating the terms and conditions of British settlement. The Treaty of Niagara clarified legal jurisdiction made vague in the Royal Proclamation and corrected the implicit suggestion that First Nations were British subjects.

Because the British concealed their intent to gain increased access to Indigenous territory behind promises of protection, Borrows tells us that records from the Treaty of Niagara are essential for understanding the true consensus arrived at by both parties. When interpreting the Royal Proclamation alongside the Treaty of Niagara, we see that the alliance between Britain and First Nations peoples was based on the principles of respect, friendship and peace.

On Friday, August 1st, 2014, the Aboriginal Studies Program will revisit these principles through the symbols that mark them. Alan Corbiere will commemorate the 250th Anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara by providing his knowledge and insights about this momentous alliance.

Source: Borrows, John. “Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History, and Self-Government.” In Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality, and Respect for Difference. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997. 155-172.