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London chapter organizes talk on Wampum diplomacy and constitutional rights

The Council of Canadians London chapter organized a talk by Dr. Lynn Gehl titled ‘The Truth that Wampum Tells: Learning Canada’s Constitutional History through Wampum Diplomacy’ this past weekend.

In short, wampum are traditional shell beads. Strings of wampum have been used for storytelling, ceremonial gifts, and the recording of important treaties and historical events.

Dr. Gehl has written, “The 1763 Royal Proclamation is commonly thought of as Canada’s first constitutional document.”

Under this treaty, France ceded ownership to Britain all of continental North America east of the Mississippi River, including Quebec, and the rest of Canada. The proclamation forms the basis of land claims of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The proclamation established the important precedent that the indigenous population had certain rights to the lands they occupied. It has been argued that the Royal Proclamation, along with the subsequent Treaty of Niagara, affirms Indigenous powers of self-determination and discredits the claims of the Crown to exercise sovereignty over First Nations.

Gehl notes, “What many people do not know is that the Royal Proclamation was ratified during the 1764 Treaty at Niagara. …To guarantee the successful ratification of the Royal Proclamation, to ensure a clear understanding as well as to codify the historic event at Niagara, William Johnson [British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies] relied on Indigenous practices of wampum diplomacy and its inherent forms of symbolic literacy.”

She explains, “During the ratification of the Royal Proclamation Johnson presented two Wampum Belts to the Anishinaabeg. These two Belts are known as The British and Western Great Lakes Covenant Chain Confederacy Wampum Belt and The Twenty Four Nations Wampum Belt. The former Belt codified a relationship between equal allies that was as strong as links in a chain… The latter Belt [represented] the negotiating process Indigenous Nations were to take to ensure their equal share of the resources and bounty of the land. In turn, Indigenous Nations presented Johnson a wampum belt: the Two Row Wampum Belt. This belt codified a nation-to-nation relationship rooted in the philosophy and practice of non-interference mediated by peace, friendship, and respect. It is with these three belts that the Indigenous understanding of Canada’s constitutional beginnings is codified.”

Gehl highlights, “It is in this way that the Proclamation is only one of Canada’s first constitutional documents.”

In her website outreach for this talk, Gehl notes, “The Truth that Wampum Tells offers a never before done insider analysis of the contemporary land claims process in Canada offering a historical analysis of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg, a discussion of participation at the 1764 Treaty at Niagara where Canada’s constitutional documents were ratified, an analysis of their displacement and dispossession from their traditional territories, as well as an analysis of how the Algonquin of Ontario are exercising their agency within the confines of Canada’s ongoing and never ending termination policies.”

The London chapter says, “[We] would like to say chi-miigwetch to Dr. Lynn Gehl for coming to London and sharing your important knowledge and truth. We are so glad this event was well attended as you gave us an excellent talk and the sharing during the question and answer part of it was very profound. It was a very moving experience to be part of this gathering and to hear the hard knowledge that was shared.”