|In 2005, it was announced that
the New York State Museum recommended to
its board of directors that they return a wampum belt to
Akwesasne. This belt, known to many as the “Akwesasne Wolf Belt,”
seems to be a bit of a mystery to both the Mohawks and the museum
personnel who were interviewed, but they do at least agree that the
belt did originally come from Akwesasne. It was suggested
by the George Hamell from the museum that it originated between 1760
and 1780, whereas Sheree Bonaparte, then repatriation specialist of the
St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, suggested it was a record of the
As far as I’m concerned, there is no mystery whatsoever about the belt, as the historical record actually offers us a short, but pertinent, explanation for the belt, along with a snippet of the actual oral tradition that once accompanied the belt.
Many years before Harriet Maxwell Converse purchased the belt and donated it to the museum, it was held by one Margaret Cook of St. Regis. This we know from the census of 1890, excerpts of which were published under the name The Six Nations of New York: The 1892 United States Extra Census Bulletin. General Henry B. Carrington visited the Iroquois communities to gather data for the census and was able to collect numerous oral traditions about government, history, politics, and, naturally, wampum belts. Here is what General Carrington wrote of a belt he was shown in Akwesasne:
One wampum, now owned by Margaret Cook, the aged aunt of Running Deer, represents the treaty of George I with the Seven Nations. The king and the head chief are represented with joined hands, while on each side is a dog, watchful of danger, and the emblem is supposed to be the pledge: “We will live together or die together. We promise this as long as water runs, skies do shine, and night brings rest”. (Venables 1995:76)
This belt is undoubtedly the same one held by the New York State Museum today, based on the description of the symbols of the two figures with joined hands and the dogs on each side. The information Carrington collected suggests that this belt represented the “Silver Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship” between the British and the Seven Nations, which was struck in the last days of the French and Indian War, when the former allies of New France realized that the British were going to win and switched sides.
How the Seven Nations of Canada got the belt is another story, and for that we have to backtrack to the end of the French and Indian War, when the British Army was descending the St. Lawrence to conquer New France. Messengers were sent from New France’s Mohawk allies to meet with the British officer, Sir William Johnson, who was at the head of a large contingent of Iroquois warriors. When he met with the Mohawks, he assured them that if they agreed to allow the British army to peacefully pass by their communities on the way to Montreal, they would be assured of good relations with the British when the war was over. This agreement, often referred to as the Treaty of Oswegatchie, was held at the small Onondaga village at what is now Ogdensburgh, New York. Although the minutes of this council have not yet been found, there is no question that it took place.
Apparently some of the Mohawks with the British army were less than thrilled to see their “brothers” switching sides, as this account suggests:
While these Chieftans were negotiating a peace, two of our Mohawks entered the apartment where they were with the General and Colonel Burton: after viewing the others with great earnestness, they made a set at them ; but the General and Colonel interposed, and exacted a promise from the Mohawks that they would not molest the others, who had been put out for a few minutes, and were again called in ; upon their re-entering, they looked eagerly at each other, uttering heh! heh! heh! with great vehemence ; after which one of the Mohawks expressed himself, in disjointed sentences, to the following effect: ‘It is well for you that you have surrendered,—and that these Generals are here;—it is they that protect you,—or we two Mohawks would scalp every man of you.’ Hereupon one of the French warriors took a small stick with his knife, and notched it: the other than re-assumed, —‘Do you remember, when you treacherously killed on of our brothers at such a time?—Ye shall one day pay dearly for it, ye cowardly dogs,—let the treaty be as it will:—I will tell you, we will destroy you and your settlement,—root and branch;—ye are all cowards;—our squaws are better than you,—they will stand and fight like men—but ye sculk like dogs, &c. &c.’ Between every pause the French chief uttered heh! heh! And repeated his notches on the stick, till at length, being reproached with cowardice, and equalled to the squaws, he could no longer contain himself, but set up a horrid yell, and, with a tenfold emotion, cut a long sliver off the stick, which seemed to be a signal for his companions to fall on ; but the General and the Colonel exterted themselves in keeping the peace, put the Mohawks out of the room, and laid both parties under the strongest injunctions not to molest each other, on pain of being most severely chastised by the Commander in Chief. (The Journal of Captain John Knox, vol. II, 1914:516-517)
In spite of this, the terms of the treaty held. General Amherst’s army continued their descent on the St. Lawrence, taking some losses in the Long Sault rapids, before Sir William Johnson and his Iroquois warriors broke away for a brief time to visit Akwesasne. As Knox states,
Sir William Johnson and his Myrmidons went to Hasquesashnagh, a small Indian village of the five nations, to smoke the pipe of peace, and to assure them of our protection, upon their future good behavior. (Knox II:556)
Apparently the Akwesasronon they met were well disposed toward their new allies, for ten of them joined the British army to assist them in navigating some of the rapids further downstream. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, the British ended up losing “forty-six batteaus, seventeen whale-boats, and one row-galley, whereby eighty-four men were unfortunately drowned…” (Knox II:557) These ten Akwesasronon were later given medals by the British, as were the Iroquois warriors with the British.
History records that the French surrendered Montreal without a fight. A council was held at Kahnawake not long thereafter in which the differences between the Six Nations and Seven Nations were put resolved with the exchange of wampum belts. (The full text of this treaty is found here.)
The councils held in Oswegatchie, Akwesasne, and Kahnawake, as outlined above, have only recently become the focus of scholarly attention. Scholars such as D. Peter MacLeod, Jean-Pierre Sawaya, Denys Delage, and Denis Vaugeois have published books about this era of colonial diplomacy. As Macleod points out in his The Canadian Iroquois in the Seven Years War, the British later forgot about the promises made to the Seven Nations and began to harass them as they traveled south on the Lake Champlain corridor:
Yet at the same time as the army was encouraging and assisting European entrepreneurs to travel between Canada and New York, Thomas Gage, the military lieutenant governor of Montreal, had embarked upon a deliberate campaign to eliminate the Kahnawakes from this commerce. Questioned by Claus about this policy, Gage responded that he would not tolerate what he described as “that contraband trade to be carried on as heretofore between the Albany people and Caghnaway. Indians which was their only scheme of going down.” Both an “entire stranger” to the terms of the Treaty of Kahnawake and one of those “people in power” who looked upon Amerindians with an “indifferent & despiteful eye.” Gage possessed the power to put this policy into action. As lieutenant governor, he controlled the issue of passes for travel to Albany. These passports were freely issued to British merchants. The Kahnawakes attempted to conform to British regulations, and they too applied for travel documents. The first applicants duly received passes signed by Gage. Subsequent requests, however, were rejected.
The Kahnawakes protested, stating that, “they were surprised that the road of peace opened & shown to them last fall should be barred again.” These protests were summarized by Johnson, who informed Amherst that the Kahnawakes “are a good deal surprised and concerned at not being allowed to come to trade at Albany, where they say they can have goods much cheaper than at Montreal,” then added that since “they were told and promised that the road of peace & commerce should be free and open for them, they now think it hard to be debarred that liberty.” Claus told Gage about the terms of the Treaty of Kahnawake, but the lieutenant governor remained inflexible.
Johnson himself was “surprised General Gage will not suffer the Caghnawageys & other Inds inhabiting there to come to Albany after making it one of ye. Articles at the treaty last summer at Caghnawagey.” He forwarded the Kahnawake protests to the commander-in-chief, together with his own recommendation that the New York-Canadian border be opened to Amerindians. Amherst immediately ordered Gage to cease to interfere with the movements of the Amerindians of Canada along the Lake Champlain corridor. He authorized Johnson to assure the Amerindians that “whatever promises have been made, they shall be strictly adhered to, and so long as they behave well, they shall have full liberty for a free and open trade.” (D. Peter MacLeod, The Canadian Iroquois in the Seven Years War, 1996: 183-185)
The transcript of the Treaty of Kahnawake mentions wampum belts being handed back and forth between the British, the Seven Nations of Canada, and the Iroquois Confederacy. No description of the actual belts is given beyond general attributes such as size and color, but it seems likely that the so-called “Akwesasne Wolf Belt” may very well have been one of them. The legend that accompanied the belt, as published in the census of 1890, is fairly standard treaty language of the type associated with the Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship, and the two human figures joining hands at the center is also found on the so-called William Penn belt. The only real discrepancy in Margaret Cook’s information is the identification of one of the figures as King George I. She may have meant King George III, as there were no “Seven Nations” during the reign of King George I. But as we know, natives often called officials by the name of their predecessors, just as we refer to President George W. Bush as “Town Destroyer,” a name given to George Washington long ago.
Of course, Margaret Cook may have had the belt in her possession, but did she actually own it? Personal claims of ownership of such national treasures was what allowed many of these belts to be sold off to museums in the first place, and is something that most of us reject outright today. How did she get it in the first place? The first thing that comes to mind is Colonel Louis Cook, the controversial chief who signed the Seven Nations Treaty of 1796, who may have been her father, father-in-law, or even grandfather. The belt may have been one of the pieces of “identification” he carried when he entered into negotiations for the treaty, or the credentials he showed to receive the yearly annuities from the treaty. Colonel Louis had a falling out with the governing council of Akwesasne around this time and end up moving, along with his and three other families, south of the international border where they set themselves up as the “American chiefs.” The belt may have went with them.
If the belt does indeed represent the Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship between the Seven Nations of Canada and the British Crown, it is extremely relevant to us today. I contend that this is the “border crossing treaty” that the Canadian goverment says does not exist. The “Lake Champlain Corridor” would basically equate to the border between the United States and Canada in modern times. Perhaps someone should tell the MCA (the one in Akwesasne, not Lynyrd Skynyrd's record company) to bring this up at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
We should also stop calling it the “Akwesasne Wolf Belt,” as Akwesasne was but one of the “Seven Nations” with whom the treaty was struck. If my notions about the belt are correct, it also belongs to the communities of Kahnawake, Kanehsatake, Odanak (also known as the Abenakis of St. Francis), and Wendake (also known as the Hurons of Lorette.) This shouldn’t stop us from accepting the belt back from the New York State Museum, but we should promptly begin discussions with these other communities about what is to become of the belt once it is returned. It could be the start of a revival of that ancient alliance which served us well during one of the more turbulent times of our collective history. This doesn’t mean we have to abandon our ties to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, as alliances and confederacies often overlapped throughout history, just as the branches of trees sometimes mesh with the branches of others.
As for the wolves on the belt actually being dogs, that is not so much a demotion as many of the more romantic among us may feel at first. Dogs were an important part of our cultural world, too. The Iroquois had a ceremony in which we burned a white dog every year, the details of which are quite beyond the scope of this article. Dogs assisted us in hunting, according to early documentation. We can probably attribute the change from dogs to wolves to Harriet Converse, who acquired the belt almost a decade after General Carrington interviewed Margaret Cook.
William Beauchamp has this description of the belt in his 1901 Wampum and Shell Articles Used by the New York State Indians:
Fig. 229 is a fine emblematic belt, with a wolf and black horizontal bars at each end, and two men clasping hands in the center. It is 14 rows deep, and mostly of white beads. It has been called a Mohawk totem belt, and was bought at St. Regis, July 24, 1898, by Mrs Converse. She writes: “Date unknown. Purchased from a St. Regis Indian, and known as the Wolf belt. Supposed to be a treaty between the French and the Mohawks. The center figures—two men—represent the king and an Indian clasping hands in friendship. The seven purple lines signify seven nations, white the peace paths guarded at each end, east and west, by sachems of the Wolf clan, symbolized by the purple animal figures. The hereditary keeper of the Long House was a Wolf, the Do-ga-e-o-ga of the Mohawks according to John Buck. The Do-ne-ho-ga-weh of the western door was also a Wolf.” The Mohawk chief mentioned was a Turtle, but the Seneca chief is correct. The Mohawks treated with the French, but were never in their alliance, and the emblems are those of the middle of the 18th century. At that time the western Iroquois were balancing between the English and the French. (Beauchamp 1901: 427)
I have no explanation for why the English figure became a French one in this description. Perhaps Mrs. Converse didn’t fully trust what was told to her, and sought another explanation from other Iroquois informants such as John Buck. She may have not had access to Margaret Cook, as she does not actually specify who she purchased the belt from in St. Regis. Her research into the clan of the “doorkeepers” may have been to bolster the belt’s monetary and historical value to the New York State Museum, which was avidly collecting Iroquois belts at the time. Elements of the Beauchamp/Converse description later ended up in Ray Fadden’s book on wampum, which served to solidify its identity as the “wolf belt” in the minds of Akwesasronon ever since.
Regardless of its origins or its true meaning, I welcome the return of the belt to Mohawk hands after so long an absence. May the spirit of peace and friendship embodied in the belt continue to inspire and guide us!
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Nia:wen ko:wa, Tehanetorens