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Is wampum proof of deal?
Condensed by Native Village


New York: The Onondaga and other Iroquois nations are planning events for the 400th anniversary of the first treaty between the Iroquois Confederacy and Europeans in New York. But some believe the event never happened. They say a document supporting the "Two Row Wampum" renewal campaign is a fake.

At issue is the "Tawagonshi Treaty," an ancient document delivered to the Onondaga 40 years ago. The document lays out the 1613 agreement of coexistence between the Dutch and the Native Americans.

Onondaga Chief Irving Powless Jr. says this document is the treaty signed near today's Albany and for which the Two Row Wampum Treaty belt was made.

"Oral history is what we go by," said Powless, 83, whose father had told him stories about the wampum belt. He disputes the work of the scholars who believe the treaty never happened.

Powless' father told him the agreement is written in a wampum belt that includes two rows of purple clam shell beads. The parallel rows signify canoes and boats traveling together down the river of life. They are separated by three beads signifying a silver chain with three links: one link for peace, one for friendship and one for forever. 

"I don't know when it was created, but it represents the meeting we had with the Dutch people," Powless said.

The belt, which is 6 feet long, resides in Canada.

Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherlands Project and a State Library official, disagrees. He says the wampum should not be tied to a bogus document. 

"It's not a treaty; it's a fake document," he said.

A quarter-century ago, Gehring joined William Starna and William Fenton to check out the treaty record written in Old Dutch. In 1987, they published a paper debunking the document. They say the treaty being cited is a poorly crafted fake by a man named L.G. Van Loon. They said Van Loon produced a trail of "bogus" 17th-century documents  including a deed to Manhattan and early maps of Albany and the Hudson River.

The men examined Van Loon's "Treaty of Tawagonshi," dated April 21, 1613. They claim it was written with pen, the language did not fit the 17th century, a Dutchman's signature did not look like an authentic autograph, and the chiefs' were the names of villages from a late 19th-century publication.

Nor could they find a record of the Dutch treaty in Danish archives.

"We have no problem with their oral history; they can believe what they want to believe," Starna said. "But ... people need to know it's not based on a legitimate document."

Starna and Gehring have sent their research paper to groups underwriting plans and events for the Iroquois Two Row Wampum Project.

Robert Venables, a retired Cornell University history professor, believes the Van Loon document is a copy of the original treaty. He called the Starna-Gehring research and their letters to cosponsors offensive. History, he said, is rarely conclusive. Many records were lost to fire or are just missing.

"If the 1613 treaty is ever conclusively disproved, it will not change the nature of the relations defined in the Two Row, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) will continue to adhere to the Two Row in their interactions with non-Indians," he  said

But the Iroquois believe the record supports the 17th-century agreement between the Dutch and the Iroquois Confederacy. This would mean the treaty promises still hold force today, and that the Two Row Wampum Treaty is the foundation for all treaties that followed.

"We agreed in order to maintain peace ... that we would not pass laws on your boat and you would not pass laws on to us in our canoe," said Onondaga Chief, Jake Edwards.

Andrew Mager is project coordinator for the Two Row Wampum Project.  He contends the scholars' work is less important than the message of friendship and stewardship between the Iroquois, or "people of longhouse."

"Our purpose was never to ... get into a scholarly battle, but look into this principle, the covenant treaties, the description of peoples living in parallel and in friendship," he said. "And what does this mean today, 2013, as we face issues of social justice and major environmental crises?"

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