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Honouring the Wampum Belt Treaty on National Indigenous Day (June 21)

June 21 Indigenous Day
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On June 21, Canadians celebrate National Indigenous Day to honour the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Respecting the Two Row Wampum Belt and its vision of peaceful co-existence among distinct peoples on Turtle Island is a good way to celebrate this day in 2020.

 Three rows of white beads symbolizing peace, friendship, and respect separate the two purple rows. The two purple rows symbolize two paths or two vessels travelling down the same river. One row symbolizes the Haudenosaunee people with their law and customs, while the other row symbolizes European laws and customs.
Three rows of white beads symbolizing peace, friendship, and respect separate the two purple rows. The two purple rows symbolize two paths or two vessels travelling down the same river. One row symbolizes the Haudenosaunee people with their law and customs, while the other row symbolizes European laws and customs.

The Guswenta Two Row Wampum Belt, a symbol of sovereignty, is the first peace treaty made in North America between Indigenous nations before European contact. (Made between the League of Five Nations and its allies, and the confederacy of Anishinabek and allied nations). In 1613, the Mohawks noticed people coming into their territory unannounced. They had entered the lands of the Haudenosaunee and were now occupying some of their empty land. As the Haudenosaunee and Dutch discovered much about each other, an agreement was made as to how they were to treat each other and live together. Each of their ways would be shown in the purple rows running the length of a wampum belt. “In one row is a ship with our White Brothers’ ways; in the other a canoe with our ways. Each will travel down the river of life side by side. Neither will attempt to steer the other’s vessel.” 

Indigenous Nations always remained faithful to the treaty by never imposing their ways onto the settlers.  However, settlers were quick to violate the treaty and Canada’s genocidal assimilationist policies are well known.  Forced assimilation based on a white supremacist ideology of European domination continues to harm not only Indigenous peoples but all who do not subscribe to the supremacy of European culture and “whiteness.”  National Indigenous Day is a time to reflect on the traditional Grandfather teachings of Love, Honesty, Humility, Truth, Wisdom, Bravery and Respect – teachings that provide a way out of current global crises that threaten Mother Earth.

June 21 was first celebrated as National Aboriginal Day in 1996, after it was proclaimed that year by then Governor General of Canada Roméo LeBlanc. This date was chosen as a holiday for many reasons, including its cultural significance as the Summer solstice and because it is a day on which many Indigenous peoples and communities traditionally celebrate their heritage. It was renamed from National Aboriginal Day to National Indigenous Day in 2017

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas thinks “there is a strong feeling among Canadians that it’s time for action against colonial genocide” and that “we should take advantage of National Indigenous Day by celebrating Indigenous cultures and supporting policies and practices that reverse the harm done to Indigenous communities.”  Renouncing assimilationist policies and honouring the promise of the Wampum belt is a concrete way to strike at the heart of white supremacy.

OPSEU members are strongly encouraged to celebrate National Indigenous Day by participating in events that highlight the achievements Indigenous peoples have made throughout history. Events include summer solstice festivals, sacred fire ceremonies and traditional feasts.

The OPSEU Indigenous Circle is spearheading a campaign to make Indigenous Day a statutory holiday in Ontario. The campaign hosted a legislative breakfast and a Kairos mini-blanket exercise for MPPs at Queen’s Park in December 2019 to call for such a holiday.  Until such a holiday is formally recognized, union members are encouraged to work with their unions to recognize their right to take this day as a paid holiday, such as by utilizing available credits under the collective bargaining agreement to access time off.

Declaring June 21 a statutory holiday is one step toward re-writing the narrative of Canadian history into one of reconciliation that honours the cultures and achievements of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.  Krista Maracle, Chair of the OPSEU Indigenous Circle, challenges all members to “remember the promise of the Wampum Belt Treaty, walk with Indigenous communities to forge a new path together with nation to nation relationships based on mutual respect.”

For more information on National Indigenous Day celebrations check out the following webpages:

https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/indigenous-peoples-day.html For information on OPSEU’s June 21 Campaign:
https://opseu.org/multimedia/national-indigenous-day-deserves-to-be-a-statutory-holiday/