August 1st, 2014 marked 250 years since the Treaty of Niagara was signed between the British Crown and over 20 Ogwehoweh nations. Those gathered had the honour of participating in events on both sides of the border where the King’s fire was rekindled at two historic meeting places: Fort Niagara, Youngstown, New York and the site of the former Indian Council House near Fort George, Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Approximately twenty-four Ogwehoweh nations gathered near Fort George 250 years ago to begin meetings that would culminate in the Treaty of Niagara. The treaty was signed in August 1764 and established a new peace based on free trade and land rights. These nations were said to come as far east as Nova Scotia, as far west as Mississippi and as far north as Hudson’s Bay. It is also said that the Cree and Sioux were represented at this historic peace council as well. People traveled for weeks and even months to attend this month long meeting.
Some of these nations other than the six nations of the Haudenosaunee, included the Nanticokes, Algonquians, Nipissings, Chippewas, Odawas, Menominees, and Hurons. Two thousand people in total, mostly Chiefs, met in the summer to talk about peace between the British and the western nations known as the Western Confederacy. According to Rick Hill, Tuscarora, Beaver Clan, it appears that the treaty council was a series of mini-councils with the various nations, focused on the same discussion, but tailored to their specific circumstance. At least 84 wampum belts were exchanged during the treaty council.
The Treaty of Niagara reopened and guaranteed trade, prisoners were returned and the French were barred from the villages.
According to historian Rick Hill, Niagara on the Lake was once the capital of Upper Canada and also where the Indian Council House once stood. It is where representatives of the British Crown distributed annual gifts and supplies to Indigenous nations that had been promised in treaties. The Council House also hosted meetings between our Haudenosaunee ancestors and representatives of the British Crown to settle land disputes, establish trade relations, and discuss the possibility of renewed conflict between Britain and the United States.
The original Council House was burned down by retreating Americans during the War of 1812. It was rebuilt but eventually abandoned as the capital of Upper Canada had moved to York (Toronto) and Burlington Heights (Hamilton) replaced Niagara on the Lake (Newark) as the meeting place with the British, according to Hill.
As some indigenous representatives traveled as far away as Saskatchewan, other attendees at last weekend’s commemorative event included provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer, Serpent River First Nation Elected Chief Isadore Day and Six Nations Elected Chief Ava Hill. The event itself was organized in partnership with the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, Chiefs of Ontario and Six Nations Legacy Consortium.
Sunday’s event at Fort George did not merely celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara, the event allowed for discussion of the treaty itself but also the ongoing relationship with the Crown and how treaties are very much still relevant today.
Historians Rick Hill, Tuscarora Nation, Beaver Clan and Allan Corbiere who is Anishinabe, both presented on the history of the Treaty of Niagara as well as treaty making and the role of wampum. Despite popular belief that wampum belts were only used by the Haudenosaunee, Corbiere explained that the Anishinabe used wampum as well and explained various replica belts that his people made with the Crown and with other Anishinabe nations.
According to Hill, in 1761 a British general cut off funding for gift-giving for Native leaders and refused to supply the ammunition which caused discontent among the Native people as they depended on these presents as both a sign of respect and the fulfillment of previous treaty obligations. Tensions ran high in the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe communities and some had called for the British to be completely ousted from their traditional lands.
And due to other conflicts going on at the same time, where hostilities arose when lands were being taken without consent and treaty promises made by different European nations were being broken, the Royal Proclamation was established in 1763. Its goal was to help ease the tension between Natives and the rapidly encroaching Europeans. But since the wording in this proclamation was unclear about the autonomy and jurisdiction of Native people, it was felt that a more detailed agreement needed to be construed, hence the Treaty of Niagara of 1764 was signed one year later. This particular treaty stipulated that no Native nation included in this treaty gave up their sovereignty.
Hill went on to explain the purpose of wampum belts, “It is a real tool of living history so that strife that happens between people or nations could be smoothed out. Wampum has its own consciousness.” Speaking on the treaty made by the Haudenosaunee, Hill explained, “Treaty is an agreement that gets codified in wampum belts. We have a big responsibility to help our youth understand our treaty relationships.”
Elected Chief Isadore Day of Serpent River First Nation stated, “Treaties existed long before the Canadian Constitution was created. We were not conquered nations and we were not defeated in war. We entered into treaties. Today will be important in deciding where we go and how we will be moving forward because treaties are just important today as they were when they were first made.”
In a message addressed to Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer, who was also present at the event, Day explained, “I can no longer be confined by the impediments that keep us bound and suppressed. We need to uphold this Treaty of Niagara so our children can be proud of their heritage. Their life depends on this treaty. As direct descendents of the warriors that protected this land, it is our duty to make sure we carry on this treaty. This treaty was initially made because of the selfish colonial pursuits that your forefathers treated the people on Turtle Island through such things as stealing land that was not yours through the deceivance of your laws. First Nations jurisdiction belongs to us.”
Minister Zimmer stated that he had been given a ‘hard copy’ of Chief Day’s speech and would be sharing it with his colleagues in the Cabinet and caucus as well as with the Premier. “I enjoyed my day, attended the Sunrise Ceremony with the Deputy Minister also in attendance. It has been an informative day, a relaxing day and I made several new friends. Thank you,” stated Zimmer.
Rick Hill also stated that sometime between April and August 2015, a Pledge of the Crown commemoration event will take place at the Old Council House at Burlington Heights and a replica of the wampum belt will be given to all of the nations that were there. Hill also wanted to thank Dr. Richard Hamell for lending the wampum replica belts for this event.