Native Americans Canoe Down Hudson River to Honor Past Treaties and Reclaim Their Sovereignty

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Posted Aug. 14, 2013

Interview with Vincent Mann, sub-chief of the Ramapough nation, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Aug. 9 marked the end of a two-week journey by canoe and kayak to New York City from central New York state by teams of native and non-native paddlers to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first treaty signed between indigenous peoples and European settlers, called the Two Row Wampum Treaty. Treaty signers of 1613 included leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, and the Dutch. The Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign set out from the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse on July 28 with 15 native paddlers. They were joined in Albany by up to 200 more paddlers for part, or all of the 140-mile voyage down the Hudson River to Pier 96 in New York City, where the paddlers were welcomed by hundreds of well-wishers, including the Dutch Consul General.

The original wampum belt has two parallel rows of blue beads on a white bead background signifying equality, friendship and mutual respect between the parties as they traveled the river of life. It is the basis for the 500 treaties that followed, all of which have been broken by European settlers and their descendants in the U.S. Members of a non-native group called Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation also helped coordinate the event. Participants expressed their opposition to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas and called for protection of the land, air and water for future generations. Native American activists also called for respect for their sovereignty as independent nations.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus was on the pier awaiting the arrival of the paddlers, and spoke to Vincent Mann, sub-chief of the Ramapough nation, whose historic territory was very close to New York City. He talks about his hopes for an improvement in relations between native Americans and the U.S. government, and the importance of the river renewal campaign in that process.

VINCENT MANN: It's amazing to finally see unity, and allies coming together for a common cause. I think it's a tremendous thing, because it's not just native people, it's just people who have a good conscience and a good heart, coming together. It's good.

BETWEEN THE LINES: If you could, say in your own words what the goal of this journey is.

VINCENT MANN: The goal of this journey is for the U.S. government to honor our treaties – not just the Two Row, but all the treaties. To honor us as native people and to not treat us like a Third World country, and they often do that way too much. And what I think is starting to happen now, for lack of a better word, is like a renaissance of native people who are starting to stand up. For too long, we've had to hide.

The core group of our tribe is only 39 miles from the city. Split Rock, which was the last place recorded for a corn ceremony, you stand there and you see Manhattan; you see the skyline. And so for us to be here and welcoming the Onondaga is a tremendous thing. Hopefully, this will keep moving forward. We do have a sacred hoop that has evolved out of this so we can keep moving these things forward, including the environment – you know, fracking and new pipelines and desalination plants and all those things. I think that as we come together with more numbers of people that have the same causes in their heart, that it'll turn into a really good thing.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is this journey in any way about forgiveness?

VINCENT MANN: That's a really good question. Forgiveness from who?

BETWEEN THE LINES: Forgiveness from who, or for whom, I guess. I guess the people who broke the treaties or the descendants of the people who broke the treaties. I don't know...whatever you think.

VINCENT MANN: I don't think we should ask for forgiveness from them.

BETWEEN THE LINES: No, they should ask for forgiveness from you.

VINCENT MANN: What I mean is, I don't think we should be asking them to ask us for forgiveness. If they don't have it in their heart to honor those treaties, that's on them. Somebody put up a thing on Facebook, another native, and he said, this is a hypothetical thing: If the power went out in New York City, would we help them? And I watched it for about a week, and I started to fester, and at the end of that week I decided I'd seen enough and I took in enough and I spoke my words on there, and my words was, "We wouldn't have a choice but to help them because if we fail to help them, then we're going to fail ourselves, because the disease that would be borne of that would likely come and kill us also."

This is about unity. Things can be forgiven if people are going to do the right thing, and if we all come together, then forgiveness is just something that will happen. People that have good hearts ... it's our job to show other people how to live with humility and how to walk with humility, because it's the difference between being humiliated all your lives; hiding in plain sight, and walking with humility. To be humble, to think that none of us are better than the next person or next being or next animal or tree, plant, grass. And so if we all have that and we start to embrace that – which is the old ways – then forgiveness will just be a part of what we're doing.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Just if I could ask a follow-up to what I asked earlier about what's the next step and you said you hope this would be a move toward honoring treaties. But is there anything specific, and I know you're going to the U.N., is there anything that this project with all these people will go to the U.N. specifically to ask for, do you know?