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Scholars claim Indian treaty document is fake

Wednesday, January 02, 2013 - Updated: 6:09 PM

ALBANY (AP) — The Onondaga people and tribal representatives from other Iroquois nations plan numerous events this year, ranging from canoe convoys down the Hudson River to presentations about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, as part of the 400th anniversary of the first treaty between the Iroquois nations and Europeans.

But according to two upstate scholars, they will be commemorating an event that never occurred. The pair have tried to alert underwriters that the document being used to support the “Two Row Wampum” renewal campaign is a fake.

At issue is an ancient document, delivered to the Onondaga 40 years ago, that lays out the 1613 agreement of coexistence between the Dutch and the Native Americans who had established communities here well before Henry Hudson’s voyage.

Onondaga Chief Irving Powless Jr. said the document in dispute was the actual treaty signed at the mouth of the Normanskill south of what is now Albany, and for which an Iroquois beaded belt was made.

“Oral history is what we go by,” said Powless, 83, recalling the stories his father told him about the wampum, considered one of the most important legacies depicting relations with the white man. He disputes the work of the scholars, who don’t believe the parties entered into such a treaty.

The story Powless’ father told him decades ago held that the agreement was enshrined years after the initial encounter with 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 that signified a silver chain with three links for peace, friendship and forever, Powless said. He owns a small replica and has seen the original, some 6 feet long, which resides in Canada.

“I don’t know when it was created, but it represents the meeting we had with the Dutch people,” he said.

Albany’s Charles Gehring, however, argues that the beaded Two Row wampum belt tale handed down from generation to generation of Onondaga people doesn’t prove the supposed agreement took place.

He and his research partners say the wampum should not be tied to a bogus document, and the many events being planned for next year along the Hudson River from Albany to Manhattan are based on a fraud.

“It’s not a treaty; it’s a fake document,” said Gehring, director of the New Netherlands Project and a State Library official for 38 years.

A quarter-century ago, Gehring joined William Starna, a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Oneonta, and William N. Fenton, the director of the State Museum, to check out the treaty record, written in old Dutch text. Starna is now retired and Fenton has died.

In 1987, they published a paper in the journal New York History debunking the document. But the Iroquois have embraced the record as supportive of the 17th-century agreement between the Dutch and a confederation of five nations — the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca tribes. (The Tuscarora later moved north and joined the confederacy.)

Some state officials are privately talking about the political aspects of the wampum campaign. Onondaga leaders say the treaty means that Europeans and natives made promises that hold force today. Onondaga Chief Jake Edwards said that the Two Row wampum treaty is the foundation for all the treaties that followed.

He calls Starna and Gehring’s work “racist.” He said he first heard about the Two Row agreement in the 1970s, when he and other nation members protested a proposed expansion of Route 81 near the Onondaga Reservation at Nedrow. Tribal leaders said that such a project made them feel that the project represented “outside governments passing a law on us, and we said they can’t do that because we had an agreement.”

But Starna and Gehring find no evidence of such a treaty. “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.”

They say the treaty being cited by planners was a poorly crafted fake, one of many credited to a now-deceased doctor named L.G. Van Loon. Many of his works mistakenly entered collections such as the New York State Library’s.

Starna and Gehring said they found a trail of “bogus” 17th-century documents produced by Van Loon, including a deed to Manhattan and early maps of Albany and the Hudson River.

They examined Van Loon’s “treaty of Tawagonshi,” which became known as the Two Row Wampum pact, dated April 21, 1613. Van Loon published the document in 1968, the scholars said. He gave it to the Onondaga in 1972, said Powless.

Gehring said he could tell the Van Loon record was not genuine from 10 paces. Closer inspection showed it was made by a pen and the language contained a vocabulary and phraseology that did not fit the 17th century. The signature of a Dutchman of the time did not look like an authentic autograph from archives in the Netherlands, and the names of chiefs were the names of villages from a late 19th-century publication.

In recent months, Starna and Gehring have sent their 25-year-old research paper to groups underwriting the Two Row plans, including religious organizations, Ithaca College, Syracuse University, Wells College and SUNY Cortland.

The planners intend to make arrangements with the City of Albany to use the Corning Preserve for a staging area for some events, and have applied to the state Department of Environmental Conservation for $10,000, said Andrew Mager, project coordinator for the Two Row Wampum Project.

Mager contends the scholars’ work is less important than the message of friendship and stewardship between the Haudenosaunee, also known as 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?”

He said canoeists and other boats and ships will travel down the Hudson to mark the wampum agreement and participate in music, cultural exchanges and talks.

The focal point of the celebration is set for July 28 in Albany, the start of a 13-day paddle. Two rows of canoeists and boaters will travel in parallel down the Hudson and stop in towns along the way. The paddlers intend to arrive in Manhattan for the United Nations International Day for Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9.


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