Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform

Early Encounters: Treaty Protocols and the Significance of Wampum

Like all histories, the story of the early colonial era in Eastern North America is complex. This lesson will complicate students' understandings of the power dynamics between native groups, settler colonists and European empires during the colonial period.

Lesson Objectives:
Essential Questions:
Ongoing Questions (if used in a unit):
Grade Level: Grades 9-12

Historical Background: 

Excerpts from: Daniel Richter, Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. pp. 135, 137.

At the height of its development, the treaty protocol ideally consisted of nine stages. First came a formal invitation to attend a meeting at a recognized or "prefixed" place or "council fire." This invitation, accompanied by strings or belts of wampum (Dutch colonists called the beads zewant), established a right for the hosts to set the agenda and speak first; it also obliged them to provide ritual and material hospitality for the visitors. Second was a ceremonial procession, by foot or canoe, by which the visitors arrived at the site of the council. Third was the ''At the Wood's Edge" rite, in which the hosts offered rest and comfort to visitors presumed to be tired from a long journey. Each side offered the other the "Three Bare Words" of condolence, to clear their eyes, ears, and throats of the grief-inspired rage that prevented clear communication-the rage that, if unchecked, provoked mourning wars and spiraled into endless retaliatory feuds. After at least one night's rest, the council itself began with, fourth, the seating of the delegations and, fifth, an extensive Condolence ceremony, in which tearful eyes were again ritually dried, minds and hearts cleansed of the 'bile of revenge," blood wiped "from the defiled house," graves of the dead "covered" to keep grief and revenge out of sight, clouds dispelled to allow the sun to shine, and fire kindled to further illuminate the proceedings. Sixth came a "recitation of the law ways," a rehearsal of the history of two peoples' relationships with each other, the basis of their peaceful interactions, and the way in which their forebears had taught them to behave. Almost universally, the connection was described in terms of fictive kinship; two peoples were "Uncle" and "Nephew," or "Father" and "Child," or "Brother" and "Brother," and addressed each other with the authority or deference appropriate to the power relationship inherent in such terms. The recitation of the law ways articulated ideals rather than grubby realities. Kinship terms and other names by which relationships were described served an educative function to remind participants of what their attitudes toward each other ought to be.

Only in the seventh stage, after the ritual requirements for establishing a peaceful environment had been fulfilled, could what Europeans considered the business of a treaty council--the offering of specific "propositions"--take place. To be considered valid, each "word" had to be accompanied by an appropriate gift, usually of wampum strings ("fathoms") or belts prepared specially for the occasion. "Presents among these peoples despatch all the affairs of the country," explained a French missionary who understood the process much better than Livingston. "They dry up tears; they appease anger; they open the doors of foreign countries; they deliver prisoners; they bring the dead back to life; one hardly ever speaks or answers, except by presents." Wampum gifts in particular confirmed the validity of a speaker's words in several interrelated ways. As a sacred substance, wampum underscored the importance of what was being said.  As a valuable commodity, it demonstrated that the speaker was not talking only for himself or on the spur of the moment, but that he had the considered support of the kin and followers who had banded together to collect the treasured shells and have them strung. And, as carefully woven patterns of white and black beads, wampum also became a mnemonic device, allowing belts or strings to be "read" accurately both by a speaker delivering a message as instructed and by a recipient recalling promises made years before.

While propositions and wampum were offered by the hosts, visitors were to listen politely but not respond substantively until at least the next day. Hasty replies were not only disrespectful but indicated that the negotiator had not conferred with his colleagues and therefore could not be speaking with their approbation or with properly prepared wampum. Only when each of the hosts' propositions had been answered could the visitors introduce new points. The same expectations of polite listening and postponed responses applied throughout a treaty conference. Thus, as at Albany in 1679, the whole affair could last for weeks. Once the substantive dialogue finally ended, the eighth step was the affixing of marks to any documents Europeans might insist upon. The ninth step consisted of a feast and the presentation of final gifts from the hosts. Unlike symbolic wampum, these tended to be of more material value: food, cloth, tools, weapons, and, too often, liquor-all of which leaders would redistribute to their followers.

Prior to this unit, students should already be familiar with major cultural patterns among Eastern Native American groups (daily life, work cycles, political organization, concepts kinship and reciprocity, etc.), as well as the basic events surrounding the arrival of European groups to Eastern North America.

Warm up Activity (10 minutes)
In groups of 2-3, students examine a copy of the engraving The Indians giving a Talk to Colonel Bouquet and discuss their impressions of the image. The teacher posts the following questions and asks students to pick one or two to discuss.
Share and discuss responses as a class. Make note of comments or questions that can be returned to later. The teacher tells students that in today's class, they will dive into treaty protocol, and wampum, both of which are central in this painting.

Mini Lecture: Wampum (10 minutes)
a) Zoom in on the wampum in The Indians giving a Talk to Colonel Bouquet. Tell students that they will learn about the significance of wampum and the role it played in Eastern North America at this time.

b) Project or distribute printouts of wampum images (e.g. Penn Wampum Belt). Ideally, the teacher might share quahog shells or physical replicas of wampum with which students could interact.

c) Explain wampum and its significance for native peoples at the time/currently and that it played a role in the spiritual and political life of peoples in colonial America.

Information on this topic paraphrased from a lecture by Daniel Richter (McNeil Center of Early American Studies, August 31, 2019):
d) Show images of various wampum belts: Penn Wampum Belt, George Washington Belt, and the Hiawatha Belt. Discuss the messages these belts may have strengthened or reinforced.

Treaty Protocol in Action (15 minutes)
a) Explain that there was a certain protocol – have a student define or look up this word for the class – when indigenous and colonial leaders met. The teacher may quote from this excerpt of Daniel Richter's Facing East from Indian Country:

Originating in the internal political practices of the Iroquois League, the protocol spread in the mid-seventeenth century to other Native groups and to the French, English and Spanish officials throughout the northeast, the Great Lakes, and the southeast, accreting along the way a variety of non-Iroquois Indian and European customs. By the early eighteenth century, treaty conferences throughout eastern North America conformed to very similar ceremonial patterns (134).

b) Tell students that they will learn about the protocol by drawing out the steps on the whiteboards or posters around the room. If you haven't already, establish norms about drawings (e.g. all drawings should respect the humanity of all people.)

If your room is equipped with whiteboards, divide them into distinct spaces and label each with a description of that step. Ideally, the teacher would do this before class or as students enter the classroom. If you don't have whiteboards, you may use large post-its or other poster paper.

Treaty Protocol Steps, as outlined in Facing East (135-137).
  1. Formal invitation to attend a meeting: invitation is accompanied by strings or belts of wampum.
  2. Ceremonial procession by foot or canoe to the site of the council.
  3. "A the Wood's Edge" rite: hosts offer hospitality to visitors, who are tired from their journey. Both sides give each other the "Three Bare Words" of condolence, to clear their eyes, throats and ears of unproductive emotions (rage, grief, etc.).
  4. Seating of the delegations.
  5. A Condolence ceremony: "eyes were again ritually dried, minds are cleared of the ‘bile of revenge,' blood wiped ‘from the defiled house,' graves of the dead ‘covered' to keep grief and revenge out of sight, clouds dispelled to allow the sun to shine, and fire kindled to further illuminate the proceedings."
  6. Recitation of "law ways:" the history of the relationship between the groups, and rationale for peaceful interactions- described as kinship and becoming family.
  7. Specific propositions offered and each should be accompanied by a gift, usually wampum strings or belts. Replies from each group had to wait until the next day.
  8. Signing documents.
  9. Feast and final presentation of gifts.

c) In small groups, give students 3-4 minutes to draw their step.

d) After students return to their seats, briefly walk students through each of the steps and add details as necessary. For example:  For indigenous peoples, treaties were primarily ceremonies that ratified and demonstrated alliance and connection – "polishing the chain" that connected groups. The process and ritual was the most important part. It was conducted in public and many members of the community would be present to witness it.

Discussion (5 minutes) 
a. In small groups, have students discuss: 
b. If time permits, have students report out to the larger group.

Assessment and Extensions: Students will be assessed on the day's objectives through individual writing in their journals. This could be completed at the end of class, or for homework.

Prompt: Write a journal entry reflecting on today's class. It should be at least two paragraphs.This lesson was created during the 2019 Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Teacher Seminar, "Native Peoples, Settlers, and European Empires in North America, 1600-1840" (July 28-August 3, 2019). You may also download a printable version of this lesson.

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