In this interview, Richard Hill shares about the complexities of Haudenosaunee territory, wampum belt teachings, and his work to repatriate material culture to his community.
Niá:wen, Rick, for the teachings you offered and for sharing your life’s work with us.
Filmed on September 5, 2019 on Six Nations of the Grand River Territory.
Cinematographer – Jonathan Elliott
Series Editor – Madison Thomas
Colour – Martin Gaumond + Outpost MTL
Sound mix – Seratone Studios
Portrait - Natasha Donovan
The idea was that this beautiful earth that was given to us is like a dish and inside that dish is everything for us to be healthy and to be fed. So, all the plants, all the animals, the birds… And the concept was: we're all going to share from the dish with the same spoon. Everybody gets their equal share; everybody gets an opportunity to take that. So, it's about sharing the resources of this land. But in order to share it, there are some simple rules. One is you only take what you need right now. Feed yourself, make yourself well. You always leave something in the dish for other people so they can enjoy it as well. And you keep the dish clean. You don't pollute your kitchen; you don't pollute where the food comes from. Only recently, in the last few years, have the Anishinabek people and the Haudenosaunee people said, “Let’s get back to this sharing, let’s get back to this idea.” So, we’re working very hard to recover what our notion of the Great Dish, and the Dish with One Spoon. Why is it important that we share? It’s got to do with hunting, fishing, and gathering. But it’s also got to do with a healthy frame of mind. That maybe inside that dish – what nature provides – is healthier for us than what the supermarkets provide. Maybe what’s inside this dish will help us be stronger Indigenous people. So, that’s why we’re trying to explore that. Maybe the Dish will even help us recover from colonization and residential school trauma.
My name is Rick Hill. I'm a Tuscarora - we follow our mother's side of the family. My dad's a Mohawk, but my mother is a Tuscarora. We're here at Six Nations, at Chiefswood Park - it's a very historic site. There was a Mohawk man, George Martin Johnson, who built an estate here. He was married to an English woman, which was quite rare back then. They had a daughter named Pauline Johnson. She became a noted poet. Behind me is the Grand River. My ancestors followed this river from Lake Eerie up to this spot and settled here. Ironically, my mother's people, the Tuscaroras, fought against my dad's people, the Mohawks, during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. But apparently, in 1950, they finally made up and they made me. So, the reason why we're here at Grand River is when the British lost the American Revolution, they promised to provide land here for everything that was lost in New York. So, my dad's ancestors moved here. My mother's ancestors live on the New York side of the border. So, that border, the Niagara River, became a political border. Even though we say there's no border between our people, there's a border.
Ever since I was a young man, I worked in museums. I was really quite lucky to enter that world. Because in a museum, I saw things that I never saw at home. These old objects, all these old photographs, these old documents about my people, the Haudenosaunee. The Tuscaroras, in particular. So, it was a great adventure in learning. I’d dig around the archives, go look in the storage, and it kind of made something click inside of me. That I'm connected to these people they’re talking about; I'm connected to the people who made this stuff. But I didn't grow up knowing about that. So, it kind of made me angry at the same time. "How come I don't know about my own culture?" "How come I don't know my own history?" "How come I don't speak my own language?" But it pushed me to learn. So, I spent all my life working in museums, in archives, at universities. One day, I was at a museum in Buffalo, I pulled this drawer out and there were these little tiny shell beads - little tubular beads. And I had heard about wampum, but I'd never seen it before. So, I began to explore it. Fortunately, I was also working with a number of elders in the city of Buffalo and the surrounding the communities of Tuscarora and Tonawanda. And they helped me understand the significance. Wampum beads aren't just beads, but they are devices by which the memory of our ancestors is passed on to the future. So, when you think about it, I could hold a set of beads that were maybe 500 years old and the memory of my ancestors was locked in those beads. It was a great gift. Of course, the problem was, tapping into that memory. How do I do it as an English-speaking person trying to get in touch with my relatives who only spoke their native language? But there is power in those beads. There's power to help you understand. That's why they existed. So, from there, I began to learn more and more about wampum, and I began to realize that there were hundreds of wampum belts. But there weren't any in our communities.
What I brought with me are replicas of wampum belts. The actual belts are made of these tiny shell beads - they're considered sacred and powerful. But we use these replicas to help teach about them. This big belt that I have here represents the foundation of our way of life, our government. Originally, there were five nations. You can see them here on the belt: the Senecas, the Cayugas, in the middle are the Onondagas, then the Oneidas, and the Mohawks. They joined together to make a Confederacy of Peace. I'm a Tuscarora, we joined this Confederacy in about 1715.Today, we are called the Six Nations. But the wampum belt records the time - it was a tough time, people were fighting. It records this message of peace that comes - that's what the white represents. Ina field of darkness, it brings this unity and peacefulness to our way of life. This is like our constitution. And it carries the memory of our ancestors. Now, we believe this actually came from the Sky World, from the Creator. He wanted us to live in peace, so he introduced it. In the centre, you can see, is a pine tree. It's a white pine. It's our symbol of peace. If you drive around, you look in the woods, you'll notices these tall trees sticking up every now and then - that's the white pine. It's meant to shelter us. If we gather together under the pine tree, we can live in peace. We can come to one mind on these matters.
So, this one is called the Two Row Wampum, and it represents an agreement that we are going to co-exist on the river of life. One path represents the canoe of my ancestors. Think of it this way - if you're getting in a canoe, inside you put your laws, your customs, your beliefs, your language. The other path represents the ship of the Europeans. Inside their ship are the same things: their laws, their beliefs, their customs, everything that matters to them. These two ships are supposed to go down the river together, but they're not supposed to interfere with each other. People in the canoe aren't supposed to steer the ship. People in the ship aren't supposed to try to steer the canoe. This was really the founding treaty. Now, treaty isn't just words on a paper. It's really about the relationship between these two things. The relationship of the people of the canoe to the people of the ship.
So, part of my job was to recover this. How do I get the wampum from the museums returned back to our communities, so that we can use it and learn from that? They called that repatriation: returning something to another country or place of origin. And that's been a very important part of my life.
So, when the English defeated the Dutch, in the 1600s, they made a treaty with the Haudenosaunee and the Five Nations, symbolized by this Wampum belt. It’s called the Covenant Chain of Peace. On one side, we see the Crown head of Great Britain. On the other side, we see the native leaders - the Haudenosaunee Chiefs. They made this chain, this path that connects them together. And it means that they're always going to be honest with each other, they're always going to be helpful to each other, they're going to promote peace. But when the King wanted our attention, he would shake the chain. We would come to his Indian agents working in Albany and the Indian agents would gather us together. And they would usually ask us to do a couple of things. First, they would put in our hand a tomahawk, like this. A tomahawk is interesting because it's a pipe where you can make peace, or it's a blade, which you can force people to want to make peace. With this, they would say, "Take this and go fight our enemies, the enemies of the King. Get them into submission." Being loyal allies, we did that, we took that tomahawk. We then fought the people who were jeopardizing the Crown's colony, which often meant fighting against France and their Native allies. And then, we'd make peace, and we would gather together to polish this chain as they said.
You can think of the chain as three links in a silver chain. This represents our desire for peace, that we'll always have respect for one another, and if we do that, we're going to have on-going friendship. Now, the meaning of these links kind of changed through time, but it's basic principles: good mindedness, meaning we'll be honest, trustworthy. We’re going to be respectful to each other. We're going to solve our problems without resorting to violence. We are going to make amends when our people do hurt one another. Because what we want is for that chain to be strong and last forever. When we forget the Chain, it gets a little, dusty or dirty. So, when we gather in a treaty meeting, we're polishing the chain. We're renewing our friendship. We're renewing our agreements. This is what's very important to us... is that the treaty isn't just about what was written in 1677, or 1701, or 1784, it's the quality of this relationship. Now like all relationships, you're going to have a little difficulty. And if you don't sit down and use your good mind to resolve those difficulties, there's going to be chaos. And that worked really quite well until about 1830. Then the British and the Canadians changed their thinking. They began to look at us as subjects, or wards of the government.
So, I spent all my life working in museums and archives and at universities. I kind of look at myself as a cultural detective. My job is to go and find this evidence, find this information, try to figure out if it's true. Connect the dots and help me understand myself and my people. But also, help me understand how did we get in this situation we are in? Now one thing I learned is just because it's written doesn't mean it's true. Oftentimes, the British and the French would alter what was said, would put words in the mouths of my ancestors and write it for their convenience and not for ours.
One of the biggest challenges in working with an archive is having the authority or the credentials to get into places. Since I didn't have a PhD and I wasn't a recognized scholar, oftentimes, I would get locked out of these places. Or I'd have to go in there with some non-Native scholar. But things began to change, rules have changed. We had a lot of protests going on in the '70s and '80s trying to force museums to recognize that the people living today have a right to understand and have access to their material culture – the objects and written documents. So, it was quite a power struggle to get anthropologists and historians to realize that we have a legitimate right to our information, to our knowledge, and that their job is to then help collect it and preserve it, but ultimately, to pass it on to people like myself. Otherwise, they come to our communities, harvest all the knowledge, get all of the objects, and off it goes, and you never see them again.
I’m proud to say that our group, our team, we’ve recovered over 400 wampum items from different museums in the United States and Canada. And it’s helped us immensely understand better about our history, our culture, and our personality as Haudenosaunee people. And I’ve been working at that ever since about 1970. So, it’s been a long time. Some things I still don’t understand. Some things I’m still trying really hard to grasp. But without the document, without the photograph, without the artifact, or the object, I wouldn’t even have the questions to answer. So, I’m very happy to have been working in museums all my life.
And if we draw upon these great traditions of the past, I think we can live and coexist peacefully, as intended in that Two Row wampum. So, we have to kind of build that relationship and maybe focus a little bit less on government to government, and more on people to people. And then maybe this next generation of Canadians will understand more clearly what happened to our people, what happened to their people, and will find better ways to make amends for that. But not out of guilt or shame, but because renewing peace with Indigenous people is a powerful thing. Our ancestors enjoyed it. They realized this is the only gift we can give to the future generations. It’s a mechanism by which they can respect one another. So, it’s all here. It’s all laid out. We have to pick up those wampum belts, we have to polish that chain. We have to start treating each other as if we’re members of one family.