5 Minutes With: Onondaga Nation Chief Jake Edwards

The following story originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now.

Canoeing is nothing new in what is now upstate New York, particularly to members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. In 1613, envoys from these five Native American nations sealed a pact with Dutch settlers, laying the groundwork for subsequent treaties that the Haudenosaunee, also known as Iroquois, contend are still in force today. The agreement was recorded on a wampum belt with two rows of purple beads representing parallel paths of coexistence, one for Europeans in their ships, the other the Haudenosaunee in their canoes. To "polish the chain of friendship" established in the treaty, says Chief Jake Edwards of the Onondaga Nation, the Haudenosaunee honored its 400th anniversary with a yearlong awareness campaign rooted in environmental preservation. It culminated over five weeks this summer, with the Two Row Wampum paddle from Onondaga Creek near Syracuse, to Manhattan. In Albany, says Chief Edwards, "we had a group of allies that joined us—about 200 paddlers on the average day—for 13 days of paddling down to Manhattan. "We created two rows of paddlers—the Haudenosaunee and other Native Americans in one row, bow to stern, and the allies in another row—and we maintained that, two rows of paddlers, throughout the entire journey, right down to New York City." — DS

Native American

Chief Jake Edwards, pictured right, with Native and non-Native Two Row paddlers preparing to launch in Syracuse, headed across the sacred, and profoundly polluted, Onondaga Lake toward the Labor Day Weekend New York State Fair, where they carried the Two Row banner in the Indian Day parade. Photo by GWENDOLEN CATES

The significance of canoes to the Onondaga people is that the waterways were our travel routes. These were our highways.

The waterways were taken away from us. The paddling had pretty much ceased in our communities because we didn't have access to the waters any longer.

My nephew Hickory Edwards had an idea. His vision was to open up all the waterways to our people throughout all of the Haudenosaunee countries, to how we used to travel before the white man came here. So the paddling started there.

The Two Row Wampum came about when we were discussing the 400-year anniversary of when we met the Dutch on what's called the Hudson today, but in our language is called the River that Flows Both Ways. We decided to travel from Albany all the way down to Manhattan as a symbolic renewal and reminder.

It was a joint inspiration of allies and Haudenosaunee/Onondaga people who wanted to bring this old treaty that's still alive back to the eyes and ears of the people of America and people of the world to pay attention to some of the old agreements, to help build this nation as we know it today.

The Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation joined to help bring the issues up to the United States, asking that the government help clean up the environment and honor treaties. They wanted to literally be on the water with us, as allies.

We traveled in all the weathers, hot sunny days and windy and choppy. It was approximately 370 miles of paddling to get to Manhattan, to Pier 96, then another five or six miles walking across Manhattan to the United Nations to deliver our message there on August 9, the International Day of the World's Indigenous People.

The Two Row treaty talks about how pristine the water is and how we should keep it pristine. We carried a jug throughout the whole journey and poured some into the Hudson River and then paddled out to sea and poured the remainder out in the ocean to connect all the Onondaga waterways with a symbolic gesture. And that's the message that we want to put out: to keep the water clean and pristine for all of us to use. The message is neverending until the pollution stops.

There's a lot of friendships that were made, and there was a lot of struggles for the inexperienced paddlers. But people stepped right up and helped, and communities put together meals for us, so we got to know each other and meet a lot of friends. And that's what this whole treaty was about: peace, friendship and forever.

There's so much to learn on the water. One of the main things to learn is patience and acknowledging the wildlife. You can see the spring waters add to the waters and the streams that come in as pure, healthy water adjoining to make a river. It's just beautiful to see it. And so for the youngsters to acknowledge that, and to participate in this, it was a great experience where they would clearly understand why we're out so hard and strong to protect the water for future generations.

There's a quote that 'As the water flows down, the river remains.'

As told to Gwendolen Cates. Watch the final of four videos that Cates shot during the Two Row Wampum Renewal paddle, of the group arriving in New York City:

CLICK HERE to watch the third installment: Two Row Wampum Renewal Journey
CLICK HERE to watch the second installment: Two Row Wampum Unity
CLICK HERE to watch the first installment: Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign