This land that I now live on, just above the Don River, has been in relationship with humans for thousands of years. As I build my own relationship with it, I want to know those that have cared for it before.
The people belonged to many nations over the millennia. After all, the Don River is part of a portage route that connected Lake Ontario with Lake Huron. This is the shortest land route between these two Great Lakes and therefore central to the international trade that connected the Atlantic with the interior of the continent. So getting to know the peoples that cared for this land all this time will take me many years.
The first of these nations that I have gotten to know personally come from the Mohawk nation. The Network for Democratic Solidarity is building a partnership with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the union that includes the Mohawk plus five other First Nations. More about that to come.
I’ve been discovering they have a rich history of government and diplomacy that is very much still alive. On National Indigenous Day, the Six Nations of the Grand River offered a free public workshop to explain their history.
The traditional territories of these nations surround Lake Ontario and stretch downriver to where the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers meet near modern-day Montreal. Frequently at war with one another, their history tells of an extraordinary peace treaty that was negotiated, by some accounts in the 15th century. The Great Law of Peace established a confederacy that left each nation to govern itself, with a council of 50 chiefs from five nations that would make decisions about their common interests on the basis of consensus after extensive deliberation.
As a career diplomat, I was intrigued to learn of the methods the Haudenosaunee employ to govern themselves. Diplomats frame discussions between nations in terms of common interests, to encourage decisions to mutual benefit. The opening entry of this blog, from June 21, borrows the Thanksgiving Address that the Haudenosaunee employ to initiate any major deliberations. Through a call-and-answer dialogue that invites everyone in the room to affirm their gratitude to the natural world, they reinforce the sense of common interest.
The true genius of Haudenosaunee governance was evident in a remarkable book called Covered by Night, which earned American historian Nicole Eustace the 2022 Pulitzer Prize. In it she documents how Haudenosaunee leaders reacted to a 1722 criminal case for murder as an opportunity to deepen their bonds with the growing English colony of Pennsylvania in an ingenious act of threatened force transmuted into forgiveness and an invitation to merge systems of justice.
The collective name they chose for themselves, the Haudenosaunee, can be translated as “People of the Longhouse". This is a symbolic reference to the architecture of communal living then dominant, in which one long structure houses one family after another in a row, each around their own individual fire. Each nation tends to its own “fire” while collaborating with the others to share shelter and warmth.
In the first two hundred years that First Nations shared this part of the continent with European newcomers, the Haudenosaunee frequently allied with the British while the Algonquin peoples allied with the French. Their loyalty to the British in the U.S. War of Independence earned them massacres at the hands of General Washington’s troops and a grant of land in Upper Canada by the United Kingdom.
The Haudenosaunee continue to live on this land. They maintain their government and their way of life. I am grateful for the Mohawk and the Haudenosaunee more broadly for all they have done for us.