Haudenosaunee Gifts

Contributions to Our Past and Our Common Future.

Digging In
Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Themes and Terms
Catalyzing Connections
Decoding Questions
  • Description: What stories are told? How did you feel reading them?
  • Personal Connection: How can you connect this story to your personal experience or stories in your family?
  • Common Themes: What social issues/themes are raised in these stories? Is there a common issue shared across contexts?
  • Social Analysis: What are the historical and social processes that created this situation?
  • Planning for Action: What can be done? How does this inspire me to change my actions?
Specific Questions
  • What did you learn about the history of the United States and Canada that you didn’t know before?
  • What does Chandra Maracle mean when she says “I don’t consider myself to live in Canada”?
  • Rick Hill suggests the Dish with One Spoon Treaty is like a ‘long term health plan.’ What does he mean?
  • What was George Washington’s military strategy in burning Haudenosaunee corn fields?
  • Rick Hill refers to the “Peacemaker”, an important figure in Haudenosaunee history, who brought together the six nations (originally 5 nations, later with the addition of the Tuscarora became the Six Nation). Find out more about this figure and his impact on the cosmology of Haudenosaunee. (See books below: Basic Call to Consciousness (31-40) and Iroquois Culture & Commentary (23-25)
  • Ryan DeCaire refers to the “Original Instructions”. Do further research on these, in Basic Call to Consciousness (85-91), entitled “Spiritualism: The Highest Form of Political Consciousness: The Haudenosaunee Message to the Western World.” How is this definition of ‘spirituality’ rooted deeply in the earth?
Intergenerational & Intercultural Dialogue

Research the history of the Haldimand Tract, and how the Six Nations reserve came to be such a small territory within it (see books by Susan Hill and Rick Monture below). Originally 950,000 acres were set aside for the Haldimand Tract, today approximately 48,000 acres remain.

Since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Canada in 2015, a protocol of ‘land acknowledgements’ has developed for use in schools, and at cultural and political events. In Ontario, for example, children start their school day with a land acknowledgement along with the Canadian national anthem. This protocol runs the risk of being meaningless unless the educational curriculum teaches students the deep and complex history of Indigenous Peoples and their current reality. Watch this video: Listen to the Thanksgiving Address video, where at the end, Chandra suggests that it is a Haudenosaunee form of “land acknowledgement.” What might this say about how Haudenosaunee perceive their relationship to land? Could saying a land acknowledgement be a way of giving thanks to land and its many gifts?

Individual & Collective Action

Research your own family ancestry through several generations. What is the history of the land that you and your ancestors lived on? What is the history of the land you live on? What historical conflicts are revealed in those histories?

Find out what treaties govern the territory you live in. Research how they were developed and how they are observed today. If there is an Indigenous community near you, attend public events they organize, like pow wows, and learn what you can about their past and present.

Continuing the Conversation
Continuing the Conversation
Rowen White

Rowen White, author of this commentary.

Commentary coming soon.

Digging Deeper
Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
Books & Articles
  • Akwesasne Notes. (Eds.). (2005). Basic call to consciousness. Summertown, TN: Native Voices.
  • Cornelius, Carol. (1999). Iroquois corn in a culture-based curriculum: A framework for respectfully teaching about cultures. University of New York Press.
  • George-Kanentiio, Doug. (2000). Iroquois culture & commentary.  Clear Light Publishers.
  • Global Forest Coalition. (2018, Sept. 4). The rights of Indigenous peoples are key to saving our global ecosystems. Intercontinental Cry.
  • Hill, Susan. (2017) The clay we are made of: Haudenosaunee land tenure on the Grand River. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
  • Loreto, Nora. (2020, August 4). Haudenosaunee land defenders are resisting endless expansionism. Passage.
  • Monture, Rick. (2014). We share our matters: Two centuries of writing and resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River. University of Manitoba Press.
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (2015). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action. 
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2016) A knock on the door: The essential history of residential schools. University of Manitoba Press in Collaboration with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Organizations & Websites

Six Nations of the Grand River Territory

Wahta Territory

The Legacies exchange unveiled the shameful ignorance that we settlers in the U.S. and Canada have of the Indigenous history of the land we live on. This is land that our colonial ancestors stole and renamed as nation-states. I have only recently realized, for example, that most of the places where I grew up in the United States (Ohio, Michigan, and New York) are in the original territory of the Haudenosaunee. Nor did I learn in school or from my family about how the Haudenosaunee influenced the ideas of democracy in the United States constitution. The Haudenosaunee contributed to a vision of more equitable relations between women and men, to various agricultural practices from interplanting to storage of grains, and to an environmental ethic that is needed as we confront a global climate crisis. The Legacies exchange has offered us settlers an intense educational experience which is an ongoing process.

Listen to Legacies collaborators Chandra Maracle, Rick Hill, and Ryan DeCaire highlight in this essay some of the gifts of the Haudenosaunee to our past and our common future.

Chandra Maracle, Mohawk activist and core Legacies collaborator, regularly offered us history lessons about our own countries that revealed the invisibility of Indigenous Peoples in our education, and the richness of their legacy.

– Deborah Barndt (co-editor)

Chandra, Rick and Ryan at Six Nations with Rick’s paintings
Haudenosaunee's role in the construction of the U.S. and Canada

Chandra Maracle: Haudenosaunee refers to a group of people, known as Iroquois in French, and as Six Nations in English. The Six Nations Confederacy includes Mohawks, Oneida, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and later the Tuscaroras.

So this is the original United Nations. These six nations came together under instructions of a particular prophet within history to create one confederacy of one mind, often known as Ska’nikòn:ra, or the good mind, or Ka’nikonhri:yo.

The boundaries included the area around what is now called New York State. After the American revolutionary war, there were some folks who had remained loyal with the British descendants who became known as Canadians. There were other Haudenosaunee folk who chose to fight with the Americans in that war.

Two row wampum renewal campaign http://honorthetworow.org/learn-more/haudenosaunee-territory/

This is significant because Haudenosaunee history IS American history, Haudenosaunee history IS Canadian history. To talk about U.S. or Canadian history without talking about the Haudenosaunee is leaving an incredibly large chunk out and doing a disservice to the European descendants who became Canadians and those who became Americans, as well as to the Haudenosaunee people.

The Haudenosaunee were absolutely critical in the forming of the countries that have become known on this continent and therefore the influence that North America has had on the world. That influence first came in the form of how the Haudenosaunee shaped those who became known as Canadians and Americans.

Chandra at Food Secure Canada Assembly with painting by Rick Hill.

The Haudenosaunee have a unique history. They had about two centuries of diplomatic relations with the first European arrivals, before folks went west of the Mississippi. At the beginning, there was much more reciprocity between the original inhabitants and the colonizers. For example, often folks think that apples were Indigenous to this area, but actually they were introduced by the English. Haudenosaunee were very agricultural people at that time, so they readily said, “Oh, apples, we’ll do that, we can grow anything.” That’s what agricultural people do, they don’t discriminate against good food.

There’s a lot of documentation that also reveals bio-agricultural warfare. Europeans knew how closely the Haudenosaunee were tied to the land agriculturally, so there were campaigns during which troops were ordered to burn thousands of acres of cornfields and other crops. This started with the first U.S. president, George Washington, who became known as Ranatakárias or the town destroyer, so now the word for the U.S. president still means ‘town destroyer.’

(Map above: the Haldimand Tract, land in Canada given to the Haudenosaunee by the British for their loyalty during the revolutionary war, the red represents what it has been reduced to) - Kyle Martin O.H. Multimedia, Six Nations Elected Council

There’s a lot that went on in colonial history, that became U.S. history and later became Canadian history, that has to do with the relationship with the Haudenosaunee.

"These six nations came together under instructions of a particular prophet within history to create one confederacy of one mind."

I don’t really consider myself to live IN Canada, rather I live WITHIN Canada. I feel the difference when I’m at Ohsweken (in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory) and when I’m in Caledonia or Brantford or Hamilton or Toronto or anywhere else. It could also be because I have the perspective of having grown up “within” the U.S. (Buffalo).

“Rick Hill, Tuscarora historian and Legacies advisor, grew up in an area north of Buffalo, and identifies as Haudenosaunee, not as a citizen of either colonial nation state, the U.S. or Canada, within which his current home, Six Nations, is located. Rick has helped to bring to current public consciousness the treaties that govern the relationship between First Nations in the traditional Haudenosaunee territory and the United States and Canada. In the area now known as Toronto (in the so-called province of Ontario and the so-called nation of Canada, all Indigenous names), the treaty that governs us is known as The Dish with One Spoon. Rooted in the Haudenosaunee creation story, this treaty is elaborated by Rick below (see his Haudenosaunee Primer videos  for more on this and other treaties).”

– Deborah Barndt (Editor)

The Dish with One Spoon Treaty

Rick Hill: In our Creation Story, humans are made out of clay, which comes from the earth. That is why we refer to the earth as our mother, because we are made from that. The Creator finished our bodies out of clay, he breathed into them, he put some of his flesh and some of his mind and told us to come alive. This is why they say the earth is alive. It produces life, it keeps generating.

One of the instructions he gave to the first people was to be thankful for everything he had provided. He made a beautiful world for us. Everything we need is in this world. He gave us 500 medicine plants, 50 different food plants, as well as animals, birds, trees, bushes, all kinds of things. You don’t need a grocery store, you don’t need a pharmacy, you don’t need Walmart. Everything you need to be happy and healthy is here.

Think of it this way: He put everything into this big dish – all those things we give thanks for. Then he said: “Here, take from this dish what you need, use what’s in this dish to be healthy, to feed yourself. But there are some rules.”

"Nature is like this great dish with one spoon. There’s an ecological premise to the dish."

Nature is like this Dish, this great dish with one spoon. Out of it comes all the bounty which we are meant to share. There’s an ecological premise to the dish.

First of all, everybody has an equal share to what’s inside the dish, but you only take what you need. So you don’t horde food, collect things, and store them, and think I’m just going to keep this for myself. Second, you always leave something in the dish for other people. When you go to pick a medicine plant, you don’t take the first one, or the second one, you don’t clean out the whole field. You always leave something there because plants have intelligence, they’re looking at what we do. Third, you’ve got to keep the dish clean. Now with the environmental holocaust that we’re facing, it’s very challenging. It’s this notion of sharing and connecting that we have to get back to.

This agreement was codified in the Wampum belt of a Dish with One Spoon. What the Peacemaker said is that the chiefs should eat from this common dish. We should never use a sharp instrument, because we share the land. And everyone has an equal right to go hunting and gathering on all parts of the land. It’s one land meant to be shared.

In this dish is a long term health plan.

Ryan DeCaire, professor of Mohawk, offers insight into the agricultural practices of the Haudenosaunee and the deep philosophical underpinnings of their complete food system.”

– Deborah Barndt (Editor)

Haudenosaunee Agriculture

Ryan DeCaire: I’ve travelled to different Haudenosaunee communities and taken as much knowledge as I can from elders and other growers about heritage seeds and old ways of growing crops.

You could talk about the way our ancestors grew mounds. But what inspired the thinking? It wasn’t that they just one day woke up and had a good idea. When we talk about organic or sustainable food systems, we don’t often talk about the spiritual side. As Haudenosaunee, all our knowledge comes from a spiritual origin. For thousands of years, anything we’ve been inspired by we’ve always learned from nature.

"It’s a connection to our ancestors, because there are people who planted corn for thousands and thousands of years."

They say that at the time of the creation of the world, there were three primary original instructions:

One was to love one another.

The second was to constantly give thanks to everything in creation, to remind ourselves that everything in the environment has a responsibility, so that the cycles and balances of life will continue. We also have a responsibility to see that life continues, and to remind ourselves of those responsibilities that we agreed to at the beginning of time. Today we need to ask: have we forgotten those responsibilities? Human beings forget, so there comes a time that we have to remember.

The third instruction is to live within the cycles and balances of the natural environment. Let nature be our teacher, always listen to the environment; not only to dissect the environment but to actually become the environment, to be spiritually connected to it. So that we never lose that ultimate or spiritual connection.

Iroquois white corn that Chandra harvested and braided.

It’s a connection to our ancestors, because there are people who planted corn, for example, for thousands and thousands of years, and that’s come to us today. In one Seneca village, at time of European colonization, they found one million bushels of stored corn. They realized that Indigenous people weren’t just growing for that one year. They weren’t just growing for next year or three years from now. They had enough stored for up to ten years! That understanding of food security, of having food in case something goes wrong next year or the following year, was a lot more advanced than in our modern food system.

That’s a mechanism for controlling the food system, and it’s been going on for hundreds of years now. There were different ways they stored corn: they braided corn together, they hung it in a longhouse (now in a barn), or stored it in corn cribs. They would also slightly char it and store in the ground, so it wouldn’t sprout or go rotten. Power foods such as squash and beans can easily be stored. So as a culture, we focused on food security, with a deep connection with food.

When the colonizers attacked Haudenosaunee villages, they concentrated on finding the corn storage and fields, and laying waste to that. It was understood at the time of colonization, that if you control somebody’s food system and how they survive, then you’re ultimately controlling them.

When you look to Indigenous People and food systems, Haudenosaunee are often talked about as agriculturalists. That’s very simplistic, it’s not that way at all. The ceremonial cycle revolves around the food system, which takes place in every ecosystem on the earth, whether it be hunting in the fall, harvesting in the fall from gardens, making maple syrup in the spring, gathering wild strawberries, fishing. When we talk about food, we can’t separate farming from other land-based activities that provide sustenance for us.

When we think of agriculture we should also think of the forest and the role it plays. Especially with this new interest in sustainable agriculture, in organic agriculture, food sovereignty, or food security, we forget about the role that forests play, that oceans play, and mountains and rivers. They all play a role in food sovereignty, food security. The Haudenosaunee had what could be called a complete food system.