Literary History of Six Nations of the Grand River

This research tells the history of the Grand River Six Nations, documenting the community’s own understanding of its nationhood and culture through study of the spiritual and political philosophies, oral stories, and writings of its members.

Citation

Monture, R. (2015) We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

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What is this research about?

The Haudenosaunee (more widely known as Iroquois) community of Six Nations in the Grand River Territory is the largest First Nation reservation in Canada, with a current population of approximately 13,000 and total band membership of 25,000. Members are mainly descendants of the 2,000 Haudenosaunee who moved to Ontario in 1785. Many of this group had  fought as allies with the British during the American Revolution and subsequently lost their homelands in New York State due to the redrawing of geographical boundaries at the close of the war. They were permanently granted lands along the Grand River by the British colonial authorities then governing Canada. Dr. Rick Monture’s book We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River is the first comprehensive study to illuminate the cultural history of Six Nations through its creative cultural expressions, and to do so from the community’s own perspective.

What did the researchers do?

Although the Haudenosaunee have also been one of the most researched and written about Indigenous nations in North America, they have had little opportunity to contribute to the writing of their own history, culture and traditions. Monture is a member of the Mohawk nation, Turtle clan, from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. His research is informed by a several hundreds’ year-old Haudenosaunee cultural belief system – one centred on human beings’ sacred responsibility and relationship to the natural world, and one that endures to this day despite colonial pressures to assimilate into mainstream Canadian society. Monture conveys this important cultural inheritance by combining extensive historical research conducted in Canadian and US archives with  analyses of a wide range of primary source material, including oral traditions, letters, poetry, speeches, short stories, nonfiction, and film produced by the Haudenosaunee.

What did the researchers find?

Haudenosaunee scholars have started to examine, question and revise the accepted story of the “Iroquois” in a wide range of academic disciplines. Monture’s work shows how the Haudenosaunee worldview has continuously informed 200 years of Grand River Six Nations’ cultural expression and dealings with colonial authorities. This research is significant for filling in what is missing from “official” history based on colonial records: namely, that Haudenosaunee society since the earliest contact with Europeans has always interacted with colonial power as a sovereign people, not as subjects of either the British Crown or the Canadian government.
 
Monture reveals how scholarly opinion aboutkey Haudenosaunee figures, such as Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) who first led the Haudenosaunee to the banks of the Grand River, has led to misunderstandings about their role in the community and their political relationships with colonial authorities. His interpretation, informed by a deep cultural understanding and awareness of Haudenosaunee traditions refutes the accepted story by bringing contextual evidence to bear on colonial history, while embedding significant historical events and figures within the Haudenosaunee philosophies, intellectual traditions and assertions of sovereignty that have been part of the written record of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory for generations.
 
For example, Monture draws attention to a tradition central to Haudenosaunee political thought and diplomacy: the Two Row Wampum belt (Tekeni Teiohatatie Kahswentha). The Two Row belt established a formal treaty relationship between the Haudenosaunee and European nations. Carefully crafted from sacred beads (wampum), the belt represents the parties to the treaty as two parallel rows of purple beads on a bed of white beads. This visual image evokes the rich metaphor of two vessels travelling down a river – separate, equal, connected to each other through the natural world, but not interfering with the other’s affairs. The three rows of white beads symbolize peace, power, and righteousness – the elements required to ensure mutual co-existence as politically independent nations with distinct customs, language, culture and traditions. The Two Row Wampum belt not only codifies an ethic of respecting the well-being of others but has long been the “philosophical foundation of how the Haudenosaunee have conducted themselves politically in relation to Europeans” (p. 13).

How can you use this research?

Researchers and artists working with the literature, criticism and history of Indigenous nations will be interested in the ethics of doing such scholarship, a debate engaged by Monture who affirms the importance of keeping academic work interconnected with Indigenous societies and their ongoing struggles. General readers will appreciate the way in which Monture describes the distinct culture and history of Grand River Six Nations. As Monture explains, this research is part of a long tradition (Teionkwakhashion Tsi Niionkwariho:ten) of expressing Haudenosaunee concepts in a language that is accessible to non-Indigenous people in the hopes that greater awareness and understanding between Indigenous and settler societies can be reached.

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