The Meaning of Kaswentha and the Two Row Wampum Belt in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) History: Can Indigenous Oral Tradition be Reconciled with the Documentary Record?

in Journal of Early American History
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This essay analyzes the colonial era documentary record for corroboration of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) oral tradition regarding the kaswentha (as currently understood and represented in the form of a Two-Row wampum belt). Eighteen different recitations of the tradition appear in documentary sources from 1656 to 1755. These findings demonstrate substantial convergence and complementarity between two perspectives on the past and suggest that the comparison and integration of indigenous oral tradition and documentary research may yield a more robust understanding of the past than would be the case of either undertaken alone.

The Meaning of Kaswentha and the Two Row Wampum Belt in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) History: Can Indigenous Oral Tradition be Reconciled with the Documentary Record?

in Journal of Early American History



  • 2

    Anna Lee WaltersTalking Indian: Reflections on Survival and Writing (Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books1992) (“inherent right of…” p. 86). For a related assessment of conflicting documentary and oral evidence regarding an indigenous tradition see Carla Gerona “Caddo Sun Accounts Across Time and Place” American Indian Quarterly 36 (2012) pp. 348-76 (“more than one…” p. 349). Cf. Russel Lawrence Barsh “Netukulimk Past and Present: Mi’kmaw Ethics and the Atlantic Fishery” Journal of Canadian Studies 37 (2002) pp. 15-42.

  • 4

    Richard Hill Sr.“Oral Memory of the Haudenosaunee: Views of the Two Row Wampum,” Northeast Indian Quarterly 7 (1990) pp. 21-30; Howard R. Berman “Perspectives on American Indian Sovereignty and International Law 1600 to 1776” in Oren R. Lyons and John C. Mohawk (eds.) Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy Indian Nations and the U.S. Constitution (Santa Fe N.M.: Clear Light Publishers 1992) p. 135. For visual representations of “Two Row” belts see George G. Heye “Wampum Collection” Heye Foundation Indian Notes 7 (1930) pp. 320-1; Tehanetorens Wampum Belts (Ohsweken Ont.: Iroqrafts 1983) pp. 10-11.

  • 8

    Jennings et al (eds.)History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy p. 158 (quote) p. 226. This book was reissued in paperback by the same publisher in 1995. See also Allen W. Trelease Indian Affairs in Colonial New York: the Seventeenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1960) p. 34. The disputed document was first published in L.G. Van Loon “Tawagonshi: Beginning of the Treaty Era” Indian Historian 1 no. 3 (Summer 1968) pp. 22-6.

  • 10

    Muller“The Two ‘Mystery’ Belts of Grand River: A Biography of the Two Row Wampum and the Friendship Belt,” American Indian Quarterly 31 (2007) pp. 129-64 (quotes at 131 152 153). Muller’s subsequent dissertation (cited above n. 5) notably scaled back some of the more heated rhetoric contained in the 2007 article but still argued that the “discourse of an autonomous canoe and ship” represented a post-1867 innovation on the part of Haudenosaunee leaders in Canada who employed the ostensibly novel idea of the Two Row wampum belt to combat unprecedented assimilationist policy initiatives on the part of the Canadian federal government; see “Holding Hands With Wampum” pp. 141-63 (quote at 144) 240. On the nature of the Canadian government’s legislative threat to the historical legacy of partnership with indigenous nations and to any concept of “home rule to protect and encourage the development of a valued and variant culture” for Native communities see John S. Milloy “The Early Indian Acts: Developmental Strategy and Constitutional Change” in Ian A.L. Getty and Antoine S. Lussier (eds.) As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows: A Reader in Canadian Native Studies (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 1983) pp. 56-64 at 63.

  • 11

    Tom Arne MidtrødThe Memory of All Ancient Customs: Native American Diplomacy in the Colonial Hudson Valley (Ithaca: Cornell University Press2012) pp. 15-18.

  • 19

    James W. Bradley“Re-visiting Wampum and Other Seventeenth-Century Shell Games,” Archaeology of Eastern North America 39 (2011) pp. 25-51 at 31. Mohawk linguistic evidence establishes the association of the noun root for wampum with a device to fulfill certain societal functions to the precontact era. See Gunther Michelson “Iroquoian Terms for Wampum” International Journal of American Linguistics 57 (1991) pp. 108–16 at 115.

  • 24

    Muller“Holding Hands with Wampum” pp. 141-60; Angela M. Haas “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19.4 (2007) pp. 77-100; Elizabeth Hill Boone “Presidential Lecture: Discourse and Authority in Histories Painted Knotted and Threaded” Ethnohistory 59 (2012) pp. 225-30. See also the related discussion in Mark Meuwese Brothers in Arms Partners in Trade: Dutch-Indigenous Alliances in the Atlantic World 1595-1674 (Leiden: Brill 2012) pp. 257-75.

  • 25

     Cf. Muller“Two ‘Mystery’ Belts of Grand River” p. 140 (quotes).

  • 26

    FentonGreat Law and the Longhouse p. 308. Cf. Jennings The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from its beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744 (New York W.W. Norton 1984) pp. 373-5; Daniel K. Richter The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill N.C.: University of North Carolina Press 1992) pp. 136-41.

  • 32

    Charles E. Orser Jr.“An Archaeology of Eurocentrism,” American Antiquity 77 no. 4 (2012) pp. 745-50. See also Jaap Jacobs New Netherland: A Dutch Colony in Seventeenth Century America (Leiden: Brill 2005) pp. 398-9.

  • 35

    Jemison and ScheinTreaty of Canandaigua 1794 pp. 295-305; Fenton Great Law and the Longhouse pp. 622-706; Williams and Nelson “Kaswentha” p. 317.

  • 36

    FentonGreat Law and the Longhouse pp. 623-4 (quote); Williams Linking Arms Together pp. 12-13.

  • 37

    King“Value of Water” p. 461.

  • 38

    Peter NabokovA Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History (New York: Cambridge University Press2002); Claudio Saunt “Telling Stories: The Political Uses of Myth and History in the Cherokee and Creek Nations” Journal of American History 93 no. 3 (2006) pp. 673-97; Steven C. Hahn “The Cussita Migration Legend: History Ideology and the Politics of Mythmaking” in Thomas J. Pluckhahn and Robbie Ethridge (eds.) Light on the Path: The Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press 2006) pp. 57-93; Keith Thor Carlson “Reflections on Indigenous History and Memory: Reconstructing and Reconsidering Contact” in John Sutton Lutz (ed.) Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2007) pp. 47-8; Matt Hooley “The Autoethnography of William Whipple Warren” Wicazo Sa Review 27.2 (2012) pp. 75-98; Christine M. DeLucia “The Memory Frontier: Uncommon Pursuits of Past and Place in the Northeast After King Philip’s War” Journal of American History 98 (2012) pp. 994-6.

  • 42

    Richter“Rediscovered Links” p. 81.

  • 51

    RichterThe Ordeal of the Longhouse pp. 278-9.


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