An estimated 500 people standing at Pier 96 in Manhattan cheered to welcome the arrival of over 100 paddlers in canoes pushing their way down the Hudson River the morning of August 9.
The epic canoe trip originated at the Onondaga Territory in upstate New York. Their arrival in Manhattan culminated a 380-mile journey, with the paddlers making stops at the state capital in Albany, and several other communities along the way. Shortly after the paddlers arrived at Pier 96, Robert de Vos, the consul-general for the Netherlands, smoked tobacco with Jake Edwards, an Onondaga Nation chief who helped organize the trip. Smoking together symbolized a renewing of the Two Row Treaty.
“Paddling down the river… alongside our allies, is just so powerful,” Edwards said. “We got a lot of support from all the villages and communities we stopped at, welcomed with warmth as they fed and nourished us. Just being out on the water paddling, being free, that’s what this treaty is all about is the freedom. We understand that as we paddle along, we shouldn’t steer into each other’s vessels. This is the agreement that was made four hundred years ago. We actually lived it on the water.”
“I think events like these show that four hundred years later, we are still living here, side by side, along with non-Natives,” said Kevin Tarrant, deputy director of the American Indian Community House in New York City. “We still have this agreement today. I think that having all the chiefs come together, that’s pretty memorable that they are travelling from site to site with the canoes, sharing this message of peace and friendship.”
The paddlers were also joined by the Unity Riders, a group of riders on horseback who traveled from Manitoba, Canada. Despite the ups and downs this group experienced during their travels, the experience was worth it, according to Jessie Higheagle, Dakota and Ojibway from Manitoba. “When you put something hard to do in front of someone, when they rise up to that occasion and do it, this is what we [Unity Riders] have done,” Higheagle said. “The horses really have taken care of us a lot. With all of the things that we’ve gone through we’ve had to really work with the horses. It’s been hard but we’ve been getting better at taking care of them. It’s the little things that have fallen into my lap that have been great.”
The canoe trip also happened to end on another important date, International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, which the United Nations recognizes. After the canoe paddlers arrived at Pier 96, participants and supporters trekked across Manhattan to gather in front of the UN Building. Following that, a special council session was held inside for dignitaries. Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons spoke at the special session about the two-row wampum. He reminded the council that it is still “very important, very positive and very substantial. And it’s still about peace.” The wampum also stressed taking care of the environment for future generations, Lyons said.
Hickory Edwards, Onondaga Nation member, was the lead paddler for the canoe trip. He is concerned about the condition of the earth, that it won’t last long enough for future generations to live on and maintain. “Today is a turning point—it’s a turning point in the world,” Edwards said. “How the world has been treated up until now, it’s a fork in the road. If we keep on traveling down the road we’re on right now, it will lead us to a dead end. But there is another road, another option to turn around and choose to take better care of our environment. That road will help us save our world, save it for our future generations. We need to take care of it for them.”
Lyons believes future generations will remember this event, and will continue to honor the agreement four hundred years from now. “The Peacemaker first said to us that we should think about our seven generations. A woman once asked, ‘Now that you have made this treaty, what are you going to do with it?’ The answer to that is, ‘It’s up to you.’”