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EDI Knowledge Mobilization and Dissemination Centre at Sheridan


The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Philosophies of the Kaswentha or Two Row Wampum

Written by Rye Karonhiowanen Barberstock, PhD Candidate

April 26, 2023

Two Row Wampum belt (replica). Photo by Ryan Karonhiowanen Barberstock

In 1613, the Haudenosaunee observed non-Indigenous Peoples entering their territory, near the Hudson River (close to present day Albany, New York). These unexpected visitors were the Dutch, who began to occupy the land, unaware that they were settling on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee Peoples. In true diplomatic fashion, the Haudenosaunee sent an envoy to the new Dutch settlements for a formal introduction and to understand the purpose of their occupation. It was during these initial visits that the Dutch would be introduced to the Haudenosaunee concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion, using terminology such as ‘brother’ to refer to the Dutch in place of ‘father’ of which the Dutch insisted to be called. It was this first teaching using the term ‘brother’ that leveled the playing field to begin the process to create equitable relationships based not on a concept of superiority, but on a shared reality of fairness. In addition, as a matrilineal society, the Haudenosaunee also demonstrated equity and equality through the inclusion of Haudenosaunee women’s voices in their own decision-making processes.

An agreement would evolve from these conversations in the form of a Wampum Belt made of wampum beads sourced from Atlantic Ocean seashells. Crafted with great care, the Kaswentha (also known as the Two Row Wampum Belt), depicted three white rows representing the three guiding principles of peace, friendship, and respect. The two purple rows on the Wampum Belt reflected two worlds of thought represented by the Dutch sailing ship and the Haudenosaunee canoe—both vessels would travel down the river of life side-by-side; however, neither would attempt to steer or disturb the other’s vessel.

According to the Haudenosaunee, the agreement based on togetherness would last in perpetuity. The Two Row Wampum belt is representative of an Indigenous doctrine of relationships that unite nations under the terms and conditions of peace, friendship, and respect. These intrinsic factors are the foundation of honouring the sacred roles of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

  1. Diversity: The Two Row Wampum Belt has many rows of beads made of quahog and whelk shells. Each bead has its own distinct story, its own identity and agency, illustrating the diversity of Mother Earth. Each bead is unique, yet when bound together the beads serve as a reminder of the power of diversity. Twisted elm bark bindings connect the story of place by symbolizing the relationship between land and sea. These representations reflect the diversity of life in each of these relational worlds. This creates a rich diversity, which reminds us that we are not the center of the world. Instead, we are part of a large and diverse Earth community, as represented by the beads and bindings of the Two Row Wampum.
  2. Equity: There is a sacred and intrinsic bond between Peoples and places, which is based on a universal understanding of the power of unique relationships that form conditions for equality, as represented in the Two Row Wampum. A fundamental concept of unity and harmony, which is found in nature, is expressed through unique interplays that create a deep sense of oneness or equality. The Two Row Wampum represents equity’s power to create fairness. The Two Row Wampum represents two unique vessels: one a wooden sailing ship, the other a canoe; or two modes of thinking and being, each possessing distinct identities while maintaining a sense of equal representation. In the Two Row Wampum, the two purple rows share a commonality: to be side-by-side, to respect each other, and to maintain a distinct identity without interfering with each other.
  3. Inclusion: According to Haudenosaunee oral history, the Dutch settlers were given invaluable teachings on life-based principles by their Haudenosaunee hosts in the early 1600s, including principles of inclusion derived from Haudenosaunee teachings based on the concepts of peace, friendship, and respect. These three inclusive principles are represented by the white bands on the Two Row Wampum. Thus, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples alike bear an inherent and treaty responsibility to maintain a standard of living that does not discriminate but embraces diversity and nurtures inclusive communities. What defines these sacred responsibilities is the diversity of the two rows in the Two Row Wampum Belt. Similar to an equal sign, the two rows remind us of the spirit of relationship based on equity and equality. A symbol of Haudenosaunee inclusion championed over 400 years ago, the Two Row Wampum Belt symbolizes shared values and treaty obligations and is one of the first representations of inclusive community relations in Turtle Island (North America).

Additionally, the Two Row Wampum Belt reveals that Indigenous Peoples in North America (pre-contact) were highly sophisticated and had environmentally adaptive societies with a rich history of inter-relational diplomacy. Concepts such as diversity, equity, and inclusion are not new concepts to the Haudenosaunee but are based on natural law and relationships that have shaped Indigenous worldviews since time immemorial. Furthermore, it is these intrinsic worldviews that can offer Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples novel ways to co-define, co-design, and co-develop inclusive community-building approaches, to create an optimal environment where all Peoples feel heard and respected.

These are Haudenosaunee perspectives, but they are also grounded in human-based relationships and concepts of interconnectedness. I invite you to learn and grow from this knowledge and build upon this understanding in your own unique ways. Remembering that equity, diversity, and inclusion are not new; they are time honoured ways of being that have shaped healthy and vibrant communities since time immemorial in the Great Lakes region and beyond.

This article was first written by Rye Karonhiowanen Barberstock as part of CICan’s 50 – 30 Challenge “Let’s Talk EDI” webinar series – a virtual space for important conversations to advance workplace EDI across Canada. In an interactive Indigenous-led webinar session entitled “Inclusion of Indigenous Women (and Indigenous Peoples) in the Workplace”, speakers Shyra Barberstock and Ryan ‘Rye’ Barberstock engaged an audience about the importance of inclusion of Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples in the workplace, Indigenous relations and reconciliation, and the current and future state of Indigenous economic development across Canada.

This article was developed as part of CICan’s 50 – 30 Challenge Ecosystem partnership with ISED. Interested in learning more?  We encourage you to visit our website for resources, personalized one-on-one support and training to support your organization on their EDI journey. Keep up to date by signing up for our mailing list.

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