On The Meaning of Renewing the Relationship Between the Dutch and Haudenosaunee Peoples: The Two Row Wampum Treaty After 400 Years


Marc Woons*


In September 2013, a group of three Haudenosaunee leaders made the long voyage from Turtle Island (North America) to The Hague in the Netherlands to mark not only the annual celebration of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but extraordinarily the four-hundredth anniversary of the Two Row Wampum Treaty between the Dutch and Haudenosaunee peoples. On the occasion, the Haudenosaunee leaders and the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador exchanged gifts and shook hands to symbolize the renewal of the Treaty’s principles of peace and friendship. This paper looks beyond that important occasion by analyzing the likelihood of the Dutch taking the steps necessary to renew such principles and ultimately to honor the Treaty four centuries later. Based on the evidence, the Dutch are doing less than ever before to honor the Two Row Wampum Treaty. The main claim, therefore, is that if the Dutch truly wish to live up the Treaty, they will have to begin by recognizing the proper place of Haudenosaunee sovereignty on Turtle Island even if that involves taking steps that might strain relations with the United States and Canada.

Keywords: Two Row Wampum; Haudenosaunee; the Netherlands; treaties;


As 2013 came to a close, the Dutch missed a golden opportunity to do right by Indigenous peoples, to use its unique relationship with the Haudenosaunee to become global leaders in implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) (UN General Assembly, 2007). As Wiemers (2013) wrote in the popular Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant at the beginning of 2013, the year offered a unique reason to renew a relationship first forged 400 years ago in 1613 between the Dutch and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations. At the time, the Two Row Wampum Treaty established a new relationship based on friendship, peace, and respect and paved the way for the establishment of Fort Nassau, the first Dutch settlement on Turtle Island (North America), in 1614.

Wiemers ends his article with a hopeful yet modest proposal. He calls on the Dutch government to restore recognition of Haudenosaunee passports – which began as early as 1923 but has ended in recent years – as a good first step to renewing the friendship forged centuries ago (Wiemers, 2013). Unfortunately, it appears the Dutch government has little interest in officially recognizing the passport and even less interest in sincerely renewing its treaty relationship with the Haudenosaunee nations. This is all the more disturbing given the Netherlands’ support for the UNDRIP, adopted in September 2007.

On the surface, my claim might seem heavy-handed. After all, on September 13, next to the Great Tree of Peace in The Hague, an extraordinary celebration took place to mark not just the sixth anniversary of the UNDRIP but also the four-hundredth anniversary of the Two Row Wampum Treaty. Organized by the Netherlands Coalition for Indigenous Peoples, Alifuru drummers (whose traditional territories are in what is now commonly known as Indonesia) welcomed Lionel Veer, the Dutch Ambassador for Human Rights, and Oren Lyons, Joe Deom and Kenneth Deer, three Haudenosaunee delegates who made the long journey from Turtle Island. Both sides shook hands and exchanged gifts as their ancestors did in 1613, symbolizing a renewed commitment to peace and friendship (Ramaker, 2013). The upbeat message sent by Chief Sidney Hill, the Haudenosaunee Tadodaho (Grand Chief), was that “the ancient covenant of the Two Row Wampum illustrates to the peoples of the world that countries and nations do honor their agreements and that peace needs these positive examples to inspire our world leaders to try harder in their endeavors for peaceful resolutions to the difficult situations all of humanity faces today” (L. van der Vlist, personal communication, November 7, 2013).

Unfortunately, as I intend to show, even a gentle scratching of the surface reveals a very different picture of Dutch attitudes toward its treaty relationship with the Haudenosaunee nations – one that makes such celebrations in a Dutch city known globally for upholding treaties and human rights open to interpretation and even claims of tragic irony by astute observers. While the Haudenosaunee see the Two Row Wampum as a living treaty, the Dutch seem more or less inclined to see it as a debatable relic of a bygone era, as an interesting part of history that can be commemorated but that does not form the basis of a modern relationship leaving the Treaty largely ignored the rest of the time.

Uncovering The Underlying Dutch Perspective

For starters, the Dutch stopped honoring Haudenosaunee passports as a matter of policy. The three leaders who made the trip for the recent ceremony in The Hague had to receive special permission from the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs himself, and only with some difficulty (L. van der Vlist, personal communication, November 7, 2013). In other words, members of Haudenosaunee nations must travel on American or Canadian passports if they want to be treated fairly. This is simply unacceptable and goes against the values present in the Two Row Wampum Treaty and article 3 of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, which states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to … freely determine their political status” (UN General Assembly, 2007). By making travel on their own passports difficult to impossible, the Dutch force them to adopt passports that carry the identity and legal status of their oppressors. Canadian and American governments have a terrible track record – which continues to this day – of separating Indigenous peoples from their lands, their families, and their traditions. One only needs to consider the recent “Idle No More” movement and the Government of Canada’s recent use of police and military force against peaceful protestors who wanted to stop environmentally-devastating extraction of resources from occurring on Mi’kmaq territory (see Schwartz and Gollow, 2013). At Toronto’s 2013 Remembrance Day service, police officers arrested a Haudenosaunee veteran who served five years in the former Yugoslavia for wanting to wave his national flag at the ceremony (MacLellan, 2013). By pushing members of the Haudenosaunee to travel on American or Canadian passports, the Dutch government leaves the very questionable legitimacy of Canada and the United States untouched. They side against the Haudenosaunee and undermine the principle of mutual national recognition called for in the Two Row Wampum Treaty.

Even more disturbing is the considerable effort put into directly challenging the legitimacy of the Two Row Wampum Treaty itself. In what might be seen as aa backhanded effort to commemorate the Two Row Wampum Treaty’s 400 th anniversary, one of Holland’s most renowned publishing houses – Koninklijke Brill NV – released a special issue of the Journal of Early American History that casts serious doubts on the authenticity of the Treaty. The issue’s co-editors make damaging claims. They suggest the Treaty was forged and that it should not be seen as a legitimate treaty between sovereign nations “at least in European terms” (Otto and Jacobs, 2013, p. 6). They propose an alternative theory that keeps the door open, however slightly, to the possibility that such a treaty may have been possible, but only after the conclusion of the four-year Mohawk-Mahican war in 1628. In an odd twist, the scholars reject Haudenosaunee oral tradition on the Treaty, but reference a war that is itself almost exclusively known only through Indigenous oral traditions. According to Hemmis (2011), “there is little historical documentation about this conflict because both combatant sides were Native American oral cultures.” So while leading officials like the Dutch Ambassador for Human Rights attend ceremonies, smiling, and shaking hands to celebrate the Two Row Wampum Treaty, Dutch scholars are, unknowingly perhaps, fuelling a broader effort to undermine its validity and strength, disrespecting the oral traditions of the Haudenosaunee in the process.

Yet, one does not even have to go so far as to question the validity of the work done by Otto, Jacobs, and others to understand the negative effect it has on the Netherlands’ relationship with Indigenous peoples. Perhaps Dutch academics could learn from their North American counterparts who for decades have been seeking a foundation upon which a more just relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can be built. Even if only taken at the metaphorical level, the Two Row Wampum Treaty has served as an inspiration for Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars (e.g., Borrows, 2002). Melissa Williams (2004, pp. 106–107) shares a particularly telling account of the Two Row Wampum Treaty given by Robert A. Williams, Jr.:

There is a bed of white wampum which symbolizes the purity of the agreement. There are two rows of purple, and those two rows have the spirit of your ancestors and mine. There are three beads of wampum separating the two rows, and they symbolize peace, friendship and respect. These two rows will symbolize two paths or two vessels, travelling down the same river together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian people, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be fore the white people and their laws, their customs, and their ways. We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our own boat. Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.

Regardless of the outcome of historical debates that will likely endure for some time, the powerful metaphor of the Two Row Wampum Treaty highlights the importance of working together and respecting difference. Although the Dutch lost its colonies on Turtle Island long ago, it still has a significant role to play in helping guarantee that the Haudenosaunee are free to practice their laws, customs, and ways indefinitely and without unfair constraints.

Most troubling of all, therefore, is the diminishing instead of increasing role the Dutch play in supporting the relationship of peace and friendship started four centuries ago. Beyond the primarily symbolic nature of passports and historical interpretation, the Dutch no longer stand by the Haudenosaunee as they once did. In 1923, and in what was perhaps the first recognized use of a Haudenosaunee passport, Deskaheh made his own voyage from Turtle Island across the Atlantic Ocean in a bid to further Haudenosaunee nationalism. His destination was the League of Nations in Switzerland, where he lobbied for national recognition so that his people would be protected from a Canadian government that was meddling in their affairs in direct contradiction of the principles of the Two Row Wampum and other agreements. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Netherlands insisted on Deskaheh’s petition being presented despite backlash from Canada and allies such as Britain, who would have otherwise been successful in preventing it from being considered at all (Drees, 1995). Similarly, in 1977, the Netherlands supported calls for international recognition of Haudenosaunee passports despite adamant international opposition (Johansen, 2006). At the time, only twenty-eight states agreed to accept Haudenosaunee passports, though this number has fallen in recent years due to countries (including the Netherlands) changing their minds on the matter. The fact that these efforts had limited impact is not the point; promoting Indigenous rights in today’s world is, after all, an uphill battle. The main point here, and indeed of this paper, is that the Netherlands is falling woefully short on its legal and moral commitments.

A Less Modest Role for the Dutch in Renewing The Relationship: Policy and Institutional Implications

So what does sincerely renewing the relationship look like? The Government of the Netherlands could start by seriously considering what the Two Row Wampum Treaty means as an unbroken and therefore contemporary treaty, particularly in light of its support for the UNDRIP. This could be initiated by actively reflecting on, as one would in any friendship, the Haudenosaunee understanding of the relationship. This would inevitably lead to my less modest starting point: the immediate restoration of Dutch recognition of Haudenosaunee sovereignty, which must be seen as living alongside, and therefore challenging, the allegedly unquestionable sovereignty of Canada and the United States.

The literature is full of examples of how Indigenous and state sovereignty can be reconciled in places like Canada and the United States. In Canada, creative ideas have included establishing a House of First Peoples alongside Parliament (see Williams, 2004), introducing guaranteed Indigenous representation in legislatures (see Fleras, 1991; Ladner, 2003; Murphy, 2008), and using co-management boards that promote equal governing powers over specific resources or territories (see Notzke, 1995; Penikett, 2006). Many of these ideas were presented as part of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was released in 1996 after five years of consulting with Canada’s Indigenous peoples (Canada, 1996). The ideas coming from the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples seem particularly worthy of support, given it was the result of a process endorsed and supported by the Government of Canada and that many Indigenous people felt fairly engaged with their concerns and produced an acceptable future for Indigenous-state relations. Despite investing heavily in the Report, and against the wishes of many Indigenous peoples and their leaders, the Government of Canada lets it collect dust somewhere on its shelves.

In the United States, considerable debate exists on the extent that Haudenosaunee federalism influenced the American Constitution (for an overview of the discussion, see Payne, 1996). I have so far only hinted that the Haudenosaunee is not a singular nation, but composed of six nations. The Haudenosaunee was originally founded by five nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca peoples), and was only later joined by the Tuscaroras people around 1720. The Haudenosaunee formed an alliance whereby all nations willingly subjected themselves to the Gayanashagowa, which has been translated as the Great Law of Peace. The numerous articles of this constitution called on the cessation of warfare between their nations, the joint protection and expansion of their territories, and democratic government based on consensus. Like the Two Row Wampum Treaty, it was important to establish strong friendships between unique peoples in order to promote peace. “For the Iroquois the exchange of good thoughts between alienated or differing cultural groups was the original and continuing basis of a mutual relationship of reciprocating rights and accommodating duties” (R.A. Williams, 2004, p. 981). The Haudenosaunee constitution was also recorded in the form of a wampum belt called the Hiawatha Wampum Belt, which depicts the five original nations in a row connected by a line. Today, the Hiawatha Wampum Belt is used as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s flag and is a powerful unifying symbol of peace and friendship among its constituent nations.

These aforementioned ideas are raised not to endorse any specific policies or solutions. This is in part because specific details must be sorted out as part of an ongoing discussion rooted in justice (and not ruled by power) between the Haudenosaunee (and other Indigenous peoples) and settler states. The above examples are instead raised to show that considerable thought has already been put into these questions and that realistic alternatives have been found.

So what role do the Dutch have? First, and generally speaking, the Dutch could break the “conspiracy of silence”, as Bull (2002, p. 80) calls it, which exists within the international state system that maintains an unjust power imbalance between stateless Indigenous nations and recognized nation-states. As Pitty notes, “external pressure is a vital source of support for Indigenous Peoples … Yet, because of the conspiracy that Bull highlighted, only rarely will such agents be other states … Because of the conspiracy of silence, states still routinely tolerate the structural violence of racism in order to uphold the principle of not interfering in another state’s internal politics” (Pitty 2014, p. 76).

At least in the case of the Haudenosaunee, it is hard to imagine an external actor with more reason to take action than the Dutch. Breaking the conspiracy of silence would be a powerful step symbolically and practically, and could involve a number of recommendations for transforming international relations as we know it. For instance, the Dutch could work through the UN by demanding Indigenous peoples be accorded a more prominent role within its institutions. They could call for greater funding and powers for the Office of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Or, as Pitty himself calls for, powerful external actors such as the Government of the Netherlands could have a catalytic effect in ensuring that a fairer international system of transnational mediation be implemented that resolves conflicts between the legitimate claims of Indigenous peoples and states. Honoring many of the UNDRIP articles also demands that the Dutch pressure Canada and the United States (and other states with Indigenous peoples) to allow Indigenous peoples full rights to self-determination (article 3), the ability to participate in decision affecting them through institutions they consented to participate within (articles 18 and 19). The Dutch position could be seen as part of generally uncovering the full implications of the UNDRIP, though it would be the Two Row Wampum Treaty that provides the Dutch with additional incentive – and authority – to speak to a new relationship between existing states and Indigenous nations.

Concluding Remarks

It goes without saying that the plight of Indigenous people around the world is bleak. Countries who claim the moral high ground based on their self-perception as champions of human rights, such as the Netherlands, simply can not stand by and watch as Indigenous peoples are marginalized culturally and economically in a variety of ways, including being separated from their lands so that multinational corporations can extract resources. We rightly see western states shame China and other known human rights abusers. But is the Netherlands willing to stand up to the United States or Canada to rebalance the scales of justice?  If the Dutch really care about renewing the relationship with the Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous peoples, they must be willing to do much more than simply recognize their passports; they must stop questioning whether they have a moral obligation toward the Haudenosaunee specifically and Indigenous peoples in general and start fighting for their rightful place in the global community. Anything less maintains the comfortable status quo perspective of the Dutch, which includes seeing the Two Row Wampum Treaty as a historical document with little relevance in today’s world.

Returning to the Great Tree of Peace in The Hague on September 13, we can see that good thoughts and kind gestures were an important part of the ceremony. For the Haudenosaunee, good thoughts are indeed a basis for a new relationship based on peace and friendship and are “a feeling as much as a reality” (R. A. Williams, 1994, p. 1005, my emphasis). I am convinced the words shared by Chief Sidney Hill were good thoughts in such a sense. Anything less on the part of the Dutch amounts to being friends in words but not in actions.


I would like to thank Leo van der Vlist, Director of the Netherlands Centre for Indigenous Peoples, for sharing information that greatly assisted me in writing this piece. I am also grateful to the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek – Vlaanderen (Research Foundation – Flanders) for supporting my research. The views expressed in this paper are entirely my own.


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*Marc Woons is an FWO Doctoral Fellow at KU Leuven - Institute of Philosophy, Centre for Ethics, Social and Political [email protected],

Philosophy in Leuven Belgium. He may be contacted at:

Web: marcwoons.com, Twitter: @marcwoons.