West Point Grey United Church
Jul 27, 2021

Toward Just Relations Part 3: “All My Relations”

Luke 10: 27-37


27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”


A few years ago, while I was in Ontario, I went to Lake Wilcox Park. It is situated in the city of Richmond Hill about 30 km north of Toronto. When I visited the park, it had just been renovated with new features such as a boardwalk, a canoe club and a bridge. While crossing the bridge, I saw some interesting art on the bridge rails – two figures holding hands together as commonly found on the wampum belt. The inscription read: “I now therefore present you the great (wampum) Belt by which I bind all your Western Nations together with the English, and I desire that you will take fast hold of the same, and never let it slip – Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs 1764.” I soon realized it as the description from the 1764 Treaty of Niagara. So, I looked at the other side of the bridge in expectation of seeing the Indigenous story about the treaty. To my surprise there was no inscription on that rail nor in the surrounding area to explain the relationship between the parties to the treaty. Only one side of the story of the treaty, that from the Crown, the British settlers’ perspective was told. When it comes to a treaty, usually two parties have met together to settle certain matters. Here there was no Indigenous story; was it consciously deleted by the city?

What, then, is the true story of the Niagara Treaty in 1764? Why should we be interested in a 250-year-old treaty? What is the significance of the treaty? In the mid 18 century there were many conflicts between European setters and the Indigenous nations in the areas including south of Lake Erie such as the Ohio valley. The European setters rapidly expanded their colonies into the Indigenous Nations’ lands and caused many conflicts due to disputes about political and territorial jurisdiction between various Indigenous Nations and the Crown. To solve this conflict two treaty parties representing about 2,000 leaders of over 24 Indigenous Nations from Hudson Bay to Upstate New York and the Crown met, renewed and affirmed their “nation-to-nation relationship” in what is called, “the Treaty of Niagara of 1764.” During the Treaty affirmation ceremonies, Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies, presented the Covenant Chain wampum belt. In turn, the Indigenous Nations presented a Two Row Wampum belt to confirm the mutual engagements. Indigenous Law academic John Borrows asserts, “the two-row wampum belt reflects a diplomatic convention that recognizes interaction and separation of settler and First Nation societies.” In the Niagara Treaty, the two parties agreed never to obstruct the path of the other’s culture and land so that they would journey together side by side in friendship, respect and peace, according to the principle of the Two-Row Wampum Belt made in 1613 through a treaty between Dutch settlers and Indigenous nations. That principle became the core principle of future treaties.

Replica of a Two Row Wampum belt (Gus-Wen-Tah):
Displayed in the Woodland Cultural Centre Museum, Brantford, ON.

Canada Day is coming soon. What and how can we celebrate that day? A growing number of people are suggesting that Canada Day be canceled in order to honour the history, culture, and traditions of Indigenous peoples. Particularly this year we may need to go back to 1764, the year 24 Indigenous nations and the Crown made their treaty – the very treaty indicated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in section 45 to refer to “the Treaty of Niagara of 1764” and “reaffirm the nation to nation relationship between [Indigenous] peoples and the Crown.” Why so?

The Covenant Chain Wampum, Niagara Treaty in 1764

Now we move to about 100 years later, after the Niagara Treaty of 1764. In the mid nineteenth century there was a conflict between Upper and Lower Canada. In Canada East, formerly Lower Canada – nowadays the Québec area – people spoke French and the dominant religion was Roman Catholic. However, Canada West, formerly Upper Canada – nowadays Ontario – was different; the people were largely Protestant Anglophones. The different religious and ethnic backgrounds of the immigrant populations contributed to political conflict. The representatives of both ethnic groups gathered together to solve the problem in 1867 and signed an act of the British Parliament to establish the Confederation. Unfortunately, the Indigenous nations were excluded from the names of the founding nations at Confederation in 1867. Even before Confederation, the Residential School programme had begun to assimilate Indigenous peoples into European culture.

In this historical context – a few days before Canada Day and the aftermath of the tragedy of Residential Schools and the revelation of unmarked graves at former Residential Schools, I would like to suggest we need to commit to learning from the Indigenous wisdom expressed in “All my relations” on how to build just relations.

Every morning during the learning circle in 2008 I mentioned last week, we were invited to participate in a sacred fire ceremony. When I approached the sacred fire on the hill of the learning circle, I saw that there were four stakes tied with coloured ribbons marking the four directions: red (east), yellow (south), black (west) and white (north). We chose where to stand in the circle freely, regardless of cultural background, within the markers of the four directions. I felt the power of the circle’s affirmation that we were all of equal value; here there was no indication of a hierarchy; there was no beginning or end – we were all connected equally with each other.

Indigenous peoples do not believe the Great Spirit works only for them; they see the four races as the manifestation of the Great Spirit that come from the four directions to all peoples. They believe each person, regardless of racial or cultural background, has a “special relationship” with the Great Spirit. This Great Spirit binds each individual person in a circle of equality and harmony. This special relationship with the Great Spirit is not limited to human beings; it is extended to all living beings. Indigenous theologian Vine Deloria, Jr. says indigenous peoples do not regard other living things as non-conscious species. Rather they are “peoples” in the same manner as the various tribes are peoples. In Indigenous thought, there are no boundaries excluding other human beings and all creation from their kinship relationship: all are relatives. Indigenous peoples extend the concept of kinship to all creatures. Last week Billie Housego lent me a book, Finding the Mother Trees by Suzanne Simard. If I summarize, as Billie did, trees are peoples. They are our relatives; they are kin.

This kinship relationship is manifest in the phrase, mitakuye oyasin. It is commonly translated as “all my relations,” and it is a response often used at the beginning or end of a prayer, talk or story. It is often repeated in sweat lodge ceremonies among the peoples of the Lakota and Dakota. Other Indigenous communities have a similar phrase in their language. In the prayer the response, mitakuye oyasin, is somewhat equivalent to the “Amen,” at the end of a Christian prayer, a declaration of affirmation. According to Indigenous theologian George Tinker, mitakuye oyasin is “polyvalent” in its meaning; the phrase includes the immediate family, fellow tribal members, all [Indigenous] peoples, all the two-legged (Black, Red, Yellow and White), four-legged, the winged and all the living-moving things of the earth. The thought is created and affirmed in the notion of mitakuye oyasin through various ceremonies: the affirmation goes out to all relations that no one exists alone but all are related to each other. The immanent relationship symbolizes the interrelatedness and interdependence of all life. Mitakuye oyasin seeks reciprocity rather than control over others and other life forms. It seeks just relations out of mutual concern for each other, since all the creatures of the world are our relatives and command our respect as fellow creatures. Thomas King writes “‘all my relations’ is an encouragement for us to accept the responsibility we have within this universal family by living our lives in a harmonious and moral manner.” “All my relations” is an expression of communal responsibility for the well-being of all life forms.

So, as we approach Canada Day, let us be more mindful of the day and our nation, especially our relationship with our Indigenous neighbours. We will extend our kinship relationship with others including trees and animals. We will liken the wisdom from Indigenous peoples, “All my relations” as a living guideline with Jesus’ teaching in Luke 10: 27-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. To the question Jesus asked – who is neighbour to the Other, we will all say, “We are” (10:30). “All my relations.”

Wampum (belt) Video

A Short Description of Wampum by Hyuk Cho

The idea of making beads from the Northern Quahog clamshell has a long history along the Atlantic coastal peoples from Main to New Jersey. Necklaces over 2000 years old, made of long cylindrically shaped shell beads as well as discoidal shell beads of various sizes, have been found in burial grounds in Mohawk Valley. Wampum-like shell beads about 1/4 inch long and 1/8 inch diameter in both white and purple, similar to modern ones, were used in pre-colonial days. In the Algonquian languages, the beads were called wampompeage or, in some localities, sewan or zewand; generally sewan prevailed among the Dutch, and wampum among the English. The word wampum derives from wompi, meaning white.

According to Tehanetorens (Ray Fadden, Mohawk), wampum was introduced to the Iroquois by a leader of Onondaga, Hiawatha (also known as Ayonwatha), at the time of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy of the Five Nations (the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas) in the 15th century. Hiawatha brought the idea of a Confederacy that would bring a binding peace within the Five Nations. At the Confederacy, 50 chiefs from the five nations joined hands together in a circle at the first Council Fire that is symbolized by the Circle Wampum (fig. 1). The big circle with the fifty wampum strings of the Circle Wampum represents the Confederacy chiefs connected by the unbroken Great Law of Peace. The concept of the Circle Wampum appears in the Hiawatha Belt (fig. 2), visually signifying the unity of the Five Nations. The Hiawatha Belt is a broad wampum belt with a purple background and the white emblem. The Great Tree of Peace in the Belt is situated in the centre and on either side two white squares are connected by a line that extends through and links each Nation, side by side. The Five Nations completed a peace treaty known as the Iroquois Confederacy (Grand Council) I 1722.

  Figure 1. The Circle Wampum                            Figure 2. The Hiawatha Belt   

Source: Tehanetorens, Wampum Belts of the Iroquois (Book Publishing, 1999), 16 & 20.