Consider the Quahog

Nina Lytton is a humanist chaplain and celebrant, and a candidate for Unitarian Universalist Ministry.  She serves as an interfaith chaplain in clinical pastoral education at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  Nina is one of those people who really likes school.  She has an economics degree from Princeton, a business degree from MIT, and an M.Div from Meadville Lombard Theological School.  She comes to ministry after a career in high tech and slow food.  She is of European and Native American ancestry and practices the Hawaiian culture with her Big Island ohana.  #ProtectMaunakea

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I grew up in a small town on Montréal Island.  Outside my grade school, a flag flew: the Union Jack.  Every morning, we stood facing a portrait of Elizabeth II and sang God Save the Queen.  Dating myself, this was before the celebration of the 100th anniversary of confederation, when Canada got its own flag and national anthem.

At the time, 80% of the population of Québec were French-speaking Catholics.  Ten percent were White Anglo Saxon Protestants.  Ten percent were First Nations.  And there wasn’t much mixing.  Most of the English Canadians lived on the west side of Montréal Island.  There was only one English-speaking town off island, and that was located across the river from the Mohawk reservation at Kahnawake.

The Mohawk are the easternmost nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.  You may know the Handenosaunee by the name the French gave them, the “Iroquois.”  The Haudenosaunee (or Hodinohso:ni) lived, and still do, in upstate New York, and in southern Ontario and Québec.

Once, there was rivalry and violence among the tribes.  The Peacemaker Deganawida came with Hiyawentha to teach the tribes the Great Law of Peace.  How to see each other as equals, as part of the same family.  How to console each other’s hearts.  How to come to one mind.  How to establish a polity.  How to live in covenant.  And how to record it for posterity

The Haudenosaunee Confederation recorded their oral constitution through the mnemonic device of wampum strings and belts woven from purple and white shell beads.  The white beads are made from the inner spiral of the channeled whelk.  The purple beads are made from the rims of quahog shells.  The quahog shells from down here around Naragansett Bay were essential to Haudenosaunee governance.  Everything from clan leadership to tribal and national polity to treaties with other tribes was symbolically recorded with wampum strings and belts.  The belts metaphorically represented a navigable river, which made sense because rivers were often border areas where resources were shared.

Most of the wampum strings and belts have visual themes of connection, such as circles, human figures with interlocking arms or interlocking territories.  When the Tuscarora were admitted into the confederation, the metaphor was that of extending the rafters of a longhouse.

The founding of the Haudenosaunee confederacy is recorded in the Five Nations Wampum Belt, which features a central image of a fire (or a heart, depending which way you hold it), linked to two open figures on each side.  Onondaga were represented in the middle, Cayuga and Seneca to the west, and the Oneida and Mohawk to the East.

Attempts to date the founding have focused on a reported solar eclipse.  Many scholars argue for the eclipse of 1451.  Some argue for 1190.  In any case, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was well established as a peaceful democracy when Jacques Cartier came searching for a passage to Asia.  When he landed on the island now known as Montréal in 1535, he and his crew were quite ill.  The Mohawk nursed the Frenchmen back to health.

Samuel de Champlain arrived on Montréal in 1605.  He tried to create a fur trading post on the island, but was rebuffed by the Mohawk.  He did, however, introduce the Haudenosaunee to firearms.  In the years that followed, the tribes took sides with various foreigners, and fell out of the Great Law of Peace.  This was a spiritual crime: the Creator did not intend for people to be warring.

By the time the Dutch arrived on Manhattan and began exploring the Hudson River, the Haudenosaunee had learned a lesson about how quickly things could escalate.  They wanted peace because of their spirituality and culture.  The Dutch wanted peace because it was good for business.

In 1613, the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch hoped that their two cultures could coexist as neighbors and trading partners.  Their shared metaphor was the Dutch ship and the Haudenosaunee canoe.  Each was different, with no power over the other.  The idea was that these very different vessels would travel side-by-side down the river of life, always in parallel, separate but equal.  This was documented in the Two-Row Wampum Belt.  The belt shows two parallel purple stripes, on a field of white.  The stripes divide the white ground into three bands, representing the three principles of The Great Law of Peace—friendship, respect and peace.

The Dutch had a written document that added the visual metaphor of a three-link chain fastening both the ship and the canoe with friendship and respect to the great tree of peace.  Both sides emphasized the need continually to reaffirm the treaty, to “polish the chain.”

Seven years later our English theological ancestors arrived at Plymouth.

Friends, when you participate in the discussion of our UU Common Read on January 16, 2020 with DRE Cathy Seggel, you will know that the “Culture of Conquest” was long established in Europe.  It started with the crusades in the 11th century.  The Culture of Conquest is what had the naval powers of Europe looking to the Pope of Rome as a referee for their so-called discoveries in the new world.  In the words of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a “profit-based religion was the deadly element that European traders and settlers brought to the Americas.  In addition to seeking personal wealth, colonizers expressed a Christian zeal that justified colonialism.[1]

As Unitarian Universalists, our shared theological ancestors include the Calvinist writers of the Mayflower Compact, who saw themselves as the Elect.  Our ancestors include the first Massachusetts Bay Governor, John Winthrop.  In his sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, written in 1630 aboard the Arbella, Winthrop wrote:

We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.
The eyes of all people are upon us.

The White Anglo Saxon Protestants aboard the Arbella saw themselves in a Covenant with their God.  In the very same sermon, Winthrop laid it out:

…when God gives a special commission, He looks to have it strictly observed in every article.

He reminded his flock that God gave Saul a commission to utterly destroy the Amalekites.  When Saul did not do this, it “lost him the kingdom which should have been his reward.” The Puritans came to their “New Canaan” knowing they would have to take it from the “New Amalekites.”

Relative peace lasted for 17 years after the English arrived.  And then the Pequot War broke out.  Why?  What were the Mass Bay and Plymouth Colonists doing down south?  I’ll give you a clue: Consider the Quahog.

By the standards of the time, Massachusetts was disappointing territory.

  1. There were no gold or silver mines.
  2. There was no great river leading inland into beaver country. Beaver fur was THE secret to waterproofing the hats of the day…Louis XIV’s tricorn hat, Napoleon’s bicorn hat, the Pilgrims’ capotain hats.
  3. There were But the middle-class farmers who colonized Mass Bay did not have the skills to create a salt-cod fishery to trade with Spain.

The Massachusetts colonists had learned from the Dutch about the Haudenosaunee, and their demand for wampum beads.  Wampum was not money.  It was the stuff of social contract, the means to document a covenantal relationship in which the Creator was always deemed to be a third party.  There was a sacredness to wampum which gave it a material value for the Haudenosaunee above any European trade goods.

No, wampum was not money.  But, to early Bostonian eyes, it was a means of exchange that sure looked like money.  Hence, the Western scientific name for the quahog is Mercenaria mercenaria. 

At the time, the quahog fishery was controlled by Natives of Long Island Sound—the Naragansett whose base is right around here, and the Pequot, Niantic and Mohegan.  With trade goods including iron anvils and weapons, the Dutch encouraged these folks to produce more wampum.  By 1630, when the Mass Bay colonists arrived, wampum was unofficially monetized throughout the region as the key to the fur trade.

At the time, the Mass Bay colony was strapped for cash.  The only way for colonists to raise coin was to sell supplies to the next wave of settlers.  This was not enough to grow a local economy.  Barter was confining.  The Puritans needed a circulating currency.  Wampum was the answer.

Meanwhile, the growing value of wampum had already led to violent conflicts between the local Narragansett and the Pequot, who lived along the lower Connecticut and Thames rivers.  Each wanted to be the chief wampum broker for trade into the interior.  In 1633, the Dutch moved up into Connecticut to protect their interests.  They captured and murdered Tatobem, a Pequot leader.  The Pequot took revenge, and murdered an Englishman, John Stone.  The Pequot then tried to negotiate with Mass Bay Colony.  Winthrop negotiated the access he wanted, and a friendly peace.  But he would not give the Pequot what they wanted most, defense.  Instead, Boston’s leaders tried to broker a peace between the Pequot and the Narragansett.

Misunderstanding wampum as money, the Bostonians dishonored both tribes: the Pequot would never have paid the Narragansett for peace.  For the Pequot, wampum signaled a tributary relationship, and they expected protection in return for becoming a tributary of Boston.  Absent the protection, there was no “deal.”  Meanwhile, colonists acted as if there was a deal.  They continued to pour in through Massachusetts Bay and began to expand westward into Rhode Island and Connecticut.

If you want to know all the details, I recommend the new book, The City-State of Boston, by Mark Peterson of Yale University.[2]

Dr. Peterson describes the descending spiral of violence that culminates in the decision to punish the Pequot, which led to the Pequot Massacre of 1637.  Afterwards, Plymouth Governor William Bradford wrote:

Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, other rune throw with their repaiers, so as they were quickly dispatched, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400, at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stinck and sente there of; but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.[3]

Theologically, I find this astounding.  In general, the importance of a sacrifice’s aroma is not what it smells like, but what the aroma represents—the substitutionary atonement for sin.  In this case, William Bradford seems to be justifying the act of genocide as a sacrifice to God!!!

Shortly thereafter, the authorities in Boston declared wampum to be legal tender.  And then they rounded up the remaining Pequots as slaves, and sold them down to the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations.

This news made its way north to Haudenosaunee country.  When the Mohawk negotiated their own covenant with Great Britain in 1677, the idea of the ship and the canoe was still there, but the visual emphasis was different.  The Two-Row Wampum belt was a view from the top of the two parallel paths and of the three principles of the relationship—friendship, respect and peace.  The 1677 Covenant Chain Belt shows the situation from the front.  Each of the two rows is symbolized by a standing figure.  The largest image in the belt is the Covenant Chain the two parties are holding.  To my eye, it is more explicit.  Both the Haudenosaunee and British descendants must stand up to protect the covenant.  And that is a good reminder as we go forward into 2020.

YOU are the host congregation for General Assembly 2020.  Two important things will be happening—the unofficial agenda, and the official agenda.

As was the case at General Assembly 2019, there may be some latent tension at GA 2020.  The Rev. Susan Frederick Gray has vowed to dismantle white supremacy within the Unitarian Universalist Association.  At GA 2019, there was some acting out against this.  What could go wrong in 2020?  Consider the Quahog!

A chowder war could break out!  Can you imagine some UUs telling other UUs that white chowder is the right chowder, and everyone else is “not logical” about their taste in chowder.  It is up to you Rhode Islanders to stand for inclusion and diversity in chowder.  Do speak out against white-chowder supremacy!  Even Manhattan Chowder has worth and dignity.

Now here’s the second big thing about General Assembly in 2020—the official agenda, Rooted, Inspired, & Ready!

A major focus of General Assembly (GA) will be partnership with Indigenous leaders in the Northeast to explore how to co-exist in right relationship with one another and the land we occupy.  How do we act in solidarity with Indigenous communities?

The lead minister of my home congregation in Cambridge MA, the Rev. Adam Lawrence Dyer, has suggested atonement by the UUs, the UCCs, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  I would include Harvard in this list of theological descendants of the Pilgrims and Puritans.  In Massachusetts, we have an Indigenous Legislative Agenda that calls for a statewide Indigenous Peoples Day, prohibiting the use of Native sports team names and mascots, redesigning the state flag and seal, supporting Native education, and protecting Native heritage.

In my spiritual home of Hawaiʻi, the kiaʻi, or protectors of Maunakea are demanding respect for kanaka maoli spirituality, and respect for their sacred places.  They are reminding us that the Hawaiian Kingdom was never extinguished.  And that the United States never got permission to annex Hawaiʻi.  During the Offertory, Al Tringali will perform a protest song written back in 1893 to express opposition to the annexation. Kaulana Nā Pua is is translated as “Famous are the Flowers,” but most people refer to it as the Stone-Eaters’ Song.  (This link will give you an idea of the spiritual resonance it carries for Native Hawaiian people today.)

Meanwhile, here in Rhode Island, the Narragansett are still here.  The Pokanoket people are struggling for recognition.  Build your relationships.

As you prepare for GA 2020, where else could you look for inspiration?  Once again, I invite you: Consider the Quahog!  Why?  All 13 original colonies have a treaty with the Haudenosaunee.  Still?  Yes!  As long as the grass grows green, water flows downhill, and the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the wampum belt has meaning.

Seneca leader Red Jacket had warned George Washington (whose Mohawk name was “Town Destroyer”) about “rusty places on the chain of friendship” between them and the United States.  So in 1794, Washington dispatched his postmaster general, Timothy Pickering, to renew peace.  The resulting Canandaigua Treaty affirmed the nations’ right to their lands and established “firm peace and friendship” between them and the United States.  To commemorate the agreement, Washington commissioned a six-foot-long wampum belt.  It shows 13 figures holding hands connected to two figures and a longhouse.

The 13 figures represent the 13 States of the newly formed United States of America.  The two figures and building symbolize the Haudenosaunee.  The two figures next to the longhouse are the Mohawk (Keepers of the Eastern Door) and the Seneca (Keepers of the Western Door).

Haudenosaunee country is full of scholars and elders interpreting the applicability of the wampum belts to today’s world.  Native people find it more and more difficult to stay in entirely in the canoe, as the belts advise.  The world of the ship is all around us.  Those raised to pass into the world of the ship suffer spiritually from individuality and patriarchy.  This is why it is important for us to enter relations with intertribal organizations that serve the 80% of Native Americans who live in cities.  One such organization is hosted by your neighbor, Brown University.

The late Dr. Bob Antone, a member of the Oneida nation traditional chief’s council and an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario, saw it this way “we have to attend to the river.”  Speaking at a conference at Six Nations Polytechnic College in 2016, Dr. Antone made it clear that “polishing the chain” includes a requirement to look at the overall spiritual and physical environment within which the relationship exists.  “Our treaties and teaching are about kindness and inclusion.  The two-row is about building and maintaining relationships.”

The grass is still growing.  The water is still running downhill.  The sun is still rising in the east, setting in the west.  But we have not done our part.

Fortunately, we are Unitarian Universalists.  And we do know something about getting back into covenant.  We can do this.

Let us go forward to General Assembly 2020 with what our Haudenosaunee treaty partners would call a good mind, free of entitlement, humbly knowing that we do not have all the answers.

May respect and friendship be kindled through learning and listening.  May we approach the challenge of atonement with clear eyes, open ears, and peaceful intentions in our hearts.

So may it be. Amen.

[1] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Beacon Press, Boston, © 2014.  Pp 32-33.

[2] Mark Peterson, The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865, Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, © 2019.

[3] Of Plymouth Plantation was written over a period of years by William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.