Hickory Edwards dragged his canoe out of the water and put on a shirt.
It was a hot day. The shirt was almost instantly soaked with sweat, but Edwards didn’t seem that concerned.
“It rained on us almost every day for the first half of our trip,” he said. “We’re grateful for the sun.”
Edwards led a group of 21 boats and 25 paddlers onto the landing at the Water’s Edge Lighthouse Restaurant for a quick lunch break Sunday afternoon. They launched early in the day from Mabee Farm, but most started with Edwards two weeks ago on the Onondaga Creek near Syracuse.
It’s a long paddle, but for the small group it’s one with a cause.
The expedition is part of the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign. To explain the campaign’s whole point, Edwards had to go back 400 years.
Back in 1613, the Iroquois, five nations covering Upstate New York, got wind of Dutch traders moving into their area. They sent an envoy from Onondaga to a Dutch settlement in current-day Albany where a peace agreement was reached.
The Dutch, of course, wrote the agreement down. The natives wove a wampum belt of beads and hide — white with two parallel blue stripes.
“The stripes stand for our two nations, paddling down the river of life,” Edwards said, lifting a replica wampum from his canoe. “They’re parallel, together but never touching. Neither trying to steer the other’s boat. Equal.”
Since then, he said, the two cultures have fallen out of the balance described in that early treaty. Now on the wampum’s 400th anniversary, he’s leading the group in an effort to restore balance.
Simply put, the symbolic paddle is meant to remind America’s largely Western culture to respect the old treaty. So far, there’s been good support. The core group is only about a dozen people, like Edwards, from the Onondaga and other Indian reservations, but others joined up along the way.
Sunday afternoon, people from all over the region pumped sun-heated water from their beached canoes. One man flew in from Antwerp, Belgium, just to be part of the trip.
Hubert De Leeuw, of Dutch decent, has been fascinated by the Two Row Treaty for decades. He said the foundation of mutual respect formed on the fly by Dutch fur traders and Native Americans still would work today.
“I’m here to support that respect,” he said. “It wasn’t a military thing. It was mutually beneficial.”
The paddlers also are lobbying on a variety of environmental issues. It might seem unrelated at first, but Edwards demonstrated on the wampum.
The wampum says the agreement will last as long as the grass is green and water flows down hill — essentially, as long as the earth is verdant.
With the threat of gas drilling by hydrofracking, he said the 400-year-old agreement might come to an end.
“If we frack here, who knows what that water will get in it,” he said, pointing to the Mohawk. “I want my grandchildren to have the freedom to swim in the water and not worry about getting sick.”
Sunday was the last day of the Albany paddle, but in a week the group will take off again, down the Hudson River to the United Nations complex in New York City. On the way, trip planner Lena Duby expects the group to grow dramatically.
“We’re expecting between 200 and 350 boats,” she said.
On that leg, native paddlers will make one row and non-natives will form a parallel row, forming a floating version of the wampum. They’ll arrive in time for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, a prime opportunity to speak up for American Indian culture.
As the adults talked, a few youths hung out by a ground-crew truck. They all paddled with the group since the Onandaga. They knew about the cause, but didn’t seem as keen to spread the word.
“We’re just working on separating those stripes again,” said 17-year-old Owen Chapman of the Tuscarora Reservation.
He’s currently navigating teenage years in two cultures, trying to keep a foot in both. Such a trip helps him keep things separate.
For more information visit honorthetworow.org.