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Honoring the Two Row: 13 Days Down the River that Flows Both Ways

The two bands of purple beads of the historic wampum treaty concluded in 1613 between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee represent the native peoples and the European new comers living side by side in peace and contentment without interfering in one another’s internal affairs.  The three bands of white beads stand for “good mind,” equity and justice, the power of life energy, and peace. In the words of Akwesasne Mohawk Cultural Specialist Mike McDonald, “If groups have good mind with one another, you have freedom. Peace is a feeling, the health of society and nations, the absence of stress.” This is the essence of the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign and its message to a society that has not lived up to the promises made 400 years ago by the Europeans to cooperate with the native peoples in maintaining the land, waters and air for the healthy living of generations to come. The treaty’s term is perpetuity: as long as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West; as long as the rivers flow downhill; as long as the grass is green.

Our first night with the Two Row Wampum canoe trip down the River that Flows Both Ways (aka, Hudson), Jack and I camped in an athletic field next to the theatre complex of Russell Sage College in Troy.  By nightfall, a tent city of 80 or so tents ringed the field.  In the adjacent parking lot, canoes and kayaks were strapped to vehicle roofs. The chow wagon staffed by the Onondaga Nation sat near the entrance to the field – our first meal was a skimpy salad, hot dogs,   and noodles with tomato sauce, standard summer camp fare, and not quite enough to go around. As the river widened, the meals became much more ample and contributions came in from organic farms and supporters along the way. Our next door neighbors were a native couple – they set up a large tent with a porch and a small square tent, taller than it was wide, that housed their solar shower.  Over coffee in the morning, I learned that they were Jake and Bork Edwards, leaders of the Onondaga Nation and two of the organizers of the campaign.  Bork told me about their community’s gardens, the lunch shared by all the children, and their responsibility to weed elders’ gardens. Those early morning chats became a daily ritual I treasured.  We exchanged family stories, plans and hopes for the future. Before the end of the trip, Bork gave me a gift of blackberry jam that she had made. Each morning as I spread it on my toast, I savor the good taste and the honor of her friendship.

The rain predicted for that night held off till we had broken camp and then fell in a steady drizzle. In the morning, I observed the river still flowing north. The river is an estuary with tides flowing north and south.  To paddle to NYC, you have to time your paddling carefully to paddle with the tide, not against it.

After a breakfast of oatmeal or cold cereal, Aya Yamamoto, Andy Mager, Jack Manno, Lena Duby, Lindsay Speer, Emily Bishop and Hickory Edwards, organizers of the trip, instructed us paddlers on the schedule for the day and the protocols for safety.  As the founding staff person for Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), Andy’s modest talks about the great significance of this campaign became a regular motif at the frequent public gatherings.  The purpose of this trip is to remind the world of the treaties that have not been honored and to bring the Haudenosaunee cases for claims to their ancestral lands to the United Nations.  In the opening blessing that first morning, in his deep, resonant voice, Jake Edwards admonished us to paddle with “one mind,” to remember our purpose in this historic journey.

We drove or were shuttled to Rensselaer for the official launch. Under a light rain, Tadodaho Sid Hill of the Onondaga, in full regalia, along with Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, conducted a formal ceremony on the river bank.  They expressed gratitude to the Creator and burned some tobacco.  We had all the canoes and kayaks and 150 paddlers in the water lined up in our two rows of natives and “allies” by 11 am.  Keeping in two rows became a major theme of the trip with repeated calls of “bow to stern!” There was some wind from the South, but paddling was fairly easy that first morning.  The Dutch ship the Unrest, a reconstruction of a 17th century vessel, accompanied us, as well as two official boats, the coast guard and the county sheriff.  I was impressed that the sheriffs of each county along the river took turns as our guardians, chasing away speed boats with water skiers and warning us of the approach of big barges.

Jack and I paddled together in his old 18 ½ foot Mad River canoe, with him at the stern. I was happy to let him be captain. He has canoed since boy-scout days when he earned a badge, and served on the trip’s safety team. As a group, they made decisions about when to paddle and when conditions were too rough.  Hickory Edwards, a highly skilled paddler but shy speaker, who had explored the whole route the year before, had the final word when we were on the river. Everyone who came to paddle was given a chance, but paddlers who were too slow or a threat to themselves got a ride in the safety boat. Though I had some experience canoeing, I had not taken a long canoe trip since Putney Summer Camp in 1956 when I was 13! My outstanding memory from that trip was our wonderment at the plastic balloon-like things scattered in abundance on the ground outside the Dartmouth boat house.

The sights along the river as we paddled past the port of Albany were anything but natural and picturesque.  We saw forests of gas tanks, the crumbling wood of abandoned docking, the trunks   and branches of cement plants.

The organizers of this campaign had spent two years preparing for this trip and the results were impressive. Our paddling community was well-organized and very well served. The goal was to leave each site in better condition than when we found it. Carry-in, carry-out on steroids.  Besides the big kitchen support crew that provided three meals a day plus snacks to the 300 or so hungry mouths, there was a ground crew to transport gear from stop to stop and do the final clean up at each site. There were medical services, including massages, communications and press coverage, and a trailer with solar collectors that had enough outlets to recharge 50 cell phones at a time. The daily schedule started with a native prayer and included a meeting for the organizers, sometimes two intense sessions for the safety crew, and training for volunteer peacemakers, recycling guides to oversee the row of labeled receptacles at the end of every meal, and dishwashers.  Since I grew up on the Hudson, I volunteered for the group that was ready in case we were confronted by hostile locals.  Fortunately, that never happened.

After our first day of paddling, we camped at Schodack Island Park. The gentle rain from the afternoon held off while we set up camp. Everything was damp, though at least not cold.  I went to bed early after a dinner of buffalo soup.  Some of the youngsters did native social dancing around the park’s pavilion until 2 am. Two teenagers from Tonawanda seemed to have an endless repertoire of songs. Their drumming gave me sweet dreams, but kept Jack awake. The predicted thunderstorms missed us.

Monday dawned bright and dry, a gorgeous summer day. At our pre-breakfast chat, Jake talked about the Onondaga’s historical experience of oppression and betrayal by white governments, then about the value of cooperation and his nation’s plans to live sustainably, developing food security and community services.

That day and the next our two rows of 150 paddlers skimmed through the calm waters. The river is still narrow along this stretch with tree covered banks. It was beautiful and exhilarating. Gulls and herons flew over us – and even a bald headed eagle. We reached Coxsackie River Front Park two hours early, so the next day we took a longer lunch break to let the youngsters play ball.  At the camp sites, there was time to hang out and get to know more of the other paddlers: Denise Watso, an Abenaki and an impressive paddler, who works in state government in Albany; Jacqueline House from Six Nations who later told the moving story of her people’s struggle for control of their land in Grand River, Canada; Ted Edwards, a young techie and would-be farmer who said he was one of the initiators of Occupy; Sally Bermenzohn, a life-long campaigner for peace and justice and one of the few other women paddlers my age; Claire Beverly, fresh out of Somers High, excited about doing stretches with me, in search for meaning and value for her life; Darius Wigfall, like Claire, living at The Ark but more engaged in spirituality and practical skills; Lisa Lee and Buffy, women partners I had met at the Quaker Powell House, both highly skilled at healing and social work; Niibin, an Ojibwe who practices herbal medicine; Chaz Wheelock, Vice Chair of the Oneida in Wisconsin whom I had met years earlier at a NOFA conference, who told me he is still raising beef cattle and  involved in support for community gardens and a shared cannery.  At snatched moments, Chaz and I continued discussing best strategies to increase Oneida involvement in agriculture. I would love to find a way to bring organic farmers and native people together to learn more from one another.

As we paddled along over the 13 days, the many quick encounters with fellow paddlers accumulated into warm friendships. Each time we launched, we spent from 10 to 15 minutes paddling more or less in place while all the canoes and kayaks lined up in two rows. This ritual gave us time to have little chats with the people in the nearest vessel. A day wasn’t complete without rubbing gunnels once or twice with Rob and Jo or Matt and Janie from West Virginia, who demonstrated against mountaintop removal with our dear friend Roland Micklem.  While bobbing up and down together I learned from Beverly Scow from the Oneida Nation Reservation in Wisconsin about the Wise Woman Gathering Place she helped organize to provide relief for battered women. I got to know some of the ground crew as well – Jeannie Shenandoah, administrator for the Onondaga Nation, and an avid supporter of seed saving and organic agriculture; April Tarbell, who also works at Onondaga and was one of our industrious cooks; Dan Hill, a musician and the head of transportation logistics for the trip who also did a lot of the heavy lifting.

Each evening, local supporters of the campaign held public events with talks on the meaning of the treaties, native history and customs, urgent environmental issues, and human rights. “Sharing the River of Life” was the first program – Mike McDonald talked about the history and meaning of the treaties; Aya Yamamoto recounted the organizing of the Two Row, which started as a wild idea, an offshoot of the NOON plan to spare the Onondaga the negative reactions raised by the Cayuga land claims.  At the Catskill program “Protecting the River of Life,” a long list of inspired and passionate speakers addressed the major environmental desecrations underway – fracking, the construction of Liquid Natural Gas terminals and infrastructure, mountain top removal, nuclear power plants, contamination of river water by sewage.  Wes Gillingham of Catskill Mountainkeeper conveyed my message of solidarity with the people in Batavia demonstrating at that same moment for a humane approach to immigration reform without further militarization of our borders.  “This is an extreme time,” Wes declared, “and needs extreme measures to change the future.”

At Ulster Landing, Dr. Airy Dixon shared some of the history of African slaves and native peoples.  I was surprised to learn that in the Carolinas according to the census of 1708 one third of the slaves were native people.  At Poughkeepsie, Alf Jacques told the story of “the Creator’s Game,” and showed many examples of the fine hand-carved lacrosse sticks he has made. At Cold Spring and Croton Point Park, we learned more of the history and values of the Haudenosaunee from Onondaga Clanmothers Wendy Gonyea and Freida Jacques.   Dan Hill   played some of his haunting flute pieces at several of these events.  At the Two Row Festival in Beacon, Pete Singer, now 94, sang softly but spoke vigorously, recounting the legend of the Peacemaker and praising the timeliness of our message to clean up our shared environment.

We were fortunate to hear Oren Lyons speak several times.  Now in his 80’s, Lyons is one of the people responsible for the international mobilization of indigenous peoples that culminated in the   UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Venerable, yet witty, he shifts from learned pronouncements to sharp quips and is a compelling speaker.  Since the 1970’s, he has persisted in his vision that the “power of good minds united” will bring about peace, mutual respect and understanding.  As Faithkeeper, he begins his talks with traditional expressions of gratitude – “Let us give Thanksgiving for the water in the world and what it does for us,” yet speaks of the value of change for survival. Then turns to those of us who are US citizens urging that we take charge of our Congress that has been co-opted by corporations.  In his speech at Catskill Point, he evoked a dire prophesy from 1799 that the generation that allows the environment to degenerate “will suffer beyond all comprehension,” then concluded in a more colloquial tone –  “It is up to us. I see it as a goddam good fight!”

At Ulster Landing, the quality of our meals took a turn for the better as donations started arriving from area organic farms.  Hawthorne Valley Farm sent us many loaves of their fine bread.  That night, I awoke at 3:45 am (with an urgent need) to find the food crew already at work making breakfast.  At 7 am they served a morning feast of French toast, homefries and scrambled eggs.

The weather took a turn for the worse on August 1st.  The plan for the day was an ambitious 13 miles from Ulster Landing to Norrie Park with a stop in Kingston for a lunchtime festival at the Hudson River Maritime Museum.  The morning started cloudy, then rain came on with strong winds from the south that set the waters churning unpredictably.  No one capsized, but the rough waters quickly swamped several kayaks. I had to paddle with all my might to help Jack keep the canoe facing the waves at the safe angle of 40 degrees.  Under drenching rain, we pulled ashore at a beach just north of Kingston where the safety crew made the welcome decision that most of us would walk the mile and a half to the museum while only the strongest paddlers continued by river.  The event at the museum was mobbed with a turnout far exceeding the organizers’ expectations.  While a ceremony including the County Clerk, the Mayor of Kingston, Tadodaho Sid Hill and the Unity Riders’ Chief Gus High Eagle, we paddlers, wet, drenched and hungry, stood in an endless line for food.  Fortunately, the many attendees were generous providers of pot luck dishes, so no one went without. Our safety crew declared conditions too dangerous for further paddling that day and our expedition organizers quickly arranged for all of us to go to homes or camp out in the city recreation center.

Jack and I had the good fortune to be adopted by Robin Smith, one of the local supporters of the campaign.  Severely crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, Robin does not seem to let her disabilities stop her.  She is a professor of special education at SUNY New Paltz, drives an ingeniously   adapted car, lives on her own and is a community leader.  Since she had room for three, Jeremy Proulx joined out company. An Ojibwe, Jeremy is a professional actor who, in between stage assignments, flies to the Cree settlements in Northern Ontario to give theatre workshops for youth and shoot film with an 8 mm camera.

Our progress down the river intersected several times with the Dakota Unity Riders, Lakota from Manitoba on horseback who were headed to the United Nations to bring suit for possession of their ancestral lands.  At the Hudson Walkway near Poughkeepsie, we had a Cecil B. DeMille moment when 200 of us paddlers rowed under the bridge while the Dakota horses paraded 150 feet over our heads. There were at least three people filming from different angles, so I hope someday to view this flamboyantly choreographed moment.

A long day of paddling had been planned after the bridge extravaganza, 7-8 miles to the Marlboro Yacht Club for lunch and then another 7- 8 miles to Beacon.  As the morning wore on, the winds from the south grew stronger and the waves wilder.  The safety crew decided again that only the strongest paddlers would continue; the Ulster County Sheriff ferried the rest of us in small groups in his high speed boat to the full-day Two Row festival underway there.  Jack spent the afternoon helping transport boats by truck.

Canoeing the river from Bear Mountain Bridge to Croton Point was especially meaningful to me.  I had driven over that bridge countless times during the 16 years that I lived on those shores.  Stopping at Peekskill brought back memories of the stories my parents had told me of the 1948 concert by Paul Robeson, one of the greatest African-American singers, that was followed by racist and anti-communist violence.  This time, the mayor greeted us and Manna Jo shared the good news that the NYS contract for electrical power from the Indian Point Nuclear Plant comes to an end September 28. The major of my home town Croton-on-Hudson actually paddled a canoe out to meet us, cutting a delightfully silly figure in wet shorts and a top hat.  A reporter from the Cortland Daily News interviewed me. I had warned the Henderson clan that we would be coming; my brother-in-law Joe Henderson, a guitarist, drove up from Yonkers to spend a few hours, and my husband’s nephew Ted and his partner Dorothy prepared a sumptuous meal for Jack and me.  We were joined at dinner by my very dear friend Ethel Stein who, at 96, is preparing for a one woman show of her weavings at the Chicago Art Institute next June.

Of the many fine meals we enjoyed on this trip, perhaps the most meaningful was the Iftar dinner at the Stony Point Center, an ecumenical conference center that sheltered and fed us free of charge. The Muslim Peace Fellowship and Community of Living Traditions invited all 300 or so of us to be their guests in breaking the fast of Ramadan.  During an entire month, devout Muslims fast from dawn to sunset to refine their awareness that life “is a gift from the Creator.”  For the Iftar, everyone begins to eat together at exactly 8:06, starting with a date and rose water.  The language of the Imam’s prayers echoed sentiments we had been hearing daily in the morning blessings from the native leaders of the Two Row.

My final day as a paddler was a long hard pull through choppy waters.  At Tarrytown, the river was behaving more like an ocean.  Just north of Nyack, we had lunch at a landing near a state park with bike trails and impressive cliffs.  The last few miles we hugged the shore,   passing under the Tappan Zee Bridge to land in Piermont.  A big crowd was there to welcome us, including Joan Gussow, whose teachings about whole foods and the value of eating local and organic have led to an upheaval in nutrition education.  At 84, Joan still grows much of her own food in her home garden right on the river. I had arranged to spend my last night at her house to avoid the rain and get ready to head north to the NOFA Summer Conference, for which I had made a commitment to give workshops before I learned about the Two Row trip.

I parted reluctantly from my many new Two Row friends.  Jack reported that the last two days of paddling were much like my last rough day, and the final segment from Inwood Hill Park to Pier 96 at 57th St. was way too early and in the rain.  If you would like to hear the speeches at the United Nations, see more photos and videos from the trip and read about future plans, please visit If reading this has moved you to support this campaign, you can take the Two Row Pledge and help with the next 400 years by taking some of the actions on this list:

Care for the Earth

Give thanks frequently

Read native authors

Buy only what you need

Reject the Doctrine of Discovery

Work to end global warming

Campaign against hydrofracking

Demand that the US government honor their treaty commitments with native nations

Remember that treaties are the Supreme Law of the Land (Article 6 of the US Constitution)

Read and promote the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Learn about the people indigenous to wherever you are and their stories

Respect and promote Indigenous sovereignty

Consider the consequences of your actions for future generations

Resist and question stereotypes about Indigenous peoples

Grow & eat local foods and use native plants in your gardens

Get to know and make friends with your Indigenous neighbors

Slow down and notice where you are, listen more than you talk

Don’t pollute, don’t waste, be environmentally responsible

Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day

Consider what it means to be an ally to Indigenous peoples

Support native craftspeople, businesses and events

Celebrate and respect cultural differences

s of industrialization and contaminated food.

sharingharvest Elizabeth Henderson is the author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture.