A Treaty Guide for Torontonians

What is a Treaty?

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The Indigenous Peoples of this region have long understood a treaty as a formal agreement between peoples or nations that creates a framework for a relationship and an ongoing process for maintaining it. Treaties are not a fixed contract or a record of a one-time event.

Treaties reflect Indigenous understandings of how the world works. The Wendat, Anishinaabek, and Haudenosaunee all have ceremonies that remind people that all life is interconnected and that we are indebted to other beings and life forces for our survival and flourishing. Plants, animals, and other beings have spirit and agency, roles and responsibilities – and humans have reciprocal duties of care to make sure that all life can continue.

A treaty establishes ongoing responsibilities to one another, other beings, and the land. It creates a cooperative interdependence and a form of kinship.

Treaties are made for a variety of reasons, including to make peace, build alliances, establish or protect trade, and make amends for harmful behaviours by the members of either party. While the territories of individual nations are clearly recognized and remain distinct, Indigenous treaties create a relational space through gift giving and networks of trade and may include agreements to share access to specific resources.

Without alliance relationships fostered through exchange and trade, strangers remain enemies. Reciprocal gift giving is essential for maintaining Indigenous alliances. Sharing is highly valued: wealth is redistributed through gift giving, and wealth accumulation by individuals is considered selfish. Leaders are expected to be especially generous provides and protectors. They can't command obedience but must lead by persuasion, even in warfare.

Once Europeans arrive in North America, Indigenous Peoples extend their diplomatic practices of treaty making to incorporate Europeans into their world.


Wampum is a string or belt of small tubular beads made from purple and white marine shells, woven into symbolic designs. According to Haudenosaunee tradition, Wampum was first developed for ceremonial use by the Peacemaker and Aionwatha/Hiawatha and came to be used across the Great Lakes region and beyond. Wampum was offered during meetings between nations to signify respect and the seriousness of intent.

Wampum is a living presence with the spiritual power to manifest stories, as the symbolic designs on Wampum Belts capture the words and pledges made in its presence. As mnemonic devices, they are crucial for maintaining the oral memory of treaty making.

Belts were passed on from generation to generation, and Wampum Keepers are charged with holding the memory of the pledges they contain. The recitation of the meaning of a Wampum Belt in Council was, and continues to be, an essential part of renewing an agreement. Wampum signifies permanence.

Indigenous nations use highly metaphoric diplomatic language in treaty making to aid memory and express concepts.

What symbols do we need to become familiar with to understand the treaties in Toronto? We've highlighted some in purple.


Alliances operate at all levels of society and create commitments to ongoing mutual benefit. In each Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Anishinaabe community, multiple Clans are the building blocks of alliances and communal identity. All members of the same Clan, even in different communities, are considered related and must offer one another hospitality. Marriages are always between people of different Clans. Marriages not only join people, but they also strengthen inter-Clan relations within and between communities. Women play key roles in arranging and maintaining kin alliances.

Wendat Clans

Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Deer, Beaver, Hawk, Porcupine, and Snake.

Haudenosaunee Clans

Haudenosaunee/Five Nations (later Six Nations)
The number of Clans varies from nation to nation, with the smallest number being three: Turtle, Wolf, and Bear. The Clans are divided into the three elements: land (Bear, Wolf, Deer), water (Turtle, Eel, Beaver), and air (Snipe, Hawk, Heron), though some of these, such as the turtle Clan, have subgroups.

Anishinaabe Clans

Anishinaabe Doodmep (Clans) vary from region to region and include many sub-Clans, but common Clans include the Crane (Heron), Loon, Bear, Wolf, Hoof (Deer), Bird, Marten, and Fish.

Council Fire

An Anishinaabe, Wendat, and Haudenosaunee metaphor for governance. An official meeting place for Councils, alliances, and treaty making.

Council Fires are both physical places and a metaphor for governance – and, by extension, a metaphor for the community of people who gather at the fire.

A Clan, community, or nation could hold a Council to resolve internal matters or make decisions that affect all parties. Two or more Clans or nations could hold a Council to air differences, settle disputes, and protect the rights of their citizens. Regional Council Fires were hosted and maintained by a particular Clan (e.g., the Eagle Clan of the Mississaugas of the Credit) or nation (e.g., the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy) and could be returned to annually or semiannually over hundreds of years.

The fire of a Council Fire is considered sacred and purifying. Words spoken over it are carried by the smoke to the Creator/Great Spirit and the Ancestors. When agreement is reached, a pipe is sent around the Council Fire so that all participants can add their own puff of smoke, signaling consent and unity.

To break a treaty was and is a very serious matter, as it violates a pledge made not only with other humans but also with the spirit world.

Male leaders or speakers generally led Council proceedings, but the men couldn’t make final or binding decisions on their own. They had to consult with and gain the approval of their communities, including women. Women and children were usually present at Councils. Their absence at a meeting between nations could signal hostile intent. If a Council Fire goes out, a relationship has been neglected or a treaty broken.


Or kettle or bowl

Peaceful relations

A shared dish is a metaphor used widely in Indigenous diplomacy across the Great Lakes region and eastern North America.

It appears in treaty relationships and alliances in many Indigenous contexts, including the Great Law of Peace, which unites the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy through the teachings of their Peacemaker.

Once the Five Nations agreed to unite, the Roianeson [Hereditary Chiefs] sat in a circle to listen to the Peacemaker. The Peacemaker expressed this principle by passing around a bowl of beaver tail, a delicacy among the People of the Longhouse. As the leaders sat in this circle of fifty, the Roianeson took only what they needed, knowing the bowl had to complete its circle.

The dish can symbolize the bounty of the earth that feeds and nourishes all and the care, sharing, and cooperation necessary to ensure life continues.

This is expressed in agreements to hunt together or share food resources, such as was related by Anishinaabe Wampum Keeper Miskwaake/Yellowhead in relation to fishing at Mnjikaning:

"At the Narrows our fathers placed a dish with ladles around it, and a ladle for the Six Nations, who said to the Ojibways that the dish or bowl should never be emptied."

A shared meal is an embodied act involved in peacemaking.

Keith Jamieson

What is the Dish with One Spoon?


Land, territory

Indigenous land is held in common, with no concept of ownership in the Western sense, though families or Clans may have use of particular areas, and nations do establish jurisdictional boundaries with one another and areas of shared use. Each generation bears the responsibility to ensure the well-being of the land for future generations.

When Europeans first arrive, they are a tiny minority on Turtle Island, where Indigenous law prevails.

Newcomers have to negotiate with Indigenous nations according to Indigenous diplomatic Protocols (regardless of whether Europeans understand them) to ensure their own survival and establish trading relations – hence alliances and treaties.

At the same time, European explorers, traders, and rulers compete with one another to claim North American lands for European monarchs. They use the Doctrine of Discovery. The doctrine is developed through a series of papal rulings in the thirteen to fifteenth centuries and gives supposed divine sanction to the conquest, dispossession, and subjugation of non-Christians, purportedly to save their souls by converting them.

The Doctrine of Discovery becomes the underlying “legal” foundation for European colonialism and the slave trade. A related concept, terra nullius, justifies the takeover of land deemed vacant or “unimproved” by European standards. The Doctrine of Discovery has been discredited, but it remains the legal basis for claims of Crown sovereignty to this day.