Updated: Feb 18, 2019
Throughout most of my life, the word “balance” has had a very special meaning to me. Growing up in a Haudenosaunee household on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, we lived by the concept of the “Two Row” or Guswenta. The first treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the first settlers was designated by the “Two Row Wampum Belt.” This belt was made from white and purple wampum shells. The purple beads formed two parallel lines. One line designated the white man’s ship and the other symbolized the Indian canoe. The agreement was that both parties were to permanently traverse the river of life in peace and friendship. Neither vessel was to impede on the other. Such a simple concept and we all know how history played out for both sides.
The concept of the Two Row not only applied to the Haudenosaunee as a whole, its ideals were also installed into the individual. Growing up, we were all warned about having a foot in the white man’s ship and another foot in the canoe. What would happen if they were to go their separate ways? For me, this concept was a constant reminder to remember where I came from and where I belonged. As I got older and the outside world and its technologies evolved, it became harder and harder to live strictly by the Two Row. Finding any kind balance requires one to have experiences outside their own world. For me, this meant leaving the reservation.
What kind of world did I leave behind when I left the reservation? The first five years of my life, we lived in an old house that had no running water or indoor plumbing. I remember having to use the outhouse or relieving myself in a slop pail in the kitchen during the winter months. Both my parents worked off the reservation but it still felt like there was never enough money to meet our basic needs. The Indian kids were bused to a nearby public school off the Seneca territory. I excelled in my studies and I loved learning about the outside world. I was never really accepted by my white friends and I also felt rejected by the Indian kids for being too “white.” By the time it came to go to college, I didn’t know what I wanted from life. I did know what I didn’t want and that was to live on my reservation.
And so I went to college at Pace University in New York City. For years I lived exclusively in the white man’s ship. I came to understand how the dominant society lived exclusively in a hierarchical system. For a time, I bought into this way of life. I felt lacking for not having as much as those who were more successful than me. I also felt better about myself for having more than those who had less. After a time the city life became too chaotic for me and I returned back to my home…the reservation. At this point in my life and through my experiences both on an off the reservation, I feel that I have found balance in my life. I may have one foot in the Indian canoe and one foot in the white man’s ship, but I have a more profound understanding of the original meaning of the Two Row.