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Bonnie Freeman and Trish Van Katwyk study — and embody — the Two Row Wampum

After graduating together from Wilfrid Laurier University’s PhD program, Van Katwyk and Freeman decided to focus their academic work on studying how living the Two Row Wampum principles could foster relationships and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth.

Sep 03, 2021

At the time, Bonnie Freeman and Trish Van Katwyk were too busy trying not to drown to appreciate the symbolism.

The pair were paddling the Grand River alongside Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth as part of a Two Row on the Grand canoeing expedition in 2016.

“I had never paddled before and the thing I was most afraid of was capsizing,” said Freeman, a social work professor at McMaster University.

As their canoe approached some rapids near the Lorne Bridge in Brantford, the paddlers started to panic.

“We were kind of struggling. Not in sync with each other,” Freeman said. “We see people nicely go through, and then it’s our turn.”

Sitting at the head of the canoe, Van Katwyk started to steer, a responsibility best left to the paddler at the back.

“I was trying to be helpful but I overstepped my role,” said Van Katwyk, who teaches social work at the University of Waterloo.

“It was really Bonnie who was going to steer us through the current, and then I interfered.”

In no time, the two professors were in the drink.

“All of a sudden the canoe turns and capsizes, and we’re floundering,” Freeman said.

She frantically grabbed for the canoe and held onto the nearest rock.

“So that’s what I was doing, thinking I’m drowning,” Freeman said.

The two friends propped each other up, watching helplessly as Van Katwyk’s hat floated down the river.

“We finally get our bearings and stand up, and the water was to my knees,” Freeman said with a laugh.

This not-so-harrowing incident had a deeper meaning for the two friends. By coming to each other’s aid, Freeman, who is Haudenosaunee, and Van Katwyk, whose ancestry is Dutch, lived out the Two Row Wampum, a treaty their ancestors made to set out how the two nations would peacefully coexist.

“The Two Row Wampum looks at how Haudenosaunee and non-Indigenous people come together harmoniously upon this land and upon the waters with peace, friendship and respect,” Freeman explained.

The treaty is personified by a belt made of white and purple wampum shells. The purple shells run horizontally in two parallel rows, representing two boats containing the cultures and laws of each nation.

The boats are close enough to help each other if needed, but not so close as to interfere and impose their way of life on the other.

[Van Katwyk and Freeman's] work has taken traditional forms like scholarly articles and research projects, but the duo also takes part in paddle trips like last month’s Two Row on the Grand Youth Engagement Camp at Chiefswood Park in Ohsweken.

Read more about their work in the Hamilton Spectator.