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Sitting by the Fire, Episode 2: Commemorating Indigenous Peoples' Military Service, Part 1 (IRA1-P02)


A Look Back in History, with John Moses

In this episode of the Sitting by the Fire podcast, and as part 1 of 3 in a miniseries on Indigenous Peoples' military service, John Moses answers questions about certain historical factors concerning First Nations members of the Canadian Armed Forces, including wampum belts.

Duration: 00:19:00
Published: November 7, 2019
Type: Podcast

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Sitting by the Fire, Episode 2: Commemorating Indigenous Peoples' Military Service, Part 1

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Transcript: Sitting by the Fire, Episode 2: Commemorating Indigenous Peoples' Military Service, Part 1


Annie Leblond, Learning and Development Manager, Canada School of Public Service: For our episode on Indigenous veterans, we met with John Moses at his office at the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau. As you will hear, John knows a lot about military history. He is a gold mine of information and his passion for the topic is undeniable. Let's hear what he has to say.


Annie Leblond: John Moses, thank you for joining us today. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

John Moses, Supervisor, Repatriation, Canadian Museum of History: Yes, my name is John Moses. I'm a member of the Delaware and Upper Mohawk bands from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory near Brantford, Ontario, which is where both my parents were born and raised and where the majority of my extended family members continue to live and work. I served, myself, in the Canadian Armed Forces in the 1980s in a signals intelligence trade called communicator research operator (291), but my particular interest is sort of the broader story of Indigenous contributions to Canada's military heritage.

Annie Leblond: We could say you're a historian or a history buff, at least?

John Moses: Oh, yes. Well, certainly. I'm currently on staff as the repatriation supervisor at the Canadian Museum of History. Academically, my background is within the museums and heritage fields. I've worked in a variety of collections and research capacities at the Canadian Museum of History over the years and also spent some time working with the Aboriginal Affairs Directorate at the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Annie Leblond: I guess you are the perfect guest for our topic today: commemorating Indigenous Peoples' military service. Thank you. When we first chatted about the content of this episode, you told me that the topic of Indigenous Peoples in the military was highly contentious among some communities. Why is that?

John Moses: Well, I think there's sort of a question that would be in the minds of many people, given the history of the colonial relationship between Indigenous Peoples and settler governments: why would Indigenous People be interested or concerned at all to assist the Government of Canada or any of its predecessors in its military endeavours?

Annie Leblond: I certainly have that question as a non-Indigenous person. When I hear that Indigenous Peoples have this question also, I guess it's normal.

John Moses: The relationship is a complex one; certainly, the whole decision as to whether or not to support the Canadian government or, previously, the British Empire, in any of its military endeavours was a contentious one. Certainly, for example, during the case of the First World War, it actually divided Indigenous communities and families. For many people, I think, fundamentally, Indigenous groups were of the view that by rendering military assistance during wartime, they could leverage that to press for increased respect for Indigenous rights come peacetime.

Annie Leblond: Leverage it somehow. It would make sense. You also wanted to make sure that our listeners understand that you're not speaking on behalf of all Indigenous People. And that we're going to stick to facts.

John Moses: Yeah, well, I would be speaking on the basis of my own experience and research over the years. And I feel comfortable in speaking on behalf of the Six Nations of the Grand River, because that's where I'm from, and certainly over the generations have had many, many relatives and ancestors who have served in the military over the decades.

Annie Leblond: And I think it's good advice, overall, anyway.

John Moses: Oh, yes.

Annie Leblond: When I was thinking about this podcast, on Indigenous veterans, I was planning, of course, to talk about World War One and World War Two, and maybe more modern peacekeeping missions, but you wanted to talk about something that goes way further back—that is, the wampum belts.

John Moses: Historically speaking, on the one hand, wherever the circumstances of geography and manpower so dictated, the British Crown and other Imperial powers in North America all sought to include Indigenous allies as part of the overall military and strategic alliances. For their own part, Indigenous groups and individuals either accepted, rejected or modified these overtures in accordance with their own objectives. And, historically, this is a pattern that holds true, whether we're talking about Indigenous involvement on behalf of the British Crown during the War of 1812, or during the era of the two World Wars, or even right now, when we talk about Indigenous persons who choose to pursue career paths with the modern-day Canadian Armed Forces. Historically, Indigenous Peoples have demonstrated by their collective behaviours in times of national crisis that they support the ideal of a strong and united Canada, so long as that same Canada continues to demonstrate a respect for Aboriginal and treaty rights in return.

Annie Leblond: So, can you describe what a wampum belt looks like for people who have never seen one?

John Moses: Yes, well, these are a form of material culture having to do with the diplomatic and other relationships that are indigenous to a variety of Native groups, both Anishinabek-speaking and Haudenosaunee- or Iroquois-speaking around the Great Lakes region right out to the Eastern Seaboard. There are a couple in particular that are especially relevant within traditional Haudenosaunee political culture. There is what's known as the Hiawatha Belt, which is essentially a schematic diagram representing the foundation of the original Five Nations Confederacy of Iroquois amongst the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk. And there's also the Two-Row Wampum Belt that represents the notion of concurrent sovereignties between the original Five Nations (later on the Six Nations [with the addition of the Tuscarora]) Confederacy and the British Crown. There's also the Covenant Chain Wampum Belt that further describes the notion of sovereignty association or concurrent sovereignty as between the Confederacy and the British Crown. Essentially, it provides for trading and economic partnerships during peacetime and a commitment to military alliance during wartime.

The belts themselves are made up of small cylindrical beads that are hand drilled from particular varieties of marine shells that occur up and down the Atlantic seaboard. The individual belts can be anywhere in length from, say, a foot long to even 6 or 8 feet long and several inches high or several inches wide. They are a particular form of material culture that is unique to the Indigenous groups in and around the Great Lakes and as far east as the Atlantic seaboard.

Annie Leblond: This was really a way of illustrating the words that were exchanged and the verbal commitment that 2 parties made.

John Moses: Yes, that's correct. And even today, for example, you'll find the iconography or these images of the particular wampum belts that I described—whether the Hiawatha belt or the Two-Row Wampum, or the Covenant Chain belt—you'll find them on everything from flags to T-shirts to the letterhead of some of the political organizations, and so forth. They remain very much in use today amongst Indigenous populations. They're widely recognized today amongst certain government organizations and, obviously, by people who are academics and historians of Indigenous–settler relations in Canada.

Annie Leblond: So, it's still binding.

John Moses: Oh, yes, they're still very much in use. The basic principles are still very much considered to be in force, at least from the Indigenous perspective.

Annie Leblond: From these wampum belts, we can say that the military tradition among Indigenous People is real, well rooted, it has been for centuries. Some Indigenous men and women still today, whether they're First Nations, Métis or Inuit, joined or are still joining the military. There could be many reasons to join the military: call to adventure, regular pay, following in friends' and families' footsteps. Have you seen, in historical records, mentions of other reasons specific to Indigenous Peoples?

John Moses: Yeah, well, again, even within my own family, going back to the time of the First World War, there were a number of family members of my grandparents' generation who served. And, as I said previously, the whole issue of whether or not to participate in Canada's military efforts was divisive within particular communities and families. Even amongst those individuals who did volunteer to participate, their individual motivations varied widely. For some, they required the material benefits of food and clothing, and shelter. For other people, some of the people from Six Nations, for themselves, at the time of the First World War, saw themselves more historically, in the vein of Joseph Brant and His Majesty's Indian allies, going back to the relationship that existed at the time of the American Revolution or at the time of the War of 1812.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, some of the other Six Nations band members who volunteered to serve were more, I guess, forward-thinking. Essentially, they were of the point of view that if they could demonstrate their capacity to continue acting as military allies to the Dominion government and to the British Empire during wartime, then that would provide them with increased political leverage for continuing to agitate for the cause of Six Nations sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty in general upon the world stage come peacetime.

Annie Leblond: More than political leverage, or aside from political leverage, I read that it was important for Indigenous communities to fight for the British Crown because the British Crown was the other signatory of the treaties and therefore, if they wanted the treaties to stay [in effect], they had to protect that British Crown.

John Moses: Yes, indeed, it was from their perspective, sort of a very practical requirement, because the continuity of the treaties was recognized to continue residing with the British Crown. If the British Crown itself was under threat, then, therefore, too potentially, was the very basis of the treaty relationship under threat. So, yeah, that's the other issue as well.

Annie Leblond: It's clear that Indigenous Peoples, men and women, have wanted to serve in the military for different reasons. Going back to historical records, or history... I'm going to use the word "reluctant"... The army itself had rules, I believe there was even a ban on Indian recruits. And I'm using "Indian" here, because the terminology at the time was that. What I'm referring to is that the Navy had a policy of White or European descent only; the Air Force had a high education standard, which excluded most, if not all, Indigenous individuals. This is documented on a DND [Department of National Defence] website; we'll put up the link for our listeners. And yet individual Indigenous individuals made it through and served. How do you explain that?

John Moses: You know, I think with a lot of these wartime restrictions on recruiting Indian people during the era of either of the World Wars or even up into the Korean conflict in the 1950s, for example, that there was a lot of uncertainty upon the part of the government itself. When the First World War began, certainly within the Indian Affairs branch, they began to receive inquiries from different Indian reserve communities across the country as to whether or not there would be all-Indian units recruited into the military or if any Indians who did volunteer... I'm using the term "Indians," as you'd said, in its historical context: status Indian, registered band members, who were living on Indian reserves consistent with the Indian Act.

The government itself was unsure, legally, if Indians could be recruited into military service because legally they had the legal status of minors or wards of the government. If they were to be recruited, would they serve in all-Indian units? Or would they be dispersed across existing military units? By the time everything was said and done, at the time of the First World War, there were 2 largely Indigenous formations of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which was Canada's overseas army. There was the 107th battalion that was raised in and around Winnipeg, also called the Timber Wolf Battalion, and also the 114th battalion or Brock's Rangers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force that was raised in and around Brantford, Ontario, including the Six Nations, the Grand River reserve where my family is from. In each instance, roughly half of the 800-man membership was made up of status Indians from those regions.

Having said that, you'd spoken before about the restrictions on recruiting Indians as well; that was a cause for much confusion. Whether we're talking about the time of the First World War or the time of the Second World War, individual recruiters across the country had a surprisingly wide range of discretionary powers in applying those rules and regulations. Notwithstanding the enlistments into the Navy or into the Air Force, for example, in both World Wars, there were a number of people, status Indian registered band members, who did indeed serve in the Navy, in the Air Force, and in the army. There were a number who were commissioned officers as well. So, although these restrictions might exist on paper, they were not always necessarily rigidly enforced on the ground.

Annie Leblond: Was it also a matter of the number of people needed to serve?

John Moses: Oh, well, certainly, yes. The initial wave of enthusiasm across the Canadian public had certainly worn off by the end of the first full year of the war. It's at that point that conscription or you know, instituting the draft, becomes a major political issue in Canada generally. It was a huge issue leading up to the federal elections in 1917.

There's a famous communiqué that was actually issued from the Colonial Office in Great Britain. It was sent out to the governors general of all British dominions and colonies and protectorates right across the British Empire in 1915. It was basically asking the governors general to complete a census of the Indigenous populations within the respective territories for which they were responsible with an indication of the "warlike capacities of the Indigenous groups." Were they likely to make good combat soldiers? Were they perceived to be potentially more useful as second-line troops or supporting troops? and that kind of thing.

John Moses: The British Empire itself soon realized that the wave of initial public enthusiasm for the war had quickly worn off. Certainly, by the middle of the war, the net for manpower was being cast as widely as possible.

Annie Leblond: It's my own interpretation, but they probably thought it was going to be shorter.

John Moses: I think a lot of people have heard that, the mythology of the First World War, that as of August of 1914, when the war broke out, everybody assumed that it would be over by that Christmas. Of course, it wasn't; it went on for 4 full years beyond that.

Annie Leblond: My last question to you: you see or you explore historical records all the time, you must have a great overview of Indigenous military service. What is the one thing that we don't know about the contribution of Indigenous men and women to the military? [Something] that would surprise us, that we should know?

John Moses: I think one thing to keep in mind is that Native involvement was never undertaken out of some sort of a quaint or naive sense of subservience to the Great White Mother, you know, or anything else like that. It was always something that was not lightly undertaken. It was something that was hugely divisive within communities and families. Again, even amongst those who did volunteer to serve, their individual motivations varied greatly. Native people served in all branches of the service, both men and women, and in every ring from private soldier up to and including brigadier. There's quite a tradition of service there that's part of the collective heritage of all Native People in Canada.

Annie Leblond: I think we should all remember that. Thank you for your time, John Moses. And I also want to thank you and all your family members who have served this country. Thank you.

John Moses: Nia:wen. Thank you.


Annie Leblond: This podcast is a production of the Canada School of Public Service. To learn more about the School's offerings in its Indigenous Learning Series, please visit our website at This is Annie Leblond, and on behalf of the School, thank you for listening.



Any views or opinions presented in this podcast are solely of the individuals themselves and do not necessarily represent those of the School or the Government of Canada.

Guest: John Moses, Supervisor, Repatriation, Canadian Museum of History

Interviewer: Annie Leblond, Learning and Development Manager, Canada School of Public Service

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