Wampum Belt

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Wampum belts are woven, beaded belts produced by various American Indian nations in the northeastern and central United States, before European contact in the late 15th century and after. The word wampum means white shell in the Algonquian language family spoken by the Narragansett people of Rhode Island and the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts. Wampum belts are made of white and purple beads, the white beads from the whelk shell, and the purple from the quahog shell. Due to the fragility of the shells, artisans required immense skill and finesse to produce and polish a bead without breaking it, followed by drilling a hole through its center, usually taking one day to produce a single bead. The oldest wampum beads were disks, but were later crafted into the cylindrical shape we are most familiar with today. Women artisans spun thread made from milkweed, dogbane, toad flax, velvet leaf, and nettle plants for weaving the belts. Using weaving techniques similar to prehistoric finger weaving (without a loom), women wove the beads and thread to form a beaded belt. The term “belt” simply refers to its shape, as these were never worn.

Wampum was first used by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people, a confederacy of several tribal nations; Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and later the Tuscarora. Before Europeans arrived, the Haudenosaunee traded pelts, squash, corn, and beans with fellow/other American Indian peoples along the Atlantic coast for wampum beads. The use of wampum spread to other groups of Native peoples and it became an object of historical and cultural importance for them.

American Indian nations documented their cultural, political, and military history, as well as religious stories, on wampum belts through geometric and sometimes figural designs. The images imbued on each belt served as a visual account of an event in that nation’s history, such as battles or treaties between two American Indian nations or between American Indians and Europeans or Anglo-American settlers. A chief often had his own wampum belt, serving as a certificate of his leadership position within the community, and it was often buried with him or passed down to his successor. So although not “written language” as we think of it today, the history was indeed captured in design and symbols which could be read by Native people.

Wampum was used in ceremonies and for storytelling. A leader would hold up or display a wampum belt while orally telling the story of an important event, with the wampum serving as a visual representation of the narrative. The white of the whelk shells represented peace while the purple beads represented conflict. Both colors used together reflected the inherent duality of life; man and woman, life and death, peace and war.

Wampum is often misunderstood to be solely a form of currency, however Native peoples never thought of wampum as money. The whelk and quahog shells were valuable resources, as supplies were limited and could be found only on the eastern coasts of New England, but were never used as currency before European settlers arrived. When Europeans settled New England, there was a shortage of European coins in the area, so settlers began to trade in wampum with American Indians. The production of wampum beads increased dramatically with the introduction of the settlers’ metal drill and was mass produced in eastern New England where the shells were readily available. Wampum became an officially recognized currency on October 18, 1650, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony established official exchange rates, with purple beads worth twice as much as the white. With the fur trade depleted and increased trade with the West Indies, many European coins landed in settlers’ hands in New England. Because of the new increased presence of European coinage in North America, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established the Boston Mint in 1652 and began to manufacture coinage. As metal coins were readily available, the need for wampum as a currency dissolved. The wampum law was then repealed and Native people were left with nothing to trade with the settlers.

After Europeans defeated Native peoples in battle military officers often took the Native group’s wampum back to their king. With this theft, those groups were essentially stripped of their history and means of preserving the memory and stories of their people. Today, tribal leaders are trying to retrieve these wampum belts so they can preserve and share their own their history. In addition, Native peoples are trying to reintegrate the use of wampum in ceremonies and other cultural traditions. Since the enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, museums and cultural institutions are required by law to consult with Federally-recognized American Indian Nations across the United States for the return of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and other culturally significant objects to the Native Nations or people to whom they belong.

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