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Wampum

Wampum belts 1812 exhibit

What are wampums?

Wampums are visual memory keepers that help record history and communicate ideas. Beaded patterns represent a person, nation, event, invitation, shared values and understandings/agreements between two or more parties.  Traditional wampum belts were used as covenants and petitions for understanding. Words spoken during an agreement are made into wampum to be used for ceremony, teaching, and reminders of law and values.

Who do they belong to?

Wampums belong to the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee. The beads are from the Atlantic coast. The Wampanoag People along the American east coast around Boston, MA traded in Wampum with the Haudenosaunee. Ancient wampums are often replicated for educational purposes and to protect their fragility since some date back to before European contact in Canada. For example, the “War of 1812: The Chippewa Experience” is a feature exhibit at MOA on display until April 2015. It features three replica wampum belts from the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Chippewa Exhibit 1812
War of 1812: The Chippewa Experience – Exhibit on display at MOA until April 2015
1812 Chippewa Experience
War of 1812: The Chippewa Experience – Exhibit on display at MOA until April 2015

 

What are wampum strings?

Wampum strings can be used to invite other nations to meetings. They include the topic that the meeting will discuss based on the colour of beads and number of strings. At the end of the strings is a wooden stick with notches which tells when the meeting will take place. Notches are cut off after each passing day until none remain. This marks the meeting date.

Wampum strings can also signify a position of honour. Clan Mothers or Chiefs are passed down a special wampum string from the previous leader. Carrying their own wampum string shows their place in the community as a leader.

What are they made of?

Wampum beads are made of two different shells: the quahog and white welk shell. Quahog clam shells are purple or black in colour and represent war and suffering while welk shells are symbols of power, peace, goodness and friendship.

Shell beads are used because shells retain words spoken over it and pass these words on from generation to generation.

Beads are hand made by breaking the shell, drilling a hole, and grinding it into a tubular shape. It is  a long and delicate process.

What do they symbolize?

Today, the people who can read wampum belts are recognized as oral historians and storytellers. They have apprenticed to learn this knowledge and often how to make wampum beads.

The Hiawatha Belt

Image source: Popular Science Monthly Volume 28
Image source: Popular Science Monthly Volume 28

The Hiawatha belt is one of the most recognized wampum. It symbolizes the agreement between the 5 original Haudenosaunee nations and their promise to support each other in unity. The central symbol is a tree (representing the Onondaga Nation – where the Peacemaker planted the Tree of Peace and under which the leaders of the Five Nations buried their weapons). Four white squares from left to right represent the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes. Lines extending from the tribes stand for a path which other nations may follow if they agree to live in peace and join the Confederacy.

 

Two Row Wampum (Kaswehntha)

Tworowwampum

This wampum is a 17th century treaty with the Dutch (when Europeans asked to live on the land). It symoblizes cooperation and serving a common interest. Two rows of purple are separated by three white rows. The white symoblize peace, a good mind, and strength. The wampum belt as a whole symbolizes one river with two vessels (the purple lines) traveling side by side. One purple line/vessel is a ship, representing the Dutch and another is a canoe, the Haudenosaunee. Inside each vessel are the people, traditions, laws, and ways of life. These two lines (or nations) are distinct and have a right to steer their own vessel without interference.

Dish with One Spoon

Wampum belts 1812 exhibit
Dish with One Spoon wampum (top left corner) from 1812 exhibit

This wampum belt is one of the most significant belts because it represents the first peace treaty made in North America between all Native nations before European contact. (Made between the League of Five Nations and its allies, and the confederacy of Anishinabek and allied nations). The dish with one spoon reminds people we only have one dish, one mother earth we can take from. We should take only what we need, leave something for others, and keep the dish clean. It also demonstrates our collective responsibility to share equally.

 

How can I learn more?

Wampum bead craft
Wampum bead workshop craft

Visiting groups can book a tour at MOA to learn about Wampums and make a wampum craft with a partner, learning about and creating an non-written wampum agreement.

 

Sources consulted:

A special Thank You to Dr. Mary Lou Smoke & Dr. Dan Smoke for their review of this information and providing further knowledge 

 

 

 

 

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