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Ontario Doug and Wampum

Ontario Doug
Ontario Doug

Ontario Doug and the Importance of Wampum

Ontario Doug has spent the last couple of weeks with Dr. Lucy learning about wampum.  He was particularly intrigued by a recent blog post that MOA wrote on Wampum and wanted to learn more – especially how to make the wampum craft.

Wampum are small tubular beads carved from shell, and are either white or purple in colour. The white beads are carved from the interior of a Whelk shell and the purple beads typically originate from dark markings on the exterior of a Quahog shell.  Because they are less common, purple beads would have held a higher value. These beads were traditionally woven into either strings or belts and used to record important agreements and accounts of civil affairs between Indigenous groups, as well as within the groups themselves. These belts were made for many different reasons, and could represent everything from marriage proposals, to trade and land treaties, to funerary condolences.

Wampum belts 1812 exhibit, Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Prior to European contact, there was no set form of written language, and as such the Indigenous populations of North America relied heavily on oral tradition and the maintenance of woven wampum records to serve as early forms of “legal” documentation. Picking up on the cultural value of these items, European traders would later utilize Wampum Belts as methods of monetary payment, bringing forth factory made belts to be offered in exchange for furs and hunting supplies. The beads themselves were often used as trade items between Indigenous groups, as the shells were more commonly found on the West and East coasts of the continent, and could thus be traded for inland crops like corn and beans and squash, as well as beaver furs.

Ontario Doug is using a looped piece of string and some pony beads to make a wampum craft with Dr. Lucy.

Dusty and Teabiscuit watch Ontario Doug and Dr. Lucy choose beads for their wampum craft.
Dusty and Teabiscuit
watch Ontario Doug and
Dr. Lucy choose beads
for their wampum craft.


  1. First, he uses a long piece of string, folded in two and knotted at the top to create a loop which will later be used for tying the wampum to either his wrist, for a bracelet or to a backpack like a keychain!
  2. To make the weaving process easier, Doug has added some toothpicks to the ends of his string with regular scotch tape.
  3. Doug starts by threading one bead on the his string, just past the toothpick, and then passing the second toothpick through his bead in the same direction as the first –note here that two toothpicks cannot pass simultaneously through the inside of the bead, so one string must be threaded at a time.

    Ontario Doug using a toothpick to string
    Ontario Doug using
    a toothpick to
    string beads.
  4. To create colourful rows (which may be strategically chosen to represent some sort of agreement), Doug strings three beads on to his toothpick next. If you are using toothpick-ed string, the tooth picks should not go through this row in the same direction like he did with the first bead, but opposite, creating an “X” effect with the attached strings.
  5. Doug repeats this “X”ed pattern of applying 3 or 4 beads to each row at a time, making the belt or bracelet as long as he likes. Typical bracelet length is about 6 or 7 rows of beads.
  6. When Doug is ready to finish off his bracelet, he applies another single bead to the end of his belt, weaving it with the same “X” pattern as the last 6 or 7 rows have utilized. Once he has done this, he slips the toothpicks off the ends of his string, and ties a knot above the last bead (double or triple knotting ensures a good hold here).


Dr. Lucy and Teabiscuit with their Wampum craft.
Dr. Lucy and Teabiscuit with their Wampum craft.

Bibliographic Information:

Haas, Angela M. “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory  and Practice.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19.4 (2007): 77-100. Print.

Vachon, Robert. Guswenta Or the Intercultural Imperative: Towards a Re-enacted Peace Accord Between the Mohawk Nation and the North American Nation-states (and Their Peoples). Intercultural Institute of Montreal, 1995.

Foster, Michael K. “Another look at the function of Wampum in Iroquois-White councils.” The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy 99.114 (1985): 105.

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