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Wampum Is Not Money

This was one of the first lessons I got taught about wampum on getting involved with other Indigenous people on projects and reading better sources than the absurdities that are still all too common. The myth that wampum is money derives from at least two sources. One is that wampum beads were and are hard work to make even with metal tools, and they are made from quahog and whelk shells. Even if those shellfish are common, the purple coloured shell is not, as usually only a small part of the animal's shell is that colour, usually a stripe. So rare, hard to make, and therefore widely traded. These are attributes that europeans interpret solely through notions of expense in terms of labour, and therefore how much money they would have to pay someone to make these beads for them. On top of that, because in their early days in the americas the europeans wanted very badly into not just local trade systems but the entire network of intersecting Indigenous economies, and they gradually realized that wampum beads could provide them just that sort of access, the dutch were the first to endeavour to mass produce it.

Photograph of the Two Row Wampum Belt, courtesy of onondaganation.org, february 2014. Photograph of the Two Row Wampum Belt, courtesy of onondaganation.org, february 2014.
Photograph of the Two Row Wampum Belt, courtesy of onondaganation.org, february 2014

But obviously I am jumping ahead a bit. So the basics so far are, wampum is fundamentally a type of bead that comes in two colours, white and purple or black. The beads are cut from the shells of whelks and quahogs, then carefully polished. They could then be gathered into simple strings, ready for trade or use in beading belts, collars, necklaces, or strings of beads in meaningful sequences. Indigenous peoples whose lands are primarily in eastern north america wove beads in the various ways that we know today, including weaving on a frame and weaving using needles as in what is presently called peyote stitch. The word "wampum" itself is from the Narragansett word for 'white shell beads.' To this day these beads are highly regarded, and wampum belts in particular are carefully preserved and brought out by many First Nations during diplomatic ceremonies and commemorations of treaties. Among the most famous of these belts is the Two Row Wampum, which is shown at right courtesy of the Onondaga Nation, whose website provides a small gallery of wampum belts and their associated treaties. That said, any belt, necklace, or collar preserved by a family is a potent heirloom that has been cared for and preserved through considerable difficulties. Sometimes those difficulties have led to these items falling into the hands of non-Indigenous museums or collectors. It may seem intuitive that wampum beads were and are highly valued, simply because they happen to have features that make them high-valued in european terms. The connection between wampum and treaties points to the greater role of these beads, and why their value does not depend on capitalist markets.

As the Onondaga website comments, "Wampum has many uses." The first the Onondaga writer mentions is as invitations to a discussion, in which the topic or topics to be considered are coded into the bead sequence on the strong or belt. This is one practical reason that speakers participating in the meeting bring the strings with them, they serve as a mnemonic for the topics, and verify that they were invited and they are at the right meeting. Wampum is holy, so holding it in the hand while speaking is a formal declaration by the speaker that they are speaking truth to their utmost ability. Based on what I have learned over time, my understanding is that its white form refers to life, health, and smooth times, circumstances that are calm and where everyone is of clear mind. Its purple or black forms refer to more difficult circumstances, when it is true that frightening or awful things may be happening, but more importantly peoples' minds are troubled and confused, so they need to pull together to resolve the confusion and rectify the trouble. With this in mind, it is well worth looking again at pictures of wampum belts and strings, and noting whether dark or light beads predominate, and where they are placed. As Lisa Brooks explains in her book The Common Pot while discussing the origins of wampum as recorded in Abenaki tradition, "The purple and white beads, hand crafted from quahog shell, held the potential for transforming relationships in Native space." This power of transformation includes creating and maintaining relationships, and ending wars. Wampum is the ultimate facilitator of rebalancing available to help humans stop destructive forces and cycles of behaviour.

I already mentioned that wampum was widely traded, and as the europeans entered the scene they wanted into the trade. Unfortunately, along with european traders went european diseases and european violence as pulses of disease ran along the trade routes, and european interlopers greedily drove the Indigenous occupants of major farming villages all over the eastern seaboard out of their homes and away from their cleared fields. The resulting groups of refugees and expansion of warfare among Indigenous Nations as different peoples turned at times against one another to avoid being overrun by their former neighbours or by europeans. This damaged and at times destroyed the extensive trade and kinship networks that ordinarily constrained and prevented significant warfare. Kin were constrained by those bonds from attacking each other. Trade redistributed valued goods and helped disarm dangerous feelings of jealousy and poverty. When those didn't work, within the working system this is where wampum came in, as it facilitated truce making and dispute resolution. Under normal conditions, there would be a certain amount of wampum abroad in the form of meeting invitations, gifts for ceremonies of adoption and condolence, and trade for the purpose of supplying those practices. Under the conditions of broken kin and trade systems, rampant warfare, and rampant disease, the demand for wampum in all these uses skyrocketed.

The dutch and the english couldn't believe their luck, as they entered this suddenly booming market with their habits of deskilling and mechanization for mass production. If they knew that their own activities were driving the social disorder and death that increased the demand, it is doubtful it would have changed any of their behaviour. They couldn't or wouldn't understand that what they decried as mere handfuls of beads were far more, including the men who swore up and down that that is what they "bought" Mannahatta with. They swore this even having interacted with Indigenous Nations enough to know better, which they proved again and again by prevailing upon the Indigenous Nations they had given wampum to for military assistance, food, furs, and ultimately land. Always more land.

To this day, since wampum has not ceased to be holy, capable of rebalancing relationships, or recording treaties of all types and scales, Indigenous Nations with a relationship to wampum have and continue to work hard to repatriate their belts and other wampum items. Their wampum keepers, whose tasks include learning the history and items recorded by each belt or string in their care and keeping them in repair, are still hard at work. Today the most well-known wampum nations are the Wabanki (Abenaki), Mi'kmaq, and Haudeosaunee. The Peskotomuhkati, members of the Wabanki confederacy along with the Wabanaki and Mi'kmaq, have described some aspects of the symbol system used in beading wampum. As the Peskotomuhkati community in what is currently labelled canada note on their website, "A diagonal line may signify a prop on the outside of a house – an ally who will provide support, but is not asking to be adopted. A straight horizontal line is the smooth path of peace, and also clear communication. A square or hexagon can mean a council fire, or the fire or soul of a nation. Human figures holding hands are symbols of friendship and alliance. Red dye – often vermilion – is a sign that the belt has been used as an invitation to war." These symbols were widely agreed on and understood among the wampum nations and their neighbours. It is even possible that the bone cylinder beads to prominent in chest plates and head dresses on the north american plains were influenced by the shape and colour of white wampum beads where their trade and kin networks overlapped with those of the wampum nations.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:42