Wampum beads and wampum belts are a powerful tool for recording, affirming, interpreting, and enshrining events of significance for First Peoples on Turtle Island.
Wampum belts consist of carefully placed strings of knotted wampum beads, which are made from quahog clam, whelk, or cowrie shells (Muller, 2007; Windatt, 2016a). You can see images of these shells and the beads in the gallery below. Whelk and cowrie shells produce the signature white wampum beads; quahog clam shells are used to create the beautiful and vibrant purple wampum beads. The beads are carefully drilled through the centre and strung on threads of bark or deer sinew. Wampum beads are sacred to Indigenous Peoples, and the process of knotting wampum beads in string or belt form is considered spiritual and done with meaning (Johansen & Mann, 2000).
The underside of a quahog clamshell. The purple edge of the shell was cut out to create a bead. It is thought that the piece was cut out in a square shape, drilled through carefully with a bone or metal tool, and then strung on sinew. Rows of beads were then rolled over a stone to smooth them into a cylindrical shape. The beads that resulted were about 1/4” long and 1/8” in diameter (Haudenosaunee Confederacy, n.d.).
These small white shells were used to create the white wampum beads.
Close-up of wampum beads knotted into a belt.
White and purple coloured beads
White beads indicate peace, understanding or a desire for understanding, and sociability (Muller, 2007).
Purple beads generally indicate mourning, serious events, death, or important agreements. However, the meaning of the colour purple is still contested among various First Nations and scholars (Muller, 2007).
Meaning of Wampum
Wampum belts and strings of wampum were developed by First Peoples to assist community members and Nations in recalling and recording events (Johansen & Mann, 2000; Muller, 2007). The information embedded in the belts and strings – carefully selected symbols, patterns, letters, and images – also enabled Indigenous Peoples to relay complex messages, intention, and promise through the giving and acceptance of wampum. Wampum could act as a pledge during marriage ceremonies, or be given as a token of respect across council fires or in times of mourning. Wampum belts were traditionally worn across the body like a sash, and could, if the creator wanted, carry two meanings: one on the front and one on the back (CRFN, 2015; Johansen & Mann, 2000; Muller, 2007; Peskotomuhkati Nation, 2018).
Indigenous communities all over Turtle Island, from the East Coast to the Great Lakes, and through the Great Plains, utilized wampum beads and belts. For example, the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee would exchange wampum belts as a peace symbol after a period of war. Similarly, Nations at peace would attach a wampum belt to their canoe when travelling through another Nation’s territory, outlining and reminding them of a specific peace agreement. All who read the wampum would recognize the meaning and allow the visitors safe passage under the wampum covenant (Chippewas of Rama First Nation, 2015).
Wampum that were gifted or created to record events were meant to be taken out annually to be read by wampum keepers. These were people skilled at reading wampum belts and sharing or interpreting their meaning for community members and visitors. Revisiting the wampum on a regular basis was meant to remind participants of their presence and keep alive the purpose and significance of their meaning. In this sense, wampum belts, when given for an event or to commemorate an agreement, acted as a covenant, in much the same way that legally binding contracts did for Euro-Canadians (CRFN, 2015).
The imagery on wampum belts is best described as wampum writing. Traditionally, many Indigenous Nations did not speak the same language, but they all possessed knowledge of the standard symbols, patterns, and colours of the wampum, allowing them to generate the same interpretation of the message presented (Johansen & Mann, 2000). For example, red paint on a belt was understood by all to indicate a message of war, and it was washed away once peace returned (CRFN, 2015; Muller, 2007; Peskotomuhkati Nation, 2018). The responsibility of passing this knowledge on to future generations was entrusted to wampum keepers in each Nation (CRFN, 2015; Johansen & Mann, 2000; Muller, 2007). Today, some communities still have wampum keepers who can “read” the wampum; other communities rely on memorized wampum meanings passed down from previous generations (Muller, 2007).
Two Row Wampum, 1613
The Two Row Wampum is commonly believed to have been created in 1613 to enshrine the agreement between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee to live in mutual peace, friendship, and respect on Turtle Island. The two nations were never to interfere with the business of the other.
Wampum wrist ornament
Wampum wrist ornament, possibly Iroquois, from the eighteenth century. It was not uncommon to see belts or jewellery made of wampum or clothing trimmed with wampum beads. Sometimes wampum beads would be embedded into war clubs (Chippewas of Rama First Nation, 2015).
Chiefs of the Six Nations reading wampum belts
Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Grand River, September 14, 1871, in Brantford, Ontario. The chiefs are explaining their wampum belts to Horatio Hale. The man seated third from the left in the image is wampum keeper John Buck (Muller, 2007).
Wampum Belonging to the Six Nations Confederacy
Image from Pit Rivers Museum, Oxford.
Covenant Chain Wampum, 1764
The Covenant Chain Wampum presented by Sir William Johnson at the conclusion of the Council of Niagara. The belt connects at each end to form a completed Diamond Nation symbol.
This replica was commissioned by Nathan Tidridge and created by Ken Maracle of the Seneca Nation (Tidridge, 2016).
Another Covenant Chain interpretation or a friendship belt similar to the Covenant Chain. There are many friendship belts created to enshrine new friendship agreements or to commemorate the original Covenant Chain Wampum agreement (CRFN, 2015; Windatt, 2016).
At the bottom is a friendship belt from Fort Detroit in 1701. It represents an agreement established between the Ojibwa, the Potawatomi, the Odawa, and a fourth Nation that is unknown. The meaning and origin of the belt above is unknown (Windatt, 2016).
Wampum belts from the Smithsonian Institution
(Bureau of American Ethnology, 1897-1965). Dated circa 1871 to circa 1907. Unknown or undocumented interpretations.
Monetizing Wampum: A Misconception
Because Europeans recognized the value of wampum to First Peoples, they sought to monetize wampum for use in trade. The Dutch, French, and English engaged in the construction and trading of wampum strings and belts in their political and commercial interactions with Indigenous communities for over 250 years (CRFN, 2015; Johansen & Mann, 2000; Keagle, 2013; Windatt, 2016b). Today, beads and belts are often erroneously described as a form of currency. This was not true for the Indigenous communities who created the wampum. This misconception, however, can be traced back to a decision made by the Dutch around 1610 to manufacture wampum beads on their own from conch shells. These reproductions flooded the market, lowering the perceived value of beads manufactured by Indigenous communities (Johansen & Mann, 2000). By the eighteenth century, the British had monetarily quantified the wampum bead, valuing the purple shell to the white shell at a 2:1 ratio and establishing exchange rates for wampum based on European money and the value of animal skins (Johansen & Mann, 2000).
Today, many of the wampum belts that were created and gifted during the colonial era on Turtle Island have been lost, sold to private collections, buried in special ceremonies for the dead, or placed into museums (CRFN, 2015; Muller, 2007). However, there are still some famous and culturally significant belts that have been recorded and even repatriated to the communities and Nations to whom they belong. The gallery in this section will help you better understand the nature of wampum belts, teaching you to recognize key symbols and identify the meaning and importance of some of the associated historical and spiritual agreements. These agreements are important to both Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous people on Turtle Island as they enshrine and re-affirm nation-to-nation relationships established long ago.
Chippewas of Rama First Nation (CRFN). (2015, March 30). Alan Ojiig Corbiere: The underlying importance of wampum belts… [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb-RftTCQ_8
Haudenosaunee Confederacy. (n.d.). Wampum. Retrieved from http://www.haudenosauneeconfederacy.com/wampum.html
Johansen, B., & Mann, B. (Eds.). (2000). Wampum. In Johansen, B., & Mann, B. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (pp. 325-337). London: Greenwood Press.
Keagle, J. (2013). Eastern beads, Western applications: Wampum among Plains Tribes. Great Plains Quarterly, 33(4), 221-235.
Muller, K. (2007). The two “mystery” belts of Grand River: A biography of the Two Row Wampum and the Friendship Belt. The American Indian Quarterly, 31, 129-164. doi: http//doi.org/10/1353/aiq.207.0013
Peskotomuhkati Nation. (2018). Wampum. Retrieved from https://qonaskamkuk.com/peskotomuhkati-nation/wampum/
Reconciliation Education. (2017, October 23). The wampum belt: A nation to nation relationship [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-KNHsKjpUI
Runde, A. (2010). The return of wampum belts: Ethical issues and the repatriation of Native American archival materials. Journal of Information Ethics, suppl. Special Issue: Archival Ethics: New Views, 19(1), 33-44.
ShawTVSSM. (2016, December 16). The Anishinaabe view – In their own words – Episode 7 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVvE6EItv_M
Windatt, C. (2016a, May 30). The Original Archive Wampum Belts Pt2 Alan Corbiere [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHNYQVjCcCQ
Windatt, C. (2016b, May 30). The Original Archive Wampum Belts Pt3 Jonathan Lainey [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFy3OrYgrgg
Media (in order of appearance)
Wampum Beads. (c. 1980). [Figure 4: Wampum Beads logo]. Watrieved from http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/jpegs/1200/PRM000054116.jpg
Tran, T. (Photographer). (2018). Quahog clamshell [Digital image].
Cowrie Shell. (c. 1980). [Figure 3: Cowrie Shell logo]. Watrieved from http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=77498&picture=
Friendship Belt. (c. 1980). [Figure 14: Friendship Belt logo]. Watrieved from http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID4839.html
White and Purple Coloured Beads. (c. 1980). [Figure 6: White and Purple Coloured Beads logo]. Watrieved from http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID24805.html
Two Row Wampum, 1613. (c. 1980). [Figure 10: Two Row Wampum, 1613 logo]. Watrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Two_Row_Wampum_is_one_of_the_oldest_treaty_relationships_between_the_Onkwehonweh_original_people_of_Turtle_Island_North_America_and_European_immigrants._The_treaty_was_made_in_1613.jpg
Wampum Wrist Ornament. (c. 1980). [Figure 7: Wampum Wrist Ornament logo]. Watrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wampum_wrist_ornament,_probably_Iroquois,_18th_century_-_Native_American_collection_-_Peabody_Museum,_Harvard_University_-_DSC05416.JPG
Chiefs of the Six Nations Reading Wampum Belts. (c. 1980). [Figure 8: Chiefs of the Six Nations Reading Wampum Belts logo]. Watrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chiefs_of_the_Six_Nations_at_Brantford,_Canada,_explaining_their_wampum_belts_to_Horatio_Hale_September_14,_1871.jpg
Wampum Belonging to the Six Nations Confederacy. (c. 1980). [Figure 9: Wampum Belonging to the Six Nations Confederacy logo]. Watrieved from http://vitacollections.ca/sixnationsarchive/2687110/data
Maracle, K. [artist]. (2016, April 4). Covenant Chain Wampum [Wampum]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Covenant_Chain_Wampum.jpg
Friendship Belt. (c. 1980). [Figure 13: Friendship Belt logo]. Watrieved from http://images.ourontario.ca/Partners/SixNPL/SixNPL002687120f.jpg
Friendship Belt. (c. 1980). [Figure 14: Friendship Belt logo]. Watrieved from http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID4839.html
Wampum Belt of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy
1885 -1886. (c. 1980). [Figure 15: Wampum Belt of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy
1885 -1886 logo]. Watrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V28_D311_Wampum_belt_commemorating_the_iroquois_confederacy.jpg
Wampum Belts from the Smithsonian Institution. (c. 1980). [Figure 16: Wampum Belts from the Smithsonian Institution logo]. Watrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wampum_belts_-_NARA_-_523577.jpg
Wampum Strings. (c. 1980). [Figure 5: Wampum Strings logo]. Watrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ontario_Sessional_Papers,_1905,_No.11-14_(1905)_(14763514305).jpg