Elizabeth James Perry

About the Art of Wampum

Aquinnah cliffs on the island of Marthas Vineyard

Countless generations of Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan, and Shinnecock nations have lived on the shores of the North Atlantic ocean, as evidenced by our stories, and by the scenery itself. Over the years, discarded hard and soft shell clams, razor clams, mussels, and oysters accumulated to form large middens in the warm season. Shells were also sculpted; some were used to make beads, which were then woven with geometric designs into rich purple and white belts and collars. This form, called "wampum" from the Wampanoag word* for the white shell beads: Wampumpeag, is culturally significant to eastern Native nations, who use the belts for ceremonial observances, for trade; historically to record messages and treaties, for inlay, and as an especially wholesome form of adornment.

Milkweed

Traditionally, milkweed bast and basswood fibers or deer sinew are gathered locally and spun into string; thongs of deer hide were also employed. Historically, small pump drills of wood with soapstone (steatite) weights and stone drill bits of flint knapped quartz, chert or flint were used to drill shell; Native people traded for European nails to use in the same way. Then the rough beads were strung together and abraded on a sandstone with sand and water.

Quahog shells and
hand spun milkweed

Early explorers to the North America coast commented about chains of black and white porcelain (wampum) beads which they believed the Natives "prized above our gold and silver". In the 17th century, Dutch and English colonists, unable to mint coins locally of precious metals, turned instead to wampum for a currency that both Native and non-Native people would accept. Much of the shell currency was produced in Native communities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut; there were also wampum factories in New York on Long Island. Purple and white wampum was used to purchase supplies necessary for the growing European colonies: food, furs, and other supplies.

With changes in colonial economy as well as the coastal environment, in the late 17th century wampum was devalued, and eventually dropped as an official currency. Its use, however, persisted into the 18th century and there are descriptions of beads being used to purchase rides on the ferry or turning up in the collection plate at church. Wampum continued to be employed as adornment into the late 19th century.

The art of shell carving and inscription for jewelry is being revived, though large wampum belts are rarely produced now. Marine resources are still of utmost importance to those who dwell on the coast, and Native people continue to harvest the sea, enjoying ancient recipes for clambakes, clam chowder and roasted fish.

Wampum beads
Butterfly weed - a source of traditional spinning fiber
 

* The related word Wampanoag means People of the First Light and refers to our traditional homeland in Southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod, and the Islands.

 

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