Overview of Specific Wampum

Hey everybody,

I wanted to spend today’s post speaking on some of the specific wampum that I will be researching heavily throughout this FUSE project. I want to give you a reason to understand how these were used, how they look, and their applications.

Wampum, as told in yesterday’s post, were shells that, according to tradition, were first gathered by Hiawatha during his wanderings and strung together. The Peacemaker ascribed a certain meaning to these original wampum and used words of condolence to clear Hiawatha’s mind. Historically, wampum belts or strings were made from clam shells, both the whelk (white) and quahog (white and purple.) As the Peacemaker did, each string of wampum belt represented something in the orator’s speech and, in essence, could be considered a mnemonic device. It is beyond that though. Wampum belts were symbolic, representative of treaties, laws, title, and spirituality. The oral and representative tradition of wampum must be taken together to fully understand their importance in Haudenosaunee culture. “The shell,” the Onondaga Nation website told, “is thought of a living record.” The site continued, “wampum strings are used to convey that the speaker’s words are true.”

During colonial contact, the symbolic and political representation of wampum was often perverted by immigrant nations’ misunderstanding. Daniel K. Richter, in The Ordeal of the Longhouse, described a “triangular” system of trade: the Dutch traded European goods to the Algonquin for the shells and in turn the Dutch traded these shells to the Haudenosaunee for furs. These furs were then sent back to the Netherlands and more Europeans goods were sent back. With the introduction of European crafting tools, more refined shells flooded this triangular market, inflating their “value.” While the Haudenosaunee continued to respect the wampum’s symbolic capital, colonial settlers increasingly saw the wampum as currency to be traded. This is not to mean, though, that the Dutch did not enter into wampum-recorded treaties with the Haudenosaunee. The Two Row wampum, one of the most important of its kind, was validated by Dutch traders in 1613 and its meaning was recorded by Dutch observers. The colonial relationship with wampum, then, is strained in this historical context.

The study of wampum is crucial to the study of Haudenosaunee and Haudenosaunee-Colonial relationships. Belts are historical markers within a non-textual society and further validate the oral tradition of Haudenosaunee nationals. Wampum, despite the colonial observation of it, is a binding indication of some scenario or aspect, and that is how Colonial historians should study it as. After the break, there will be pictures and descriptions of some specific wampum belts.

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