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.

All images are taken from the Onondaga Nation official website. It really is a great source and highly suggest your visit there.

Dust Fan Belt

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The Dust Fan belt, or the Wing belt, is representative of the Great Tree of Peace and is used by the Peacemaker and Hiawatha to clarify the Great Law of Peace among the Five Nations.  According to the NAITC Traditional Teachings, there are 114 strings to the  belt, each representative of a certain aspect of the Great Law. The Great Law detailed the mourning rituals, the roles of leaders, the functions of councils, clanship, usage of wampum, and wide array of other religious and political functions. Aesthetically and symbolically, the tree upon the belt is never-ending, spreading beyond the limits of the belt, and is representative of the Confederacy’s endurance.

The Dust Fan alone could warrant its own book, let alone blog post. I highly recommend reading NAITC’s book, which includes an in-depth discussion of the 114 strings and creeds of the Dust Fan Belt.

Hiawatha Belt

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The Hiawatha Belt is representative of the five nations – Onondaga, Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga, and Oneida – that constituted the Haudenosaunee confederacy. It also serves as the national flag of the Haudenosaunee and can be seen flown at schools, arenas, and each individual nation. It was crafted prior to European contact.

In the center, we see the Great Tree of Peace which was planted among the Onondaga. The Onondaga were also tasked as Keepers of the Central Fire of the Longhouse and was home to the Grand Council. The right and left, east and west, we have the Mohawk and Seneca respectively. The Mohawk were the Keepers of the Eastern Door, while the Seneca were the Keepers of the Western Door. Together, the Onondaga, Mohawk, and Seneca were the Older Brothers of the union. The Cayuga and Oneida are also represented within the belt. Each nation, extending from the Great Tree, is connected in peace with one another.

Two Row Belt

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For my purposes, this may be one of the most important belts. The Two Row belt is a framework for how Europeans and Haudenosaunee relationships were see. The belt, which has two distinct and parallel rows, represented the Haudenosaunee and Dutch. The Mohawk, in 1613, entered into this treaty with the Dutch. Robert Hill, in his essay “Oral Memory of the Haudenosaunee: Views of the Two Row Wampum”, described totally the historical and symbolic context of the Two Row wampum. It established the sovereignty and distinctness of each nation, as well as the way politics would be handled between the two nations. The nations would treat each other as brothers, which assumed a level of equality and respect between the nations.

The treaty, for that is what the belt is, established the Covenant Chain between the two nations. This chain, which was to be polished by each nation regularly, represented the lasting “peace [and] friendship” initiated by the Two Row treaty. After the formation of the United States, the Covenant Chain and implications of the Two Row transferred to the American government. The continuation of the treaty supposed that America would continue to respect the sovereignty and parallel intentions of the Haudenosaunee. For their part, the Haudenosaunee have respected the Two Row, and with each American president, delivered letters to officially polish and renew the chain between nations. According to Hill, only members of the Ford administration have gone to visit the Haudenosaunee.

George Washington Belt

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The George Washington belt, or Canandaigua Treaty belt, is the longest wampum belt currently in existence. It was issued in 1794 and represents the treaty made between the Haudenosaunee and the United States, through Colonel Thomas Pickering. Some of the notable Haudenosaunee that were present to the treaty, and signed the document, were Cornplanter, Handsome Lake, and Red Jacket.

The treaty, which immortalized by both wampum and written document, is notable because it established the sovereignty of the Six Nations and assumed peace between the unions. Each nation within the Haudenosaunee confederacy was recognized as independent and capable of creating their own set of laws and jurisdictions apart from the United States. The treaty also confirmed the land rights and claims of those nations to end the abuse of such states as New York.

Visually, the belt contains a house (the Haudenosaunee) and two smaller figures (Mohawk and Seneca) joined with crooked arms to thirteen other figures (the original thirteen states.)

This belt, and treaty, are still active to this day and the right guaranteed within have been breached several times by the US government. Along with the Two Row, the George Washington belt is extremely important to our study of Haudenosaunee poltical and legal struggles in contemporary America.


While this is no where near a full write-up on each belt, I hope it serves as an introduction to some the important ones I have specifically chosen to look at.

All the best,

RM


References:

Hill, Richard. “Oral Memory of the Haudenosaunee: Views of the Two Row Wampum”. Indian Roots of American Democracy. Edited by José Barreiro. Ithaca: Akwe:kon Press, Cornell University, 1992. 149-165.

North American Indian Travelling College. Traditional Teachings. Cornwall Island: North American Indian Travelling College, 1984.

Onondaga Nation. 2014. “Dust Fan Belt”. Onondaga Nation. Accessed on June 6, 2015. http://www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/dust-fan-belt/

—. “George Washington Belt”. Onondaga Nation. Accessed on June 6, 2015. http://www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/george-washington-belt/

—. “Hiawatha Belt”. Onondaga Nation. Accessed on June 6, 2015. http://www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/hiawatha-belt/

—. “Two Row Wampum – Guswenta”. Onondaga Nation. Accessed on June 6, 2015. http://www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/two-row-wampum-belt-guswenta/

—. “Wampum”. Onondaga Nation. Accessed on June 6, 2015. http://www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/

University of Groningen. “The Canandaigua Treaty of 1794”. American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. Accessed on June 6, 2015. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1786-1800/the-canandaigua-treaty-of-1794.php

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