Iroquois Chief from a Painting, circa 1850
“Wampum played a great role in our culture…It is still important that we should have wampum to communicate matters.” Jake Thomas, Cayuga, 1986
Map of the territory of the Eastern Indians
The use of wampum by the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) people dates to the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy centuries ago. Ancient oral traditions tell of Hiawatha (Aiionwatha) gathering freshwater shells from the shores of Lake Ontario.
Lake Ontario where Hiawatha Gathered Shells
He wove them into strings to use in as a condolence offering for a friend. At that time Hiawatha himself was devastated by the death of his daughters, yet he continued to work with the Peacemaker to establish the Iroquois Confederacy. Journeying from village to village he carried the message of peace and brotherhood, trying to get warring tribes to unite into a confederacy.
At night by his campfire he reflected, “This would I do if I found anyone burdened with grief even as I am. I would take these shells strings in my hand and console them. The strings would become words and lift away the darkness with which they are covered. Holding these in my hand, my words would be true.”
In time the Peacemaker came to Hiawatha and took the strings of shell, speaking words of sympathy. That moment was the beginning of the Iroquois Condolence Ceremony and the advent of the use of wampum in Iroquois culture.
The mythic shells that Hiawatha gathered at the lake’s edge evolved into oblong cylindrical beads drilled lengthwise and strung into one or more strands for ceremonial purposes or woven together into belts that were used for diplomacy, correspondence or to establish authority. Wampum established legitimacy for the message that accompanied it.
Treaties and binding legal agreements had a large amount of wampum woven into the belt associated with them. Every Chief and Clan Mother in the Iroquois Confederacy has strings of wampum that indicates position. The wampum is then transferred to their successors when they leave office.
Iroquois Wampum Belt
The word, wampum, is a contraction of the Algonquin term ‘wampumpeak’ or ‘wampompeage.’ ‘Wamp’ defines ‘being white’ and ‘umpe’ or ‘ompe’ means a strand of shell beads. ‘Ak’ or ‘ag’ is a sign of the plural. So the significance of the whole word is literally ‘strings of white shell beads.’ From this word, the slang term ‘peak’ was used by the early colonists to describe this wampum. While the word wampum is now commonly used to define all Indian shell beads regardless of tribal or geographical location, in its correct usage it refers only to the purple and white cylindrical beads of the Algonquin and Iroquoian Indians of the northeastern United States, particularly the latter who developed the use of these beads to their highest degree.
Quahog clam, the favorite shell for wampum
The vibrant purple hues of the quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) made it one of the most sought after shells for wampum beads. Also used for wampum are the Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), Lightening Whelk (Busycon sinistrum), and the Snow Whelk (Busycon Laeostomum).
Channeled Whelk, used to make white wampum
Three significant belts help define the early history of the Iroquois people: The Hiawatha Belt which is the national belt of the Iroquois. It establishes the five original nations of the Confederacy and their agreement to live together in peace:
Chart of the origin of the Hiawatha Belt
The Hiawatha Wampum Belt, Nation Belt of the Iroquois Confederacy
The middle symbol is the great tree of the Onondaga Nation where the Peacemaker planted the Tree of Peace under which the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk and Onodaga chiefs buried their weapons and agreed to form the Confederacy.
The George Washington Belt was commissioned by Washington in 1794 at the signing of the Canadaigua Treaty. The six foot belt depicts human figures and a longhouse. Thirteen human figures symbolize the thirteen original colonies. Two figures and the house represent the the Mohawk who are Keepers of the Eastern Door and the Seneca who are Keepers of the Western Door. Each figure is connected by a wampum belt that forms the chain of friendship representing the treaty between the United States and the Iroquois Confederacy.
The Two Row Wampum belt establishes an agreement made between the Iroquois and the Dutch government in New York in 1613. The Indians consider this treaty as the basis of all treaties made with any United States government. The belt has two rows of purple wampum on a background of white wampum. The purple rows symbolize two ships, Indian and Euro-American, traveling the river of life side by side. Though customs are different, both people are equal. The three bands of white wampum beads signify friendship, peace and respect.
Iroquois oral tradition tells of their reply to the Dutch treaty proposal:
You say that you are our Father and I am your son. We say, We
will not be like Father and Son, but like Brothers. This wampum
belt confirms our words. These two rows will symbolize two
paths or two vessels, traveling down the same river together. One,
a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian People, their laws,
their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be the for
the white people and their laws, their customs and their ways.
We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our
boat. Neither of us will make compulsory laws or interfere in the
internal affairs of the other. Neither of us will try to steer the
other’s vessel. The agreement has been kept by the Iroquois to
Iroquois tradition further states about the duration of the Two Row Wampum agreement:
As long as the Sun shines upon this Earth, that is how long our
Agreement will stand. Second, as long as the Water still flows:
and Third, as long as the Grass Grows Green at a certain time of
the year. Now we have symbolized this Agreement and it shall be
binding forever as long as Mother Earth is still in motion.
Wampum beads used for stringing, currency, or in the preparation of wampum belts were made only after the beginning of the seventeenth century when the Indians acquired steel for drills from the first settlers. A metal point was set in the end of a wooden shaft which rotated in various directions. One old method was to roll the drill along the thigh with one hand while the other hand held the bead against the tip of the drill. Another style was to twirl the drill between the hands, but that required another person to hold the bead in place.
Beadmaking was greatly facilitated by the introduction of the bow drill and the pump drill. The demand for this wampum radically escalated as it was not only used for belts, but had become a medium of exchange between the Indians and colonists. Eventually the whites sought to produce this wampum themselves and a thriving industry developed in New York and New Jersey. These beads were always known as counterfeit wampum or Dutch wampum and were much longer in length than the true Indian beads.
There is little use of wampum recorded before 1627, when Isaac de Razier of the Dutch colony in New York used it to purchase coin. In excavating three villages of the Mohawks in New York which date before 1600, there was only one partially-drilled shell and one small shell bead. In contrast there were thousands of objects made from clay, stone or bone. In another excavation of an Onondaga village of the same period, only one medium-sized shell bead and two longer council wampum beads were uncovered. The primitive wampum of the Iroquois consisted of strings of small fresh water, spiral-shaped shells called ote-ko-ah.
The Longhouse, traditional dwelling of the Iroquois
Earlier sites yield scarce supply of wampum beads. From this we can conclude that the systemic production of wampum was rare before the arrival of the Europeans, particularly the Dutch on our eastern shores. The Dutch were quick to see the advantages of its use in trade. The home government had refused to send the settlers silver coins for use as currency so the idea of using the cylindrical shell beads was adopted. This immediately produced a fierce economic battle between them and the English to control the wampum business. The Dutch rapidly annexed the eastern end of Long Island where the natives produced the largest amounts of these beads. They were terrified of the idea that the English would eventually monopolize the wampum trade. An Englishman of the period wrote home about the Dutch:
“Whatever were the honey in the mouth of that beast of trade,
there was a deadly sting in its tail. For it is said that the Dutch
first brought our people to the knowledge of wampum, and the
acquaintance therewith occasioned the Indians of those parts
to learn the skill to make it, by which, as by the exchange of
money to purchase stores of artillery, both from the English,
Dutch, and French which proved a fatal business to those that
were concerned with it.”
It was with wampum that the Mohawks acquired guns and went quickly from being a weak and tributary people to powerful overlords who extracted tribute in wampum from the other tribes and spread the use of wampum much further inland.
By 1657, the value of wampum in the fur trade had been established: one merchantable beaver brought two strings of wampum, a good bearskin was also worth two strings of wampum. A deer hide brought exactly 120 wampum beads. In 1660 it was common for soldiers stationed in America to draw their monthly pay in wampum beads and the sheriff of New York City accepted wampum for the purchase of goods from the commissary. Albany eventually accumulated the most wampum because it became a great trading center, with both the French and English securing most of their Canadian supplies there. At one point, Peter Stuyvesant, the colonial governor of New York, sent Van Rensaelaer to Albany to negotiate a loan of 6000 guilders to be paid in wampum and shipped down the river to pay the salaries of New York City workers.
By the mid-1600s wampum was abundant among the Mohawks through trade and conquest. In 1641, they presented belts of wampum to the French which meant that the French were welcome to come and dwell among the Mohawks. It was noted that when the Indian, Kiotsaeton, visited the French, he was literally covered with wampum. In council he addressed them with a spell-binding oratory and used seventeen belts to help deliver his message. The use of emblems on belts seems to have developed after the initial contact with the Europeans. When the French first went to Onondaga, there was little developed symbolism on the belts. This occurred when the belts came to be used as historical or legal documents. The emblematic belts probably originated with the Mohawks as it was first noted in 1657 that the Mohawk ambassador to the French used a belt with the symbols that he explained as representing the lakes, rivers, mountains, and valleys that it was necessary to pass, along with the portages and waterfalls.
French Treaty Belt
Belts were also made by the early immigrants and presented to the Indians. While the Indians preferred a more pictographic image, the English belts would often incorporate the use of letters. In 1624, Governor Burnett presented a belt to the Six Nations of the Iroquois that incorporated the letters GR on it for King George and another that had the letters GPW woven into it to indicate George, Prince of Wales. The third belt contained the letters PF for the royal family. In 1754, he delivered another that represented “The King, our common father; this line represents his arms extended, embracing all of us, the English, and all the Six Nations; these represent the colonies which are here present and those who desire to be thought present; those represent the Six Nations, and there is a space left to draw in the other Indians; and there in the middle is the line represented which draws us all under the King, our common father.”
In February of 1756, Governor Burnett gave to the Six Nations the largest belt he had ever used. It was thirty rows wide with the figure of the sun in the middle and the Six Nations at one end. This belt was so highly prized by the Indians that it was sent to show the other nations farther to the west. At his death in 1774, the Onondagas exhibited this belt of union and thereafter it lay at their great council fire.
Coming middle of December: Symbolism on Wampum Belts and mythic tales of their powers