WAMPUM BEADS

"Wampum - an object imbued with honor, tradition, and spiritual resonance"
Wampum - the term comes from an Algonquian phrase meaning
"string of white beads."

Wampum strings (for minor points) and belts (for major issues) were always exchanged as an important adjunct to record keeping. Although such belts were valuable, they were not (as many easterners thought, and as many people still think) a form of currency. Rather, they were a form of record-keeping developed among the tribes through the centuries and used to impress indelibly the desired points embodied in the message of the speaker delivering them. Most often made from tubular shell beads strung into strings and a foot and a half in length, the individual strands of the belt were skillfully woven together to form intricate variations of color and design, each significant in its own right and each imparting a special message. Even seasoned frontiersmen and traders who had been among the indians for many years found it uncanny how an indian could glance at such a belt and then recite verbatim the terms of a treaty or words of an agreement, as if he were reading from a printed page.

Sometimes the strands woven together would form a belt as long as 10 or 12 feet, but most often they were only four or five inches wide and about three to four feet long. And, though the belts were originally constructed from freshwater or ocean shell pieces, drilled through a laborious process a slender flint drill rolled between the palms, a revolution in wampum belt construction occurred when traders began stocking various colored and clear and opaque glass beads.

"The Indians made their slender beads
with painstaking efforts. The first step was to trim a shell
by knocking off unwanted projections
with a stone tool. Then, with one man
holding the piece of shell, another
man, using a sharp, slender drill, rotated the tool
between his hands in a back-and-forth motion to create
a hole. In the finishing process, bead-makers used sand to
polish the rough, outer part of the shell. Shell
from the quahog clam, the couch, and the whelk
were highly valued. Finished beads, usually about one-tenth
of an inch in diameter, were strung on sinews."

Easterners became fond of snickering over the passion of the Indians for the beads, believing them to be for ornamentation purposes only. Such, in fact, was rarely the case. Those beads fulfilled as important a function in Indian record keeping as did pen and paper for the whites; thus beads became enormously profitable items in the Indian trade.

In general terms (though there were variations) a black wampum belt signified war talk, while white was one of peace, prosperity and health. Violet signified tragedy, death, sorrow, and disaster, sometimes even war. To make the message of the belts plainer, stick figures would be woven into the belts or there would be geometric designs of various types - diamonds shapes, stars, hexagons, parallel lines, wavy lines, intersecting line patterns, etc., each with its own significance. Metaphoric expressions transferred to beaded wampum belts required extreme care in preparation lest any wrong idea be relayed. Metaphors commonly used and transferred to wampum belts included a raised hatchet, signifying war, and a buried hatchet, signifying peace; kindling a fire, meaning deliberations and negotiations; covering the bones of the dead, meaning giving or receiving reparation and forgiveness for those killed; a black cloud signified a state of disaster or imminent war; brillant sunshine or an unobstructed path between two nations signified peace; a black bird signified bad news, a white or yellow bird, good news.

Indian speakers rarely spoke without lengths of wampum, either strings or belts or both, draped over their shoulders or arms, to which they referred frequently as they spoke and which were sporadically presented to dignitaries in attendance as points were made. Speakers opened councils by offering wampum strings to quiet anger, wipe away tears, and open the hearts of the listeners. Each speaker in turn punctuated his remarks by handing wampum belts across the council fire; if a listener threw a belt aside, it meant that he doubted the speaker's words - or rejected his proposal. When the talks were over, the wampum became a part of the tribal record and a guarantee of promises made.

1997 shawnee_1@yahoo.com

"Shawnee's Reservation"

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resource: "A Sorrow in our Heart" Allan W. Eckert
"Through Indian Eyes"


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