What is Wampum?

Most simply, wampum are beads made from various white and purple mollusk shells which were and are still used by various Native nations throughout northeastern North America for ornamental or ceremonial use. Contrary to misconceptions, wampum was not "indian money." Wampum clearly had value as a trade item between the various Native peoples before European contact. But it was later on after European settlement of America that wampum began to be used like currency.

Quahog Clam, Mercenaria mercenaria

One of the most prized and often used mollusks for wampum beads is the quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria). This clam, which lives in the coastal waters of the northeastern United States, has a distinctive shell that yields the purple beads.

Channeled Whelk, Busycon canaliculatum

Various whelk species have been used to create the white wampum including the Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), Knobbed Whelk (Busycon carica), Lightening Whelk (Busycon sinistrum), and Snow Whelk (Busycon Laeostomum). Due to the hardness and brittleness of the natural shell materials used, making real shell wampum was and still is a difficult and time-consuming process even today.

Wampum has a special significance to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people. Archeaological evidence shows that wampum was in use by the Haudenosaunee in the period before the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. But it was during the founding of the Confederacy that Aiionwatha (Hiawatha) introduced wampum in the way that it is currently being used by the Haudenosaunee. Wampum is used to signify the importance or the authority of the message associated with it. As such, treaties and other such agreements would have a large amount of wampum that had been loomed into a "belt" for them.

Chiefs of the Six Nations at Brantford, Canada explaining their Wampum Belts to Horatio Hale, 1871

The designs and the colors of the beads used in wampum belts had meaning so the belts themselves were mnemonic devices that could aid the memory about the history, traditions, and laws that the belts had been associated with. Every Chief and Clan Mother in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has a string or strings of wampum that serves as a certificate of their office. These along with the authority of the position are passed on to to their successors. Runners carrying messages would also carry wampum to signify the truth and importance of the message that they carried. As Keepers of the Central Fire, the Onondaga Nation are the custodians of wampum records for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Hiawatha Belt

This belt is the national belt of the Haudenosaunee. It records the five original nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and their agreement to live together in peace. The symbols on the belt symbolize the Haudenosaunee nations:

The central symbol is a tree and represents the Onondaga Nation. It was in the Onondaga Nation that the Peacemaker planted the Tree of Peace and it was under that tree where the leaders of the Five Nations buried their weapons of war. The Hiawatha Belt forms the basis of the flag of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

George Washington Belt

The Great Chain, Covenant, or George Washington Belt was the belt George Washington had made and had presented to the Haudenosaunee in 1794 at the Canandaigua Treaty. The belt is six feet long and features human figures and a longhouse. Thirteen human figures symbolize the young and newly formed United States of America. Two figures and the house symbolize the Haudenosaunee - the figures represent the Mohawk (Keepers of the Eatsern Door) and the Seneca (Keepers of the Western Door). Each of the figures are linked by a wampum belt to form a chain of friendship which represents the alliance between the United States and the Haudenosaunee confederacy.

The Two Row Wampum

The Two Row Wampum Treaty, Guswhenta, is the 1613 agreement made between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and the representatives of the Dutch government in what is now New York State. The Haudenosaunee consider this treaty to be the basis of all their subsequent treaties with European and American governments, including the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty.

The belt consists of two rows of purple wampum beads set on a background of white wampum beads. The purple beads signify the course of two vessels - a Haudenosaunee canoe and a non-Native ship that are traveling down the river of life together, side-by-side but never touching with each people in their own boat with their own laws, religion, customs, and sovereignty. Though the customs followed are different, each people are equal. The three white stripes symbolize friendship, peace, and respect between the two nations.

Haudenosaunee tradition records the following as the Haudenosaunee reply to the initial 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 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 this date.

Further Haudenosaunee tradition states the duration of the Two Row Wampum agreement to be:

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.