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.
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.
Various whelk species have been used to create the white wampum including the Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), Knobbed Whelk (Busycon carica), Lightning 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.
A quahog shell rests on top of a reproduction of the "Women's Nomination" wampum belt, with a small partial wampum belt next to it made of real shell.
A lightning whelk shell rests on top of a beaver pelt. Lighting whelk is one of the shell varieties used to create white wampum beads.
The Use of Wampum Belts
Founding Site Manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site, Peter Jemison (Seneca, Heron Clan), gives a brief overview of wampum and highlights the meaning and background of three Treaty Belts that are still in use today, the Hiawatha Belt, the Two Row, and the George Washington Belt.
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Chiefs of the Six Nations at Brantford, Canada explaining the meaning of their Wampum Belts to Horatio Hale, 1871
Wampum has a special significance to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people. Archaeological 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.
As Keepers of the Central Fire, the Onondaga Nation are the custodians of wampum records for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
The designs and the colors of the beads used in wampum belts have meaning so the belts themselves are mnemonic devices that can aid the memory about the history, traditions, and laws that the belts are associated with. For example, the Circle Wampum is the record of the foundation, organization, and covenant of The Great Law of Peace.
The large circle is formed by two entwined strings of white wampum representing The Great Peace and The Great Law. The 50 wampum strings represent the 50 Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. There are fourteen Chiefs representing the Onondaga, eight representing the Seneca, nine for the Mohawk, nine for the Oneida, and ten for the Cayuga.
Aside from representing the organization of Grand Council, the belt also represents the responsibilities of the chiefs. The shape is said to be the chiefs holding hands creating a large circle. The people and the future generation's security, peace, and happiness are in the middle protected by the leadership and the Great Law.
Circle Wampum reproduction by Richard Hamell
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 their successors. Runners carrying messages would also carry wampum to signify the truth and importance of the message that they carried.
Otgoä - Seneca word for wampum beads strung together
From left to right each symbol represents one of the five original nations that made up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk.
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.
The Two Row Wampum Belt
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.
Canandaigua Treaty commemoration march including participants holding reproductions of the Hiawatha Belt, Two Row Belt, and George Washington Belt.
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 Haudenosaunee 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.
Create your own wampum belt
Watch and learn as Richard Hamell teaches viewers how to create an inexpensive loom for a pony bead wampum belt.
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"Why Does Wampum Matter"
"Why Does Wampum Matter" is a 3-part lesson targeted to 4th graders that will help students to understand the historic and contemporary significance of wampum to Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people by listening to, reading and observing a variety of media. Teachers can read source E: “Iroquoian Use of Wampum” or source F: “A Symbol More Powerful Than Paper” for background information.
This curriculum is meant for educational purposes only. © Friends of Ganondagan 2023
WAMPUM/OTGÖA Exhibition Guide
Our downloadable WAMPUM/OTGÖA Exhibition guide includes images of the wampum objects on loan from the Museé du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac with text that includes a contemporary indigenous perspective of each object.
This guidebook is meant for educational purposes only. © Friends of Ganondagan 2023
Onondaga Nation- Wampum
Onondagan Nation's website includes great resources about wampum and wampum belts.
Haudenosaunee Guide for Educators
The Haudenosaunee Guide for Educators is designed to provide a deeper and more integrated understanding of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) life—past and present. This guide can serve to enrich the New York State–mandated curriculum. Created by the National Museum of the American Indian.