YORK Wampum - tiny, beautiful ground-down shell beads - for
centuries wielded an intrinsic power far beyond its size and scale.
Sacred to the Native peoples of the Northeastern United States,
wampum was essential in many of lifes most profound exchanges,
such as negotiating marriages and paying tribute to other powerful
from the purple growth ring of quahog clam shells and the inner
whirl of whelk shells, these beads - less than an inch long and
about an eighth of an inch thick - traveled along the Hudson River
trade routes from the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles west to the
Great Lakes and beyond with the beaver trade.
fascinating subject of the wampum trade will be explored in a program
at the Smithsonians National Museum of the American Indian
in New York on Saturday, April 25. Waters That Are Never Still:
The Way of the Wampum is a hands-on program in recognition
of the 2009 Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial, the 400th
anniversary of Hudson and Champlains voyages along the river
and lake now bearing their names.
museum program will feature artists and historians from Indian nations,
which continue to use wampum in their art and sacred practices.
Among the participants are Perry Ground, Onondaga; David Martine,
Shinnecock and Apache; Yvonne Thomas, Seneca; Ken Maracle, Cayuga;
Allen Hazard, Narragansett; and Jonathan and Elizabeth Perry, Aquinnah
has been made for centuries by the Indian nations in New England
and New York using quartz drills. Production increased exponentially
with the introduction of European tools such as metal drill bits,
said Martine, director of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center
and Museum in Southampton, N.Y. The value of the beads to Indian
nations even prompted the Europeans to get involved in their production.
Dutch realized there is a natural resource that the Native people
desire, so why ship things across the ocean, said Ground,
who teaches in the Native American Resource Center of the Rochester
(N.Y.) City School District. Why not set up a factory, pick
them up off the beach and trade for beaver furs?
hard to imagine the economic muscle of trade goods such as wampum
or beaver pelts in 1700s New York. We look at lists, like
you could trade 100 beaver pelts for cows or a house, Ground
said. The beaver pelt wasnt as valuable to a Native
person as wampum beads, which they could get by the hundreds and
hundreds for beaver pelts.
continued to be used by the nations even after the beaver were depleted
and the large-scale production of wampum ended. Many people from
wampum-making cultures found themselves in need of other kinds of
work by the 1800s, said Martine. The Shinnecock, for example, who
had been whalers, joined the commercial whaling industry.
the practice of wampum-making diminished, its use continues today.
In contrast to the more modern rainbow of glass beads used by Indian
nations in other parts of North America, Native people from the
Northeast use white and black or purple wampum almost as a signature
has warmth to it because the shell work has a rich quality to it,
Martine said. The color is rich and the feeling is rich. Real
wampum is still rare and valuable. Each bead is worth $5 to
believes it is important for Native Americans to continue to use
wampum. Among the Haudenosaunee, each of the 50 chiefs in the Grand
Council has a string of wampum that shows their position. As
one chief passes away and another is put in that position, that
wampum is passed to that person, Ground said. It is
still an emblem of their authority.