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Our Undying Past

Wampum - A Living Object

Mention wampum and a non-Native American person might think of money. It’s sometimes a synonym for cash in our everyday slang. Others may have a vague notion that wampum was used ceremonially at Indian-white treaty councils as part of exchanges of trade goods, tokens and the like.

Wampum is so much more. To the Indians, the strings of cylindrical beads carved from quahog shells are able to bear witness to events, embody collective emotions, and secure diplomatic promises – not merely signify all those purposes but truly embody and bespeak them.

Earlier this year, I attended a talk about wampum by Margaret Bruchac, an Abenaki woman and an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. She underscored wampum’s supernal importance in native tradition, saying the wampum strings become animate objects when words are spoken into it.

In my new historical novel about Indian-settler affairs, Visions of Teaoga, the 18th century native matriarch Esther typifies that understanding. In an early scene, she accepts the Seneca chief Red Jacket’s offer to attend a peace council in this way: “Taking the wampum strings in hand, Esther gave her reply. She held the strands of sacred shell beads aloft in her open palm, letting them spiritually receive her pledge as was the custom. ‘Brother, I have heard your words and my heart is stirred. Perhaps the Preserver has brought me to this time for this purpose. My Tutelo friends have endured many dark days. If they need my presence, I cannot refuse. If you need my presence to help keep the treaty fire bright, I cannot refuse. My sixty winters have worn down my body and weakened my eyesight. Let us hope it has not dimmed my vision.’ ”

Later in the book, I draw directly from Red Jacket’s actual words as recorded from that 1790 peace council: “Our forefathers told us that when a treaty was finished, by preserving the belts used we would know and could tell our children what had been done.” White wampum beheld harmony, while purple embodied distress, danger, death – attributes that figure in Esther’s use on her wampum strings in the novel.

Traditionally, wampum beads “were used sparingly to create belts to commemorate great events, to preserve history, to declare peace or war, to record elections, and to heal families from the pain of losing a family member. The messages conveyed in the belts were considered law, and were honoured and respected as such.” That explanation is from a fine blog post that profiles a Cayuga Indian “Faithkeeper” and wampum maker, Ken Maracle. The post includes a video in which Mr. Maracle tells how he feels “guided by his ancestors” in his work.

The Cayuga tribe figures large in Visions of Teaoga, so I was delighted to see the video. You can watch it, and read the wampum essay, here:

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