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What is a Wampum?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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A wampum is a string of white shell beads. These beads were traditionally produced by Native Americans in the Northeastern region of what is now known as the United States from mollusks such as the quahog clam and whelk, and they had great cultural and ceremonial significance. Several examples of artifacts made with shell beads can be seen in American museums, works of artwork depicting early Americans, and in the private collections of various Native American tribes and communities.

There is some confusion about the meaning of the word “wampum.” The word is short for wampumpeag, an Algonquin word which literally means “string of white shell beads.” More valuable dark and purple beads were known as sewant or sucksuahock, although today people often refer to them as wampum. This term also refers specifically to beads which have been strung, not to loose shell beads. However, these definitions have been blurred over time, especially in the European community.

In Native American culture, strings of shell beads were traditionally given during gift exchanges. People could seal treaties, elections, marriages, and other agreements with wampum, and the beads were also used as memory aids to assist storytellers and help tribes preserve oral traditions. A belt could contain a number of motifs which told a story in images, prompting the memories of members of the tribe so that they could remember events in tribal history.

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When European colonists reached North America, some were presented with wampum and other gifts by the Native American community. The Europeans introduced the concept of utilizing the shell beads as money, leading to the common misperception that shells were a form of currency among Native American tribes. In fact, it was primarily Europeans who treated it as currency, with Native people adopting the trend and using wampum in trade with Europeans. The Europeans also constructed factories to make wampum, with the ability to produce large numbers of big beads for use in trade.

These tubular beads could be strung in simple strings, or more ornate belts, some of which were woven for extra strength. Several depictions of colonists who settled in the Northeast include renderings of wampum belts presented by the local Native Americans as a gesture of goodwill, or to seal treaties and agreements made with the Europeans. Several Native American tribes from this region use stylized drawings of wampum in their flags, referencing the cultural importance of wampum to their people.

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Izzy78
Post 4

@TreeMan - Wampums only became used as currency because the European settlers saw their importance to the Native Americans and the demand there was for them.

However, the problem that emerged was that the Native Americans would have to trade pelts or money for the wampum, which was something they were hesitant to do.

Also, considering that wampum was something that was so important and sacred it is possible that they would lose their importance if they became very common.

In the end the wampum currency market faded into obscurity and this is somewhat of an unknown reason as to why. I feel like it was something of a fad or an attempt by the Europeans to establish better relations with the American Indian tribes and was just something that faded out.

TreeMan
Post 3

@cardsfan27 - One question I do have about wampum is their use if they are used as a form of currency. I learned in school that they used wampum as a form of currency and I have to wonder whether or not because of the value that tribes had for wampum to tell their history if they decided to make wampum a form of currency to make sure that they were able to have these?

It is very hard to keep an oral history and having aids like wampums help immensely in telling the traditons and history of the tribe, so I would think that they would be in tremendous demand and that tribes would want to have many of them for all the stories associated with the tribe.

cardsfan27
Post 2

@Emilski - You are correct. One of the main uses for a wampum was to provide the elders something in which to recall something from the past.

Each wampum told a story and some of these wampum were tremendously long or large. These large wampums were considered sacred by the tribe and the story tellers and told a lot about the history of the tribe through the stories associated with the wampum.

A wampum could be used to tell an entire persons life thus they were considered very important things to have in various Indian tribes. Native American history is told through oral tradition and wampums only helped to enhance these stories and make sure that the people associated with the wampum were never forgotten.

Emilski
Post 1

Wampum has always been seen as a a sign of peace and a sign of being a peaceful gift throughout the years. Explorers would usually present a wampum to the local Indians and this would indicate that they were aware of their culture and willing to be friendly to them. This usually was something that was a must to do in some areas and helped ease relations for people passing through.

Wampum could also be used as a gift at weddings and other types of social gatherings. One thing that it would be used for would be as an artifact for that event and a tribal elder could look at the wampum and be able to retell a story, such as the married life between the people at the wedding.

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