Academic journal article Material Culture

Wampum Bags and Containers from the Native Northeast

Academic journal article Material Culture

Wampum Bags and Containers from the Native Northeast

Article excerpt

Abstract: Review of the records relating to the ways in which Natives stored wampum provides important insights into the numbers of belts and other wampum items held by a tribe at any one time. The records regarding "containers" for diplomatic wampum used within the Core Area, and also in the Periphery, provide a gauge of the volume of beads and belts held by each tribe and how wampum was used. Documents relating to how and where wampum bands were stored suggest that during the period of wampum diplomacy (ca. 1620-1810) tribes in the Core Area treated them as communal property. Bags, presumed to be of tanned hide, are commonly identified as wampum containers in the Core Area, while baskets appear associated with storage among the tribes in the Periphery. These data also reveal the surprisingly late origins of "wampum keepers," a role that appears in the Northeast only after 1800. The post-1840 records documenting how native peoples stored wampum reveal changes in the function and meaning of individual belts.

Keywords: wampum bags, wampum beads, wampum diplomacy, wampum keepers

Wampum: An Introduction

White marine shell beads of random sizes were powerful symbols among North American tribes for centuries before the development of the relatively standardized size and form called wampum. Shell beads of relatively uniform size and shape emerged as a native-made commodity during the years between 1590 and 1604. Wampum beads were first fashioned only through the use of imported iron awls as drills, called muxes, yielding a cylinder ca. 3 x 7mm, smaller in size than any earlier native shell beads (Becker 2008). The name "wampum" derives from the Algonquian wampumpeag: white shell beads. These were made from the columella of the whelk, but the term also became applied to the dark or purple beads made from the purple adductor muscle spots of the quahog clam. Individual wampum beads were called porcelain by the French, reflecting their similarity to the new type of ceramic material (bone china) that (ca. 1600) was becoming common in Europe.

Soon after 1600, wampum became important throughout the Northeast as a commodity. Each government established a value for the white and also the dark beads. This monetization, in a way similar to that of dried fish or tobacco, valuing beads at two to four beads to the penny, depended on color and currency fluctuations (Becker 1980). The convenient size of each bead allowed them to serve as small change. For larger business matters, whether in trade or at treaties, fathom lengths of strung wampum were used, each with a set value based on color. The tubular shape of each wampum bead, ca. 3mm in diameter and 8 or 9mm in length, enabled them to be "woven" into flat panels or bands. These bands served decorative as well as political functions. Ornamental bands and strings can be identified because they include numbers, glass and metal beads, or non-native products.

The total volume taken up by loose or strung wampum beads is a matter of some interest, as it enables us to estimate the size of containers needed to transport and store this commodity. A string of 20 to 30 beads can be held in a cupped hand. A large belt such as the "Vatican 1831" wampum belt, with ca. 9,900 beads (15 rows by 660 files), could be rolled up to form a cylinder (Becker 2001, 2006) with a volume including the fringe of about 400 cubic centimeters or less than half a liter (two cups). When we know the numbers of belts held by a tribe (see Becker in press B) information on approximate volumes allows us to estimate the size of the containers used to hold them.

References to the containers used to hold wampum, by native as well as colonials, are extremely rare. Collecting all known accounts in which wampum containers are mentioned enables us to examine three interwoven aspects of native culture and to understand interesting details of wampum use in general. These three aspects also reveal cultural rules that operated among many native as well as colonial populations, as well as how wampum figured into Northeastern history. …

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