What is a Wampum Belt?

What is a Wampum Belt?

Wampum belts are belts made using wampum beads whose origins can be traced back to Hiawatha, a pre-colonial aboriginal leader.

Wampum beads won their prominence during the founding of the League of Five Nations. They were however in existence before. Hiawatha commanded and regulated the use of wampum. He endorsed wampum was a symbol of peace. The term wampum means shells.

The beads are made from a round clam shell known as the Quahog. Wampum beads are strung and woven together to form wampum belts.

Making Wampum Beads

Wampum beads had a lot of significance in ancient history because the process of making them was strenuous. Once the round clam shells were acquired, they were broken into purple or white cubes. White wampum was a symbol of peace while purple wampum was a symbol of more serious/political matters. Initially, stones or reed drills were used to clamp and make holes into wampum cubes. Stones and reed drills were however replaced later by iron drills.

Water was used to reduce heat from the hole drilling process. Each shell was drilled halfway through, reversed and then drilled, from the opposite side. The beads were strung on a thread before being ground against grooved stones to shape and smooth them. The result was long cylindrical wampum beads measuring 0.25 inches long and 0.125 inches in diameter.

student activities on National Aboriginal Day 2016
Photo: Student activities on National Aboriginal Day.

Uses

Wampum belts were very valuable in ancient aboriginal history. The belts had a number of uses the most notable being;

1. Calling for important meetings i.e. calling council meetings. The belts also dictated sitting arrangements in such meetings. As many as 40 wampum belts were used/exchanged at a single council. Wampum belts were used to call meetings such as adoption ceremonies as well as meetings for electing or deposing chiefs.

2. Recording passed laws: Wampum belts were also used to record every law that was passed. In such cases, a special belt was used. Each law passed was represented by a unique wampum belt. The belt had to be memorized by a group of trained individuals.

3. Commemorating treaties: Each important treaty signed between other nations and the Iroquois was honoured by a wampum belt. The belts were also used to record treaties made between indigenous people and the Europeans. Each wampum belt pattern held different significance/represented a different agreement.

For instance, the two-row wampum represented the original agreement between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee. It represented how both parties would share the land with friendship and respect without interfering with each other’s affairs. The wampum came to be a representation of a good treaty relationship between indigenous people and the Europeans when it was extended to the Anishinaabeg and the British.

Wampum belts were exchanged as records for treaties. They were usually accompanied by ceremonial customs like smoking sacred pipes or exchanging gifts. The spirit, as well as intention of treaty negotiations, created the sacred and binding nature of treaties. Treaties were based on oral tradition, not on written language.

Wampum belts were kept by special individuals (wampum keepers) who availed the belts during special council meetings where the belts would be shown to everyone and the message in each belt recited. During such meetings, everyone would get an opportunity to see and touch the belt so that the designs and meanings of each belt would be remembered.

4. As a certificate of office: Every Confederacy chief and clan mother had to have a wampum string or strings that acted as a certificate of office. The wampum string/strings would be passed on from one leader to another. Messengers also carried wampum to show they had official authority to carry/deliver messages.

5. Other uses: Wampum belts were also used for storytelling and as ceremonial gifts. The belts are still made to date for ceremonial, personal and political use.

As wampum belts became popular in important events, they began to be viewed as sacred and highly valuable. Early settlers discovered this and learned how to mass produce them thinking they were used as money. In fact, some Europeans used wampum belts as currency, but native communities never used them as such.

Most Common Wampum Belts

a. Wing or Dust Fan belt

This wampum belt is the most popular. It represents an ever-growing/everlasting tree, a symbol of lasting peace.

b. The Hiawatha Belt

The Hiawatha Belt is a broad dark belt featuring 38 rows. The belt a great tree symbol in the middle and two white squares on the left and right side. The tree and squares are connected using white wampum rows which represent Five Nations unity.

c. Wampum strings

These strings have a number of meanings. Some were and are still invitational while others are still used for condolence/mourning. Some wampum strings are also used to call for council meetings.

Wampum Belts in Ontario Today

Wampum belts have helped launch Ontario’s first ever Treaties Recognition Week. The theme of the first ever Treaties Recognition Week held early November 2016 was educating Ontario students on the importance of honouring treaties made with Indigenous people.

This year’s event held at David Bouchard Public School saw the launch of a resource guide for high school teachers aimed at helping teachers teach indigenous culture with special focus on the treaties made between indigenous and non-indigenous people in an effort to alleviate racism as well as support treaty education.

Some of the wampum belts displayed during Treaties Recognition Week were; the 24 Nations Belt, Two-Row Wampum and The Treaty of Niagara belt.