Wampum and the Iroquois: A Short Overview

By A. Brian Deer

Wampum played a great role in our culture ... It is still important that we should have wampum to communicate matters ... - Jake Thomas, Cayuga, 1986 1

For the Iroquois, the origins of wampum can be traced to the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy centuries ago. 2 In the traditional oral narrative concerning the Peacemaker and the Great Law (according to one version) Hiawatha retrieves freshwater shells from the shores of Lake Ontario and ties them together in strings to be used for condoling someone. Hiawatha himself is grief-stricken by the loss his daughters during his attempts to assist the Peacemaker to promote the Confederacy and spread the message of peace. Hiawatha loses himself in the forest and wanders about from village to village. Each evening, at the woods' edge, he kindles a fire saying:

This would I do if I found anyone burdened with grief even as I am. I would take these shell strings in my hand and console them. The strings would become words and lift away the darkness with which they are covered. Holding these in my hand, my words would be true. 3

Finally the Peacemaker approaches him and takes up the strings one by one, speaking the words of condolence to him. Thus are the origins of the Condolence Ceremony, and of wampum itself as we know it today, in Iroquois culture.

Wampum refers to oblong cylindrical beads individually pierced lengthwise and linked together into one or more strings for ceremonial purposes, or woven together into wide "belts" for communicative and diplomatic purposes. 4Ironically wampum itself is not indigenous to Iroquois country. The shells that Hiawatha gathered from the lake shore were not necessarily wampum as it was later to be known. Wampum is made from sea shells, primarily whelk for the white-ivory colour and quahog for the purple-dark blue colour. The shells are found on coastal waters along the shores of Long Island Sound and southwestern New England in the country of Algonquian peoples. The word "wampum" originates from an Algonquian word, wampumpeag meaning "white string of shell beads." 5 The Iroquois traded for wampum especially after it became more readily available in quantity from Algonquian bead-manufacturing production by the early seventeenth century, and later from Euro-North American entrepreneurs as well. For a period of 30 years ending in 1664, wampum beads were actually used by the Dutch and English as a form of currency. 6 However, for the Iroquois wampum has been valued culturally. Wampum (especially white wampum) has signified spiritual, social and physical well-being; peace, lightness, and life. 7 For the Iroquois today, wampum also signifies sovereignty, re-affirmation and identity. One could say that though wampum as material is indigenous to Algonquian sea shores, wampum as concept is indigenous to Iroquois thought and ideology. Wampum played a huge role in the social and political history of the Iroquois, as it still does in the Iroquois Longhouse. 8 Today wampum strings and wampum belts are widely identified with Iroquoian peoples. However, it is important to remember that many Algonquian peoples positioned geographically on all sides of the Six Nations Iroquois also used wampum for ceremonial and communicative/diplomatic purposes. 9

The Iroquois used and continue to use wampum in two different forms: strings and belts. In the fifteen-part Condolence Ceremony for the raising and installation of a new Roianer (inadequately translated as "sachem" or "chief") 10 to replace the one who has died, different wampum strings are employed for each part of the ceremony. During the course of the ceremony strings are ritually passed across from the "clear minded" to those being condoled, and are returned in reciprocal fashion. The most familiar part of the ceremony is the clearing of the eyes, ears, and throat, respectively. Wampum strings are also employed at other functions such as, for example, naming ceremonies, funerals, certain rituals at the Midwinter and other calendric ceremonies, and the convening of councils. 11 For the latter, invitation strings sent out to communities are returned individually when a council is convened.

Wampum belts are quite different in appearance from wampum strings. They are of variable width and length (approximately 3-6 inches wide and 3-5 feet long) and are composed of rows of white and purple beads woven together. The belts are encoded with abstract, symbolic, pictographic symbols to aid the memory. The mnemonic symbols - highly stylized human figures, trees and so forth - convey concepts, metaphors and ideas. They are often purple on a white background, as in the Two Row Wampum. Sometimes, the symbols are white against a blue-purple background as in the "Hiawatha belt" commemorating the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy, or the "Two Dog" Wampum of Kanehsatake. 12 As an aside, purple is not a "royal" colour in this context; the colours come from the seashells used to manufacture the beads.

Any discussion of Iroquois culture and history can lead to a thought provoking debate on a number of issues. In a 1993 panel discussion on Iroquois history which took place in Kahnawake near Montreal, John Mohawk asserted that Iroquois people need to think again about how they view their own history, that it is not as glorified as people like to think. He also asserted, half in jest, that it is tough being a Native historian writing about Native history: over one shoulder are non-Native academics looking for something wrong with his scholarship; over the other shoulder are Native folks looking for something wrong with his politics. 13 Similarly, an Iroquois person writing about wampum (especially wampum belts) can find himself in somewhat the same position. It is a topic that in the past has been fraught with discord between Iroquois people and non-Iroquois scholars studying the Iroquois. 14

Following from the above discussion, Iroquois (and non-Iroquois) people need to think again about how wampum is viewed. For example, one sometimes hears it being said that wampum belts are treaties. This is, of course, a misconception. Wampum belts are not necessarily treaties; it is in fact quite limiting to think of them as treaties somehow fixed in time and history. Most wampum belts never were treaties. Rather, they were used to mark, record, convey, or recall diplomatic messages, conferences, momentous happenings, oral traditions, and (sometimes) to ratify treaties.

One also hears it said that wampum is sacred. This also needs to be reexamined. Wampum is not in itself sacred. Even the rituals and ceremonies in which wampum is used are not in themselves sacred. What is sacred are the words, thoughts and feelings carried in rituals and ceremonies in which wampum is used. A wampum string obliges the person holding it and signifies honesty, sincerity and seriousness, whether in a condolence ceremony, a particular ritual in the Longhouse, or even in a Canadian/American courthouse where wampum is occasionally used in lieu of the Christian Bible. 15 As for wampum belts, what is sacred are the messages, meanings, concepts and ideas they contain, not the belts themselves. The wampum belts stripped bare are merely artifacts and objects. What they represent is what should be considered important and "sacred." as expressed by an Iroquois speaker at a legislative committee hearing in Quebec City in 1983 when reciting the Two Row Wampum, a replica of the belt at hand:

"There came a time when people thought that if we lost this article [to a museum], this artifact, this grouping of beads that forms a record, we would also forget the responsibility in our relationship. The relationship is not a material one, it is not written in beads, and that is it. ... No, the relationship is etched in the minds of our forefathers. It has been etched in the minds of our people, sitting here today. That same understanding of principles will be in our children. It will be in the ones ... that are not yet born." 16

The Two Row Wampum and the message it contains has wide appeal in Iroquois country today and, perhaps because of this, has become a flash point for some people when wampum belts are discussed. The historical origins of the belt have been called into question and challenged by many non-Iroquois historians. One preeminent Iroquoianist has been heard to say (in classic Orientalist fashion) 17 that the Two Row Wampum is a "recent invention." One can debate whether or not the tradition of reciting the Two Row Wampum is a fairly recent development, but there can be little debate over the concept contained in the Two Row. The idea that two peoples shall follow separate paths, without interfering with each other, at the same time linked in peace, friendship and respect is very old. Such thinking can be found in the early documentary evidence. For example, the Treaty of Fort Albany (1664) addresses the responsibilities of the English and the Iroquois in the event of any "wrong injury or violence" being done by a member of either side. 18 Whether or not a Two Row Wampum belt was materially present at the time is beside the point; the concept and the thinking behind it was already present.

What perhaps is really at issue is the representation of Iroquois culture and history, the construction of knowledge about the latter, how we should think about such matters, and whether any particular group (Iroquois or non-Iroquois) has the right to monopolize these activities. This is another area that has been fraught with discord. 19

What of wampum today? Wampum strings continue to be used in much the same way as in former times. Just as the Peacemaker condoled Hiawatha in his grief, so do the Iroquois continue to condole one another in times of grief or distress. Wampum belts for their part no longer function in the Iroquois world in quite the same way that they did in times gone by. New wampum belts are no longer routinely strung up and used for various diplomatic purposes as often as before. However, the Two Row Wampum is an important exception. It provides strength, inspiration and renewal to Iroquois and Indigenous peoples alike at international forums and gatherings. With changing conditions other uses for wampum belts have been developed. For example, a few years ago a wampum belt was delivered from Kahnawake to Akwesasne to bring the message of diabetes awareness and prevention. It has since been traveling from one Native community to another and has been a source of reassuring encouragement for those requesting and receiving it. 20 In addition, wampum belts are used in recalling oral narratives. They are also used as teaching tools to inform both Iroquois people and the non-Native public about Iroquois history and culture, whether in small groups, at meetings, conferences, or in classrooms. Cultures and societies change all the time; the Iroquois are no exception. Wampum is still highly valued in the Iroquois world.

Sometimes I think that historians, although they don't mean to, perhaps want to put us in an historical time and they don't allow us to say [of wampum] "but it is alive today." - Francis Boots, Mohawk, 1989 21

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About the author

A. Brian Deer (Kahnawake Mohawk) is an independent scholar. He co-teaches "An Introduction to Iroquois Spirituality and Philosophy" with Louise Johnston in the Department of Religion at Concordia University on a semi-regular basis. He is also the creator of the Brian Deer Classification System for First Nations libraries. He welcomes serious questions and comments and can be reached at abdeer@sympatico.ca.

Notes to the text

1quoted in Charles F. Hayes III and Lynn Ceci, eds., Proceedings of the 1986 Shell Bead Conference: Selected Papers (Rochester, NY: Rochester Museum and Science Service, 1989), [iii].

2 dates vary; according to one author, the process of confederation could have started as early as A. D. 1300-1400; see William N. Fenton, The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 128. Originally a confederacy of five nations, the latter were joined by the Tuscaroras in the early eighteenth-century to form the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora, from east to west.

3 Paul A. W. Wallace, The White Roots of Peace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946), 21. Wallace, reprinted several times, offers a composite of several versions of this narrative; see also, [Seth Newhouse], "The Dekanawida Legend," The Constitution of the Five Nations or The Iroquois Book of the Great Law , ed. by Arthur C. Parker. New York Museum Bulletin 184 (1916). Reprinted (Ohsweken, ON: Iroqrafts, n. d.), 14-29. A variation of this passage is found in Newhouse, 20.

4 see Michael K. Foster, "Another Look at the Function of Wampum in Iroquois-White Councils," The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy: An Interdisciplinary Guide to the Treaties of the Six Nations and their League , ed. by Francis Jennings, et. al. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 99-114.

5 see George S. Snyderman, "The Functions of Wampum," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 98 (1954): 469-494; George R. Hamell, "Wampum: Light, White and Bright Things are Good to Think," One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure , ed. by Alexandra van Dongen, et al (Rotterdam: Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, 1996), 41-51; for Mohawk words, see Gunther Michelson, "Iroquoian Terms for Wampum," International Journal of American Linguistics 57 (1991): 108-116;

6 see Lynn Ceci, "The First Fiscal Crisis in New York," Economic Development and Culture Change 28 (1980): 839-847; the "crisis" was over currency control - the control of wampum beads; the reference to Algonquian bead manufacture, 840; Elizabeth S. Pena, "The Role of Wampum Production at the Albany Almshouse," International Journal of Historical Archaeology 5 (2001): 155-174.

7 see Lynn Ceci, "The Value of Wampum Among the New York Iroquois: A Case Study in Artifact Analysis," Journal of Anthropological Research 38 (1982): 97-107; George Hamell, "The Iroquois and the World's Rim: Speculations on Color, Culture, and Contact," American Indian Quarterly (1992): 451-469.

8The term "Longhouse" today refers to a communal building where ceremonial, social and political functions are carried out; it also refers metaphorically to Iroquois society and culture, and to the Co8nfederacy itself.

9 see for example Frank G. Speck, "The Functions of Wampum Among the Eastern Algonkian," Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association 6 (Jan-March 1919): 3-71; Robert M. Leavitt and David A. Francis, eds., Wapapi Akonutomakonol / The Wampum Records: Wabanaki Traditional Laws (Fredericton: Micmac-Maliseet Institute, University of New Brunswick, 1990).

10 Roianer, in the Mohawk language, literally means "good (he)" or "he is good"; more freely translated and understood, it means he who (being good) looks out for the people, or who has in mind the welfare of the people; see Seth Newhouse, "The Dekanawida Legend," cited above, 34.

11 see Francis Boots (Ateronhiatakon), "Iroquoian Use of Wampum," New Voices from the Longhouse: An Anthology of Contemporary Iroquois Writing , ed. by Joseph Bruchac (Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1989), 32-39.

12 According to the oral tradition the Two Dog wampum belt was made when the people of Kahnehsatake moved from the island of Montreal to their present location at the Lake of Two Mountains in 1721. Years later the chiefs reminded colonial officials of the message it contained: "...you see this white line which shows the length of our land. The figures with hands clasped who rejoin the cross represents the loyalty which we owe to the faith that we hold. The body represents the council-fire of our village. The two dogs at the outside are supposed to guard the boundaries of our land, and if anyone attempted to interrupt our possession it is their duty to warn us by barking ..."; Brenda Katlatont Gabriel-Doxtator and Arlette Kawanatatie Van Den Hende, At the Woods' Edge: An Anthology of the History of the People of Kanehsata:ke (Kanesatake: Kanesatake Education Center, 1995), 271; see also 30-31, 270-272, 275-77.

13 see Kanienkehaka Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center, "Great Debate" II: Perspectives on Iroquois History (Kahnawake: 1993). Videotape, Cassette #2. The other panelists were Gerald Alfred, Jane Dickson-Gilmore, Gretchen Green and Francis Jennings.

14 see [The Editors], "The Iroquois Wampum Controversy," Indian Historian 3 (Spring 1970): 4-17, 50, and (Summer 1970): 63; William N. Fenton, "The New York State Wampum Collection: The Case for the Integrity of Cultural Treasures," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 115 (1971): 437-461; [New York State Education Department], "Wampum Belts Returned to the Onondaga Nation," ed. by Dean R. Snow, Man in the Northeast 37 (Fall 1989): 109-117; William N. Fenton, "Return of Eleven Wampum Belts to the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy on Grand River, Canada," Ethnohistory 36 (1989): 392-410; José Barreiro, "Return of the Wampum," Indian Roots of American Democracy , ed. by José Barreiro (Ithaca, NY: Akwe:kon Press, 1992), 135-148; Elisabeth Tooker, "A Note on the Return of Eleven Wampum Belts to the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy on Grand River, Canada," Ethnohistory 45 (1998): 219-236.

15 "Judge Allows Wampum Ritual as Oath," Globe & Mail (Toronto) - Metro edition, July 10, 1991, A7.

16 Assemblée nationale Québec, Journal des Débats, Commissions Parlementaires, Quatrieme session - 32e Législature, Commission permanente de la présidence du conseil et de la constitution. Audition de personnes et d'organismes autochtones sur les droites et les besoins fondamentaux des Amérindiens et des Inuits . No. 167 (23 novembre 1983), B9307.

17 see Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient . With a New Afterword (London: Penguin Books, 1995).

18 Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany: 1853-1887), Vol. 3: 67-68; see also, Richard Hill, "Oral Memory of the Haudenosaunee: Views of the Two Row Wampum," Indian Roots of American Democracy , ed. by José Barreiro (Ithaca, NY: Akwe:kon Press, 1992), 149-159.

19 see Gail Landsman and Sara Ciborski, "Representation and Politics: Contesting Histories of the Iroquois," Cultural Anthropology 7 (1992): 425-447; Gail Landsman, "Informant as Critic: Conducting Research on a Dispute between Iroquoianist Scholars and Traditional Iroquois," Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria, Jr., and the Critique of Anthropology , ed. by Thomas Biolsi and Larry J. Zimmerman (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 160-176.

20 see Tom Dearhouse, "Objective Reached - Wampum Belt Delivered," The Eastern Door , July 11, 1997, 16; Greg Horn, "The Diabetes Wampum Belt is on the Road Again," October 9, 1998, 10, and other articles published in this Kahnawake weekly newspaper.

21 Francis Boots, "Iroquoian Use of Wampum," cited above, 39.