Wampum at the Shako:wi Cultural Center
Validating the spoken message
Wampum attests to the truth, importance and significance of a message.
To our forefathers, wampum was a symbolic material linked, in ancient tradition, to the Peacemaker's founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. When beads were collected into strands or woven together as belts, the wampum stood for the authority of a spoken message.
To us today, it contains the best thinking of our people from the Peacemaker to the present. It represents who we are and reminds us where we have been. Wampum means an agreement to hold onto our traditions because our history and laws are wrapped up in it. To us, it is sacred substance with powerful healing presence.
Any statement not accompanied by wampum was likely to be false or trivial. A very important message, such as a treaty, required a large amount of wampum often in the form of a belt. The words of the message were so closely associated with wampum that, after being "read into" the shell fabric, the words could be recalled by viewing the wampum object. Wampum also, therefore, was a memory aid.
Wampum consists of beads made from mussel shells found along the coast of New England. White beads came from several species of whelk. The purple beads derived from the hard-shell or quahog clam similar to the one shown here. The wampum objects were woven on a bow-like loom. Sinew was used for horizontal threads. Vertical strands were composed of a vegetal fiber (perhaps milkweed or hemp).
To the Europeans, the money value of purple wampum beads was twice that of white beads.
To the Oneidas and other Native Americans, the dark color conveyed a more serious purpose: sorrow, or perhaps, significant political affairs. This nikohla' or wampum is the national and common property of the Oneida Indian Nation. It is a kind of national treasure although we and other Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) did not use it as money as the early non-native colonists did.
This belt dates to the 1700s, but it may have been reworked sometime in the 1800s.
The importance of the subjects recorded in this belt was emphasized through color and design. The predominance of dark wampum suggests sorrow or a solemn political affair of state. The diamonds on the belt may mean council fires of six nations. After the Tuscaroras joined the five founding nations in the early 1700s, the Confederacy was often referred to as the Six Nations.
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