Monday, April 09, 2007

Wampum (Bead Belts) of the Indians of North America

In her book Quipu - Il Nodo Parlante dei Misteriosi Inca, Clara Miccinelli makes mention that the Iroquois of New England / New York made use of bead belts called wampum for communication.

Examples of Treaty Wampums including the founding treaty creating the Iroquois League of Nations as well as various 17th century Concordats between the Catholic Church and various native peoples of North Eastern North America can be found at the website given here:

http://www.kstrom.net/isk/art/beads/wampum.html

An excellent web-page explaining the way wampums were physically made is given here:

http://www.nativetech.org/wampum/wamphist.htm

Another excellent article on wampums, written in the context of the Cherokee nation (originally inhabiting what is today eastern Tennessee) explains:

http://web.syr.edu/~cfsmith/congress/episodes/
1789/comments/Cher/wampum.html


(1) How wampums were made to carry meaning (the Elders commissioned the wampum from the wampum-makers and then repeated the message that the wampum was to carry to the wampum-makers until they "got it." Thus the wampum has been considered to be a mneumonic device, and

(2) the wide extent to which wampums were used in North America prior to contact with Europeans. The author of the articles claims that they were used by Native American peoples throughout most of today's United States east of the Mississippi River then extending westward through the Missouri and Columbia River systems.

Finally, below are excerpts from an article published by Lois Scozzari, "The significance of wampum to seventeenth century Indians in New England," originally published in the Connecticutt Review. Note that the Wampum of the Indians of New England, like Khipu of the Incas were used as means of communication and were used as grave goods in traditional indian burials:

"An integral and intriguing aspect of wampum use was the sending and receiving of wampum as means of communication. Most Indian groups were able to hand down a rich oral tradition of poetry, oratory, and drama by means of pictographs or other mnemonic devices for recalling important events. Wampum was such a memory device. Designs woven into belts with contrasting color beads, recorded treaties, agreements, important events, and public accounts through figures or geometric patterns.36 Wampum recorded the words and gave them the pledge of sincerity, for without this pledge the talk was just casual.37 Figures lent energy to the language, conveying meaning through symbolism.38 A designated person would be responsible for a belt's keeping and meaning, and for passing it on to the next generation. The color white symbolized peace, while black signified war or mourning, and when a communication evoked anger, the belt was kicked around in contempt.39 Even after European intervention, the New England Indian tribes continued the ceremonial use of wampum when forging treaties, agreements and relationships...

"Despite the threat to their culture, however, native people steadfastly used wampum in the traditional way; sending communication, declaring war, procuring peace, and so on, and the English appeared to take the native lead in this, abiding by and following native custom and ceremony. When Narragansett sachem Miantinamo was captured by the Mohegans under Uncas. in 1643, the Narragansetts quickly sealed a ransom of several packages of wampum requesting that he be delivered to his friends, the English, to decide his fate. The English, howeven for political reasons decided to execute the Sachem.67

"Traditionally, Indian people buried their dead with wampum, wherefore it is their custom to bury them, their bows and arrows and good store of their wampumpeag, and mowbacheis; one to affright that affronting Cereberus, the other to purchase more immense prerogatives in heaven. 68 Desperate economic situations in the decades that followed the Pequot defeat, caused impudent people to ransack their ancestors' graves for some salable trade items or wampum. These deeds revealed how broken down native systems had become to necessitate the forbidden act of grave robbing. Graves of the prestigious were no longer honored by distinct markings or decoration in order to disguise them from robbers. Democratization of graves furthered the loss of Indian identity.69 "

Dennis
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