Thursday, August 27, 2009


Contrary to what you may have learned in grade school - and how the word is used in the vernacular today, wampum was not "Indian money." Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands tribes used the strings of sacred shell beads not as currency, but contracts. Wampum belts were exchanged to symbolize engagement or marriage, validate treaties, or signify war or peace. For instance, the parallel stripes on the Two Row Wampum Treaty Belt between the whites and the natives represent the paths of their vessels containing their customs and laws - the canoe and the sailing vessel - neither of which should outpace the other, and each of which should remain separate and equal forever. Wampum belts also served as memory aids in story-telling and were worn for ritual decoration. No mere money belts or fashion accessories, these. It was the European settlers who realized how much the wampum belts meant to the natives, assigned value to them, and mass-produced them. But it was their symbolism which mattered most, and still does: along with their skeletal remains, Native American tribes have requested repatriation of wampum belts. I daresay you will not use the word "wampum" the same way again...that is, if you ever use it. Like me, you may just want to say it out loud a few times.

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