The wampum belt was generally applied to the different parts of a speech, or the different articles of a treaty and on great occasions, when these belts were brought forth individuals were found who, from memory or tradition, could explain each section of the precious girdle.– Abraham Gesner, New Brunswick with Notes for Emigrants 1847:111-112
Wampum: Using Symbols to Communicate Messages
Wampum was used by many Indigenous peoples in the north-eastern part of North America as a way of recording and sending messages. It consisted of purple and white beads made from the shells of quahog clams.
The beads were strung in single strands or woven into “belts,” much like those made on bead-looms today. The design on each string or belt indicated the type of message being sent and helped the messenger remember the specific contents. Wampum belts were hung from the ceiling lengthwise.
Wampum was considered sacred and was treated with great respect because the messages it carried were of great importance.
Wampum was used:
- to establish, maintain and terminate political relations among Indigenous nations and within nations like alliances, peace agreements and decisions about mutual interests
- to establish and maintain family relationships and make marriage proposals
- to show that people had positions of importance within a nation or local group
- to perform spiritual ceremonies
- to form alliances or make treaties and agreements with Europeans
The word wampum comes from the Eastern Algonquian languages. In Wolastoqey, it is known as Wapap (WAHB-ahb); literally “white string”, referring to the white beads. (Wapapiyil – plural form). Mi’kmaq have a similar name, and call it Waiopskuk (wye-OHB-skoog), “beads”. Ask how were items recorded on the wampum belt and by whom? Visit the two-line wampum belt and its significance as defined forever http://honorthetworow.org/learn-more/history/. See how wampum is made by visiting the Spotlight Series – Native American Artistry, an interview with Ken Maracle, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkDl3kaf2hs.
Show the wampum belt on a SMART board and explain how it was used to convey to other First Nations that a treaty had been signed. See if the class can interpret the symbols of the shells. Look at the images of the shells in white that identify eight groups of people coming together and smoking a ceremonial peace pipe.