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What is wampum?


Wampum beads are made from the shells of two kinds of sea animals (invertebrates).  The dark purple color beads are made from the quahog clam shell.  The white beads are made from whelk shells.  Both of these shell animals lived along the Atlantic coast and not in Haudenosaunee territory.  The Algonquin peoples who lived in these areas supplied the Haudenosaunee and other Native peoples with “wampompeag” (or wampum) in exchange for flint, furs, and other items that were more plentiful in their regions.    


The archaeological record shows that shell beads were used for earrings, necklaces, and other forms of decoration by Native people long before the Formation of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Later, it was used by American Colonists as a form of currency.  But, to the Haudenosaunee wampum is sacred.  Most date its sacred origins to the story of Hiawatha.  Grieving the loss of his family and his failure to bring unity to his people, Hiawatha discovered fresh water clam shells in a dry lake bed.  He strung the shells together and used the strands to carry a message of healing.  According to Haudenosaunee tradition, The Peacemaker also used wampum to break down the resistance of the evil Tadodaho, which allowed a new peace to flourish.  

How is it used?


Long before there were telephones, identification cards, or written agreements, wampum was used by the Haudenosaunee to communicate messages and important ideas.  Wampum was also proof that an individual had the authority to speak for the people and provided a way to record agreements between nations. This is still true today.  Chiefs and Clan Mothers have their own strings of wampum that symbolize their position of honor and responsibility in the community.  Wampum strings are used in ceremonies and also at council meetings where it is passed to each person present so that all will remember, and live by, its message.

How was it made?


Making wampum beads was difficult and took a lot of skill.  The shell was first broken into small blocks.  A stone or reed drill was used to create a hole in the block.  The block would be drilled half way through and then turned over to drill through the other side.   The blocks were then ground into tubular shapes by rolling or rubbing them against a stone.  Later in history, iron drills replaced stone drills but the process was still very challenging.  Finished beads were then strung on plant fibers or sinew. 


Today, Cayuga Faithkeeper Ken Maracle still makes wampum by hand using quahog and whelk shells.  Although Maracle has some modern advantages, the work must be done carefully and the shells drilled under water to prevent splitting.  The ancient, original wampum is too sacred and delicate to be displayed in public very often.  For this reason, Ken and other Haudenosaunee make replicas of the old strings and belts for schools, museums, and individuals.  They feel that the agreements and ideas that the belts stand for should not be forgotten, even though they are from long ago.

What do the patterns mean?


Each wampum pattern represents a person, a nation, a particular event, an invitation, or an agreement.  The pattern is a symbol.  The symbols help people to remember their history and communicate complex ideas without using written words.  The white shell beads stand for peace, friendship, and harmony.  The purple shell beads represent war, suffering, or events of great importance.

Who owns the wampum?


Wampum belts and strings are the property of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Many were stolen or purchased from individuals who had no right to sell them.  Some ended up in private collections and others in museums such as the National Museum of the American Indian.  A number were placed at the University of Albany by the Onondaga chiefs for their preservation and protection.  In 1989, the United States passed a law that required wampum and other sacred artifacts to be returned to their rightful owners.  Today, many of these important items have been returned to the communities where they can be used in ceremonies, for teaching, and to act as reminders of the laws that the Haudenosaunee live by. 

Hiawatha Wampum Belt


The Hiawatha Belt is perhaps the most well known of the wampum belts.  It is a symbol of the agreement between the five original Haudenosaunee nations and their promise to live in unity and stand by one another in times of trouble.  The four white squares stand for the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca nations.  The Onondaga, as the keepers of the council fire, are represented at the center of the pattern by a white tree.   The lines extending out from the Seneca and Mohawk squares on either side of the belt stand for a path which other nations may follow if they agree to live in peace or wish to join the Confederacy.  In recent times, this pattern has also come to be used on a flag representing the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. 

Two Row Wampum Belt


The Two Row wampum belt represents an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the European Colonists.  Although the agreement is several hundred years old, the message it communicates is still very important today.   The two purple lines symbolize two paths or two ships.  One is the path or way of the Haudenosaunee.  The other is the path or way of the European.  Each group has its own laws, beliefs, and way of life.  The belt teaches that each should travel side by side but without interfering in the lives of the other.  In this way, the two groups can continue to co-exist in mutual respect and harmony. 

Four Strings Of White Wampum Is The Chief's Pledge Wampum Signifying That He Will Live According To The Constitution Of The Great Peace.

Three Strings of Purple Wampum Used to Call A Condolence Council For A Principal Chief (The number of notches on the stick tell the number of days before the council)

Circle Of Purple Wampum Used in Calling A Mourning Councilor Condolence for Raising A Secondary Chief or War Chief (The number of notches on the stick tell the number of days before the council)

Single String Of White Wampum Used To Call A Religious Council (The number of notches on the stick tell the number of days before the council)

A Group Of Wampum Strings With The Upper Half White And The Lower Half Black Symbolizes Ratification of a Peace Pact or The Great Peace Between The Five Nations. The White Represents The Women, The Black Represents The Men.

A Single Strand of White Wampum Signifies An Adoption Pledge.

Mohawk Clan Chieftainship strings

1st Chief: Tekarihoken
(The Mediator)
2nd Chief: Ayonwatha (Hiawatha)
(He who Combs)
3rd Chief: Satekariwate
(The Clear Thinker)

1st Chief: Sarenhowane (Majestic Tree)
2nd Chief: Teyonhekwen (He Who Has Two Lives)
3rd Chief: Orenrekowa (Great Limb On A Tree)

1st Chief: Tehanakarine
(He Who Drags Horns)
2nd Chief: Ostawenserentha
(He Hangs Up The Rattles)
3rd Chief: Soskoharowane
(A Great Bush)

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