If you go to any powwow or a Native festival this year, you’ll notice that wampum jewelry is being sold in a lot of the stands these days. The myth that the Natives used wampum for money does, like all myths, have some truth to it, but, as Paul Harvey used to say on his radio show: “and now for the rest of the story.”
Wampum is short for the Narragansett/Algonquin word Wampumpeag, meaning, “white shell beads.” It existed in pre-contact times and had many uses: as jewelry, in religious and social ceremonies, to validate an intertribal treaty, and as payment for the death of a family member of another tribe, to name a few. Its uses were many and complex and the wampum itself was considered to be sacred, due to its connection to the waters—a source of life and sustenance.
Wampum can be made either from the central columns of the whelk (Busycon canaliculitum) or the dark purple or black growth rings from the shell of the quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria)—uh, that’s a clam to all you non-Islanders. The purple version is still prized above all other colors and it’s what you normally see on the powwow trail today. While many different types of whelk can be found along the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod to Florida, the quahog that makes the dark wampum is found only in littoral waters such as bays, creeks and along the saltwater shorelines from New Jersey to Maine. I was always told that the most beautiful wampum got its color from the dark mud and rich sands of the bays and creeks of Long Island.
Archeological evidence along the pre- and post-contact trade routes as far North as Nova Scotia and as far west as Ohio indicate that the farther removed from the shores where the wampum was originally made, the more valuable it became. Wampum beads were usually long and cylindrical; this is apparent in any old belts that you may have seen. Sometimes it was also shaped to resemble anything from animals and crosses to triangles and medallions.
During the invasion of North America by the Europeans, wampum became used more for commerce rather than for religious or social use. Once the newcomers saw how much value the Native peoples placed upon it, they began to trade wampum for the much-coveted pelts of beavers and other animal…and for the taking of lands. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
Over the centuries, wampum jewelry’s value as currency may have waned, but for Native people it still maintained its importance as a powerful tie to their history, religion and culture. With the resurgence of Native Pride and culture in the 1970s, this craft started its slow comeback to its place today, where wampum is once again revered for its beauty.
I recently visited with a man who I consider to be one of the most skillful makers of wampum jewelry within the Shinnecock nation, Herman Quinn. He has been instrumental in keeping the craft and artistry of wampum alive here on Long Island, as well as on the powwow trail. Mention his name to a Shinnecock tribal woman and she will be more than happy to tell you the story of how she acquired a beautiful piece of Chuck Quinn jewelry. He has been making pieces the old way, as well as exploring new techniques from as far back as the ’70s, but he insists that he enjoys crafting wampum the traditional way most of the time. His work has been displayed in New York City at the American Indian Community House gallery, at the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center, on the powwow trail, and he has even exchanged pieces with a friend in Alaska. I told him it would be nice to have his work in both the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum and the Southampton Historical Museum (nudge, nudge, ahem, museum folks).
While talking outside in his yard, Chuck showed me how he grinds the shells by hand using different grades of sandstone—some from as far away as Michigan—in water. He also uses old ships’ fasteners to make the holes in the ornaments, earrings and medallions, as it was done during the European expansion. He told me that if you don’t use water, the dust from the shells can build up in your nose and lungs and cause respiratory problems. Since the shells can be brittle to work with, the water also serves as a lubricant. I must tell you that after watching his demonstration it certainly takes more patience and diligence to make the finished product than I have.
We went into his house, where Chuck showed me boxes and boxes of whelk and quahog pieces he has been working on all winter long. “Wasn’t much else to do during the weather we had this winter” was his explanation for all of the beautiful polished and unpolished pieces on display. It made me think of all the people who complained about the short but harsh winter and how bored they were having to stay inside. Looking at the beauty before me I thought of our native ancestors enduring even harsher winters without whining about it and what they did to make time pass in a productive way.
It is a wonderful thing to see that something so tied to Native culture and society is still practiced and how it has once again gained prominence in the larger society.
Contact Quinn at email@example.com. Shinnecock Cultural Center, 631-287-4923
“Magic Shirts” by James Keith Phillips was the winning entry in the first Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction, held in 2012. Phillips has since become a regular contributor to Dan’s Papers. Look for his preview of the annual Shinnecock Powwow in an upcoming edition.
To enter your story in the 2015 Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction, go to LiteraryPrize.DansPapers.com. First prize is $5,000. Entries accepted through August 15.