Bound on strings, wampum beads were used to create intricate patterns on belts. These belts are used as a guide to narrate Haudenosaunee history, traditions and laws, The origins of wampum beads can be traced to Aiionwatha, commonly known as Hiawatha at the founding of the League of Five Nations. Archeological study however, has found it to have been used long before the union of the nations.
Most commonly made from the Quahog, a round clam shell, the word wampum comes from the Algonquin term for the shells. While it is called Ote-ko-a in the Seneca language, wampum is the most widely recognized term.
The process of making the wampum beads is arduous. Once acquired, the shell was broken into white or purple cubes. White wampum signifying peace while purple relates messages of more serious or political matters. The cubes were clamped and a stone or reed drill was used to bore into the cube. Later, as technology advanced, iron drills were used. Droplets of water prevented the drill’s friction from heating up and breaking the cube. A hole was drilled halfway through and then reversed and drilled from the opposite side. In order to shape and smooth the beads they were strung on lengths of thread and ground against a grooved stone. Through this process wampum beads, long cylindrical beads about ¼” long and 1/8” in diameter, were created.
The use of wampum beads has been much debated throughout the years with many claiming that Aboriginal people used the beads as currency. Historians however have proved that it was first used as currency by the American colonists. For the Haudenosaunee, wampum held a more sacred use. Wampum served as a person’s credentials or a certificate of authority. It was used for official purposes and religious ceremonies and in the case of the joining of the League of Nations was used as a way to bind peace. Every Chief of the Confederacy and every Clan Mother has a certain string or strings of Wampum that serves as their certificate of office. When they pass on or are removed from their station the string will then pass on to the new leader. Runners carrying messages would not be taken seriously without first presenting the wampum showing that they had the authority to carry the message.
As a method of recording and an aid in narrating, Haudenosaunee warriors with exceptional skills were provided training in interpreting the wampum belts. As the Keepers of the Central Fire the Onondaga Nation was also trusted with the task of keeping all wampum records. To this day wampum is still used in the ceremony of raising up a new chief and in the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving ceremonies. True wampum is scarce today and only wampum strings are used. Many belts have been lost or are in museums to this day.
Most Recognizeable Wampum Belts
A broad dark belt with 38 rows. It has the symbol of the great tree in the centre with two white squares on either side. All are connected by rows of white wampum. This wampum belt conveys the unity of the five nations.
Wing or Dust Fan of the Confederate Nations
This belt symbolizing an everlasting tree is the widest wampum belt known.
These strings can have a variety of meanings. Some strings are invitational, some call for mourning or condolence and some are used to call a council.