Wampum, taken from the Algonquin word 'Wampumpeag', was the term Europeans used for Native American beads or beaded objects. These sacred beads were made from quahog or whelk shells and used for adornment, civil affairs, to record history, or in spiritual customs.
The shells were found in great abundance along the seashore, lying either in the mud, or just beneath the surface. The desirable portions of the shells were first broken out into small pieces. The bead-making process was likely painful and laborious. First, the maker had to bore them with stone drills/implements; next came polishing and shaping, rubbing with the hand over the smooth, stony surface of the shell. The finished beads were attached in thick masses to garments, or strung on hemp or animal tendons in long flexible rows.
A border of beads greatly enhanced the value of any garment. The wealthy and powerful wore intricately beaded cloaks, aprons and caps. And the beads were also frequently displayed on bracelets, necklaces, headdresses, and wampum belts. But the purpose of the beads was much broader than simple personal adornment. In Native American culture, there were (and still are) strong bonds of nations and individuals, the inviolable and sacred pledges of word and deed. No promise was binding unles confirmed by gifts of wampum. Young warriors declared their passion to their beloved by presenting wampum chains and belts, and the young woman's acceptance of the proffered gift sealed the marriage compact. Wampum tokens accompanied every weighty message, and little reliance was put on messengers who did not offer such assurances of good faith. They cemented friendships, confirmed alliances, and sealed treaties.
Iroquois myth has it that beading was brought forth by Hayehwatha, who discovered the shells while grieving for loss of his family and warring people. As a peacemaker, he strung the beads together for healing. Mourning wampum was also strung together to remove grief from those who had lost family members. Grief and healing were integrated into Iroquois culture as rituals for recovering back to normal life.
A select group of contemporary native artists have reintroduced this craft as a tribute to the cultural and artistic contributions of their ancestors, and by doing so provide a tangible link to traditions of the past and the history of the region. One such artist is Jason Widdiss, a wampum artist from a long line of Native American Wampum artists of the Aquinnah Wampanoag. He's been making wampum jewelry for over 10 years. With each new design, he works to put a modern twist on an ancient tribal tradition. You can see one gorgeous example of his work here to the right, and you can check out more at his Etsy shop here: JasonWiddissWampum
Also on Etsy is Jason's father Donald Widdiss, a certified Indian artist who has been featured in publications such as Smithsonian American Indian Magazine, Martha's Vineyard Magazine, Island Arts, Aquinnah Cultural Center, Cape Code Times, Indian Country Today, Martha's Vineyard Times, and the Vineyard Gazette. The very first photo shown in this post (top right) is one of Donald's beautiful pieces, a natural wampum shell bracelet on braided false sinew with a loop and bead closure. His Etsy shop is HowWassWeeWampum, and you can click on the link to read & see more.
There are a number of other artists also working with wampum; one is Susan Habekost who works on the island of Martha's Vineyard. Susan combines wampum with sea glass, reflecting her love of the beach and ocean. The piece shown below and to the left reflects this innovative combination of materials. You can see more at Blue Moon Designs.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy In Honor of Weetamoo.
Until Next Time,