Material Rhetoric:
Wampum Records

What is wampum?

"Wampum" is a contraction of the Algonquian word "wampumpeage" (phonetically pronounced "wom pom pe ak") or "white shell beads."

Historical wampum is small (1/8 inch to 1/4 inch long by 1/4 inch wide), usually cylindrical, white and purple beads. The beads are polished, drilled, and strung into strings or woven into belts. Geometric figures were sometimes, not always, woven into the design of the belts.

Early disc-shaped wampum beads were used for decoration and for barter by natives living on coastal bays in Long Island and New England where the whelks and clams used for making the beads were found. Similar uses and materials have been identified on the Carolina coast and the California coast (Hewitt, l910, using settler names for territories in which natives lived).

Settler Uses, Native Uses

After contact with North American natives in the early 1600s, European traders and settlers used wampum beads as money. Denied (by their home governments) the gold and silver bullion needed to make coins, colonists adopted indigenous shell beads as currency. Colonial legislatures set legal standards of monetary value; for example, six white beads or two purple beads to the penny. The Dutch introduced mass production of the beads using steel awls for faster drilling and whetstones for faster polishing. Natives reportedly rejected mass-produced beads as inferior.

The use of wampum as currency was spread through the fur trade to the inland Iroquois in the northeast; the Creek and Cherokee in the southeast; Ohio river tribes; and Missouri and Columbia river tribes in the west (Snyderman, l954, using settler names for tribes and for rivers). Natives added the value "currency" to the already otherwise-valued object, wampum, although the underlying economic concept of "money" was alien to them. Natives also continued other uses of wampum. "Wampum was the material object necessary for the successful functioning of political, social, and religious life" (Snyderman, 473). Consequently, natives began bartering with wampum while they continued bartering for it.

Cherokee Lawgiver by Cecil Dick.
Courtesy of Rennard Strickland.

In towns of the Cherokee confederacy people gathered annually to hear the tribal orator, a priest who was sometimes called "the beloved man" recite the common law of the confederacy. "When the orator spoke the law, he was reading the meaning of history and tradition contained in the tribal wampum. He held the ancient and sacred wampum belts in his hand" (Strickland, 11).

A major use of wampum was in diplomacy. Confederacies--the Iroquois, the Creek, the Cherokee--exchanged strings or belts of wampum as standard diplomatic protocol. Wampum strings or belts signified official business. No wampum exchange, no negotiation.

Confederacies were, themselves, constructs of negotiation among rival tribes; treatying maintained the affiliations. The confederacies were also experienced in negotiating with Dutch, Spanish, and French nations, both directly with home governments as well as with their colonial representatives. British governments, and later American governments, learned treaty-making procedures including wampum diplomacy from the native confederacies.

An instance of wampum diplomacy by revolution-era American governors is shown in orders given in 1776 by John Hancock, president of the second Continental Congress, to George Morgan in appointing him agent for the revolutionary union's Indian affairs. Morgan was directed to implement a policy of peace with native confederacies. His orders were

"to provide, that the great peace belt [twenty-five hundred wampum beads designed with 13 diamond shapes] entrusted to Guyasuta [a Seneca chief] last fall at Pittsburgh [in the Fort Pitt treaty conference aimed at keeping the Senecas neutral in the revolutionary war] be forwarded with all convenient expedition to the Sachems and warriors of the western nations; and endeavour to the utmost of your power to convince them of the good wishes and good intentions of the Congress for and towards them, and to cultivate harmony and friendship between them and the white people and to give Congress the most early intelligence of any interruption thereof. . . ." (Hancock quoted in Schaaf, 21; explanation added).

In summary, wampum use on the North American continent was and is culturally configured. Settlers used it. Natives used it, and some continue to use it. Traditionalists (including Cherokee traditionalists, as discussed below) use it now in revivals of ancient practice. Wampum illustrates historical material rhetoric, or communication by means of encoded objects within or between groups co-existing on the North America continent.

How were ancient beads made?

How wampum was anciently produced is controversial, and is not well described in academic scholarly literature.

Anthropological studies published in the l930s and referring to native sources say that native women made them. An illustrative attribution: "Shell beads were the handiwork of the woman, whose skillful hands were accustomed to the delicate and tedious operation of their manufacture" (Clarke, 86). At least one present-day native commentator disagrees, saying that in ancient practice men produced the beads (Smith, R., l997).

How were the beads woven into belts? Again, as with bead-making, whether women or men did the belt-making is a matter of disagreement. A native reteller says men wove them (Smith, R., l997). One present-day anthropologist says that, after contact with the Dutch, women were the belt makers.

"Before the Dutch introduced steel drills and grindstones to coastal Algonquians living at the source of clam and conch shells from which it was fabricated, there was virtually no wampum in Iroquoia; but as it became more plentiful during the fur trade, emphasis shifted from strings to broad and elaborate belts carrying pictorial designs. . . An urgent message sent with seven strings early on might be parlayed later to a belt of seven to twelve rows deep. . .Sometimes unstrung wampum by the scheppel or bushel was available at Albany [the Dutch capital], where River Indian women were employed to make up belts for a treaty" (Fenton,1971, 17).

Anthropological descriptions of the weaving process are often ambiguous as to context and to sources, but they may tell us something about the belt-weaving process:

The most common width was 3 fingers or the width of 7 beads, the length ranging from 2 to 6 feet. In belt-making, which is a simple process, eight strands or cords of bark thread are first twisted from filaments of slippery elm, of the requisite length and size; after which they are passed through a strip of deerskin to separate them at equal distances from each other in parallel lines. A splint is then sprung in the form of a bow, to which each end of the several strings is secured, and by which all of them are held in tension, like warp threads in a weaving machine. Seven beads, these making the intended width of the belts, are then run upon a thread by means of a needle, and are passed under the cords at right angles, so as to bring one bead lengthwise between each cord and the one next in position. The thread is then passed back along the upper side of the cords, and again through each of the beads; so that each bead is held firmly in its place by means of the two threads, one passing under and one over the cords. This process is continued until the belt reaches its intended length, when the ends of the cords are tied, the end of the belt covered and afterwards trimmed with ribbons. In ancient times both the cords and the threads were of sinew (Clarke, l931, 87).

How do wampum belts function as material rhetoric?

Wampum belts functioned anciently, and function now for native traditionalists, as mnemonic devices, communication devices, law libraries, and instruments of spiritual and political life.

As a communication device in diplomacy, each belt represented (and still represents) a particular event--a single talk, or a council, or a treaty. The beads carried (and still carry) the words of a speaker. Another way to say it is that meaning is in the beads. The next question is how this is so.

How Do Belts Mean?

Here is one ethnohistorical summary, based on present-day interviews with native historians, of the process of fusing beads and information.

When all has been agreed upon [by the council], the men selected [as messengers] are summoned to the council and informed of their duties. On instruction from the chiefs, a speaker performs a speech act which roughly translates as "reading the message into the wampum". . . In the Iroquois view the wampum is thought literally to contain the message; the messengers, on the other hand, are seen as relatively passive bearers of the wampum, which nevertheless is described as being a "heavy burden" which they bear on their backs. . . The messengers are drilled until the chiefs are satisfied they have the message down cold, but this repetition is believed to increase the "power" of the wampum rather than to improve the messengers' memories. Wampum is regarded as a kind of recording device, somewhat in the way we conceive of the function of a tape recorder.(Foster, l995, 105)

In this account of ancient diplomatic communication, we can learn that meaning was read into

a string or belt [that] carried the words of a tribal council. These words were read into [the string or belt] in the presence of an ambassador or messenger who memorized them and repeated them at his destination, but it was the wampum that carried them. Color and figures in the wampum gave some indication of its general purport, as "black . . .belts proposed war," but there was no code. Every belt's message had to be memorized (Jennings in Jennings, l995, 122).

How do belts communicate?

Related to the question of how meaning informs the belts is the question of how the information in the beads was (and is) disseminated. In ancient use, either in the actual past or in present re-enactments, activating a belt's meaning requires live public performance.

A messenger delivers the words to their intended destination. Delivery and reception take place in a cultural event, a reading of the belt. Culture, or shared understanding, is the operating environment for wampum belts. Belts cannot function outside that environment. (That is why belts preserved in museums cannot function, in native opinion.)

To illustrate, and with the cautionary note that no single pattern of improvisation prevailed in ancient uses, here is the earliest full description of Iroquoian diplomacy. It is from the Jesuit Relations 1644-45 concerning a treaty in l645 between the Mohawks, members of the Iroquois League, and the French along with their allied tribes, the Algonquian and Huron. At issue was control of fur markets in French-governed territory; Algonquins and Hurons had control and Mohawks wanted it, according to the Jesuit record. Negotiations had begun earlier with an invitation to exchange prisoners. The description begins at the start of the prisoner exchange.

After a ceremonial greeting at a river's edge and several evenings of feasting, the French governor met with the Mohawk spokesperson, Kiotsaeton.

This took place in the courtyard of the Fort (at New France, or Quebec), over which large sails had been spread to keep off the heat of the Sun. Their places were thus arranged: on one side was . . . the Governor, accompanied by his people. . . The Iroquois sait at his feet, on a great piece of hemlock bark. They had stated before the assembly that they wished to be on his side, as a mark of the affection that they bore to the French.

Opposite them were the Algonquins. . . the other two sides were closed in by some French and Some Hurons. In the center was a large space, somewhat longer than wide, in which the Iroquois caused two poles to be planted, and a cord to be streatched from one to the other on which to hand and tie the words that they were to bring us, that is to say, the presents they wished to make us, which consisted of seventeen collars of porcelain beads, a portion of which were on their bodies. . . .When all had assembled and had taken their places, Kiotsaeton who was high in stature, rose and looked at the Sun, then cast his eyes over the whole Company; he took a collar of porcelain beads in his hand and commenced to harangue in a loud voice. "Onontio, lend me ear. I am the mouth for the whole of my country; thou listenest to all the Iroquois, in hearing my words. There is no evil in my heart; I have only good songs in my mouth. We have a multitude of war songs in our country. We have cast them all on the ground; we have no longer anything but songs of rejoicing." Thereupon he began to sing; his countrymen responded; he walked about that great space as if on the stage of a theatre; he made a thousand gestures; he looked up to Heaven; he gazed at the Sun; he rubbed his arms as if he wished to draw from the strength that moved them in war. After he had sung while, he said that the present that he held in his hand thanked Monsieur the Governor for having saved the life of [an Iroquois prisoner]. . . When he had said this, he fastened his collar in the appointed spot.

Drawing out another, he tied it to the arm of [a French prisoner], saying aloud: "It is this Collar that brings you back this prisoner. I would not have said to him, while he was still in our country: 'Go, my Nephew; take a Canoe and return to Quebec.' My mind would not have been at rest; I would always have thought over and over again to myself, 'Is he not lost?' In truth, I would have had no sense, had I acted in that way. He whom you have sent back had all the difficulties in the world, on his journey.' " He began to express them. . He took a stick, and placed it on his head like a bundle; then he carried it from one end of the square to the other, representing what that prisoner had done in the rapids and in the current of the water.. . He went backward and forward, showing the journeys, the windings, and the turnings of the prisoner. He ran against a stone; he receded more than he advanced in his cane, because alone he could not maintain it against the current. He lost courage, and then regained his strength.. In a word, I have never seen anything better done than this acting. Instead of sending the prisoner back thus, Kiotseaeton had accompanied him back. That is what was said by the second collar, which he tied near the first (quoted in Jennings, 137-140; spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing preserved).

The delivery continued through the seventeen belts. On the next day, the French governor responded with an equal number of presents; the Relation does not specify what they were (Jennings, l45).

Later reports of treaties describe protocols both for delivering and for receiving wampum. A pattern derived from the treaty literature, cognizant that variants were many, includes these gestures:

Kiotseaeton, the Mohawk messenger and spokesperson, was, in native terms, the remembrancer. In terms used by academic interpreters of symbolic interaction, he was the animator of the beads' information but not its originator. The originators were Mohawk leaders in council.

As Kiotseaeton's performance shows, dissemination of the bead's information required interpretation and might be improvisational. An historian of Iroquois protocol says

Recital of a belt's meaning was not verbatim transmission but rather narrative reenactment . . . To "read" a belt was not primarily to explain the significance of [its design], though this was sometimes done, but rather to associate a particular belt with a speech or set of speeches (Foster, l995, 104).

As with other forms of objectified talk, belts' significations "were not discrete units of meaning but rather traces of oral tradition associated with them" (Druke, 89-90). Improvisional performance applied the belt's meaning in the here and now of a particular situation.

Wampum to writing

Wampum diplomacy largely ended by the 1790s (except for traditionalist revivals of the practice, as noted above).

Native diplomats in the l790s and early 1800s, although they recognized the pragmatic utility of written documentation in dealing with settler nations, did not welcome a changeover to writing.

In Iroquois culture, the word, the essence of oral tradition and of wampum, had a life to it by virtue of interaction that paper (written documents) just did not have, regardless of its assumed durability. It was also the case that, for most Iroquois, treaty relationships were not frozen to words written on a page at one point in time, but were active, living relationships, ideally frequently renewed" (Druke, 92).

Nonetheless, written documents gradually supplanted wampum belts.

Soon, for the Cherokees, writing was being used for internal governance as well as for international diplomacy. By 1808, new Cherokee laws were first handwritten in English, then translated into handwritten or printed Cherokee using a syllabary developed by George Gess. Sequoyah (mixed-blood Gess's Cherokee name) did not read or write English. He adapted English characters to the sounds of Cherokee oral speech to create an 86-character Cherokee syllabary, which effected a written Cherokee language. Speakers of varying Cherokee dialects quickly became literate in this written Cherokee language.

In the ninety years between the adoption of the first written law (l808) and the abolition of tribal courts (1898) wampum was supplanted by more than a million pages of legal transcripts and printed material. By 1896 the Redbird Smith-Keetoowah movement of the Cherokees acknowledged that understanding of the wampum had been lost, and recovery of these ancient laws became one of the cornerstones of [traditionalist] revival" (Strickland, 103)

The Kee-too-wah Cherokees continue to read their ancient laws from many of the same belts used by the beloved men, according to reports (Strickland,12). A picture made in l916, below, is among the most recent records of the practice. Photographs of the practice or of the belts are not now permitted.

Keetoowah (Nighthawk) Society members with the historic wampum of the Cherokees near Gore, Oklahoma, in 1916.

Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society

This commentary adapts Smith, C., l997