What is wampum? Simply put, wampum are finely wrought beads held dear by the Northeast woodlands tribal nations. Their manufacture and dissemination across Turtle Island was widespread prior to the colonial intrusion of the 17th century. Handmade from the white shell of the whelk snail and the purple shell of the quahog, both common to the north east coast of North America in and around Long Island, they are widely admired for their beauty and have various interpretations and uses across different cultures. For a period during the early beaver trade between the Native tribes, Dutch and English, wampum served as an early currency.
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Today, the Unkechaug Nation Territory on Long Island is principally responsible for the manufacture of genuine, high-quality wampum, much in demand among artists, pow wow dancers and others. The versatile and colorful American Indian beads are admired for their importance in ceremony and traditions that span hundreds of years. Their current value stems from a cultural renaissance and understanding of their significance.
For some Algonquian nations the purity of the white beads symbolized lightness and were used as gifts for happy events, or signified the same. Purple beads have more grave significance, and may mark things such as war or death. Together, the purple and white could be used or interpreted to symbolize the duality of nature (birth/death) and the universe. Someone who holds a wampum belt or string in their hands while speaking is emphasizing their truthfulness. The use of the beads in Native oral traditions is well-established.
Wampum belts also have many long-standing traditions as gifts, treaties and regalia. Exchanges of wampum marked many treaties between Native nations, European powers, and the United States. Of the most famous wampum belts in existence is known as the Two-Row Wampum, or Covenant Chain. It is held in the possession of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, and marks the first treaty between the Iroquois nations and Dutch settlers, later renewed with the English and Americans. Its 400th Anniversary was celebrated in 2013.
The Two-Row Wampum is a visual representation of the treaty’s philosophy, which states that both sides shall travel down the river of time together, but each shall stay in their own canoe and respect each other’s boundaries and sovereignty.