Wampum is the Anglicized word: in Peskotomuhkati, wapap describes the beads, while asuwihtakusut describes the wampum belt, worn diagonally across the body by its keeper, like a sash. In Peskotomuhkati tradition, wampum strings were carried by runners between nations as invitations to councils; they were passed across the council fire as tokens of respect in mourning; they were given as pledges in a marriage ceremony. The wampum belts were symbols of agreements between nations, and they were brought out as reminders during councils, both between Indigenous nations and in treaty renewals with the Crown’s colonies. 1
Anyone who has done beadwork will understand how scattered beads are empty of meaning, while making them into a string infuses them with organization, direction and eventually meaning.
White wampum beads are made from the central columns of whelk shells. These beads are often used to symbolize peace and communication. The dark purple beads come from the quahog clam. 2
They are harder to make, and they can symbolize mourning, or deep thoughts. Together, white and dark wampum create a binary communication system, woven into belts.
There are conventions about the symbols. A diagonal line may signify a prop on the outside of a house – an ally who will provide support, but is not asking to be adopted. A straight horizontal line is the smooth path of peace, and also clear communication. A square or hexagon can mean a council fire, or the fire or soul of a nation. Human figures holding hands are symbols of friendship and alliance. Red dye – often vermilion – is a sign that the belt has been used as an invitation to war.
The use of wampum predates the arrival of Europeans, but in the early days, wampum was mainly used as strings. With the arrival of metal tools, it became easier to make: skilled workers could produce up to a fathom (six feet) a day. Today, with modern equipment, 3 we struggle to produce that amount. Wampum was an effective storage medium: it was not damaged by heat, cold or wetness. It was portable. Its meaning could be passed on easily. Its origins are sacred, and therefore the message symbolized and preserved by it is also to be respected. It preserved fundamental principles rather than details. In nations whose councils are opened and closed with wampum, it is said that it acts as a symbolic fire, calling the attention of the Creator to what is being transacted.
Today, wampum is used sparingly. As the Peskotomuhkati Nation is recovering its rights, it is also recovering aspects of its laws. Once again wampum is being passed across the fire as the symbol of relationships, a visible, powerful reminder or commitments past and present.
David Francis, the main compiler of the Peskotomuhkati-Maliseet Dictionary, explained:
We’re writing books in Peskotomuhkati now. It was never a written language before 25 years ago or so. We didn’t need it before. We had wampum, wampum readers, legends and oral history. Now we don’t have much of that left, so we need a written language to preserve our culture. 4
- Frank G. Speck, “The Functions of Wampum Among the Eastern Algonkian,” in American Archaeological Association, 1919. J. Dynely Prince, “The Passamaquoddy Wampum Records,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 36, No. 156 (Dec 1897) pp. 479-495.
- It may be no coincidence that the whelk of the white beads of peace preys upon the quahog of the purple beads of sorrow.
- 1/32” diamond-tipped carbide drill bits, water-cooled belt sanders, and jewelry polish.