Wampum are the small cylindrical beads originally made from the shell of the quahog, a round clam found in Atlantic coastal waters, that were traditionally used to create the intricate patterns of wampum belts. These belts are used as a guide to narrate the history of the Haudenosaunee, and empower the person holding it as a representative of their people.
The original process of making the wampum beads by hand was arduous. Once found, the shell was broken into white and purple cubes that were clamped in place while a stone or reed drill was used to bore into the cube. Each bead took many hours to forge, and a single string could take up to a year to finish. When completed, the wampum belts would act as treaties, to hold memories and create bonds between nations.
True wampum is scarce today, and many belts have been lost or are in museums. Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na Language and Cultural Centre had a collection of belts recreated, which are used today for teaching purposes. You can see wampum belts like the ones pictured to the right at the annual pow wow held every August in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.
THE TADADAHO BELT
This belt recalls the time when the Peacemaker combed the snakes from Tadadaho’s hair and changed the evil-minded Tadadaho into a pure-thinking leader. The diamonds down the center of the belt represent the thirteen other chiefs who are sitting with Tadadaho at Onondaga to continue the ways of the Haudenosaunee.
THE HIAWATHA BELT
This belt is a national belt of the Haudenosaunee. The belt is named after Hiawatha, the Peacemaker’s helper. This belt records when five nations—the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk—buried their weapons of war to live in peace. Each square represents a nation, and the line connects all the nations in peace.