Wampum Carries the Proud History of the Peoples at Aboriginal Day Celebration

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by Lorraine Payette, written June 24, 2012

(MALLORYTOWN LANDING, ONTARIO) In the shade of the willows near the shore of the St. Lawrence River, aboriginal historian Darren Bonaparte patiently put some old notions to rest as he spoke to the assembled crowd on the history of wampum, part of the Aboriginal Day celebrations held at the St. Lawrence Islands National Park at Mallorytown Landing on June 23, 2012. He also shared many stories with an eager crowd of listeners.

“Many people think wampum was money,” said Bonaparte. “Not so.”

He started with the beads themselves, which come in two colours and are made of natural quahog and whelk shells.

“If you look, you’ll see tiny lines on the beads from the layers of the shells themselves,” he said. “The purple comes from the quahog, a type of clam, and the white from the whelk, a sea animal like a snail. The whelk ate the quahog in the ocean, but in the wampum belts they come together in harmony.”

The animals did not live in the local region, so the beads were acquired through trade, which may have led to the colonists’ belief that they were currency.

In reality, they are the history of a people, carefully woven together to hold memories for all time.
Each bead is about a quarter of an inch in diameter, and perhaps twice as long. They had to be made patiently by hand, using drills fashioned from reeds and other materials, and then they were woven together. While wampum belts are perhaps the best known examples of this work, strings were also used to tell stories and convey important messages.

“You can see right away a difference between belts made by native peoples and those made by Europeans,” said Bonaparte. “(Native) belts are usually very geometric, with patterns that symbolize what we need to say. The story is told by the person who made the belt, or by one who has learned it from someone else. Europeans put in whole pictures, and you can see immediately what they want you to know. They don’t need interpreters.”

Due to the personal nature of wampum, many of the stories and histories have been lost through time. As belts were stolen, sold or otherwise separated from their source, the stories that went with them became lost.
Bonaparte is one of several historians trying to reunite belts and stories, manufacturing faithful reproductions to use as teaching tools and keeping the culture of these nations alive.

Perhaps the most famous of these belts is really more of a mat than a belt. Called the Hiawatha Belt, it symbolizes the agreement between the five original Haudenosaunee nations, showing their promise to live in peace and unity, standing by each other in times of need. Four squares (two on each side) are linked together as a chain to a central image of a white tree. The square represent the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca nations, while the tree stands for the Onandaga, who are the keepers of the council fire. When turned upside down, the tree becomes a heart, again symbolizing its importance to the nations.

The belt has been reproduced on fabric as well, and is now used as the flag of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
The event was well attended, and is part of an annual program designed to honour aboriginal peoples as well as teach and inform others about the history and culture of these peoples.

For more information about upcoming programs, please go to http://www.pc.gc.ca/SLI

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