What are Wampum Beads?
Wampum beads include the white shell beads fashioned from the North Atlantic channeled whelk shell, a sea snail with a spiral shape; and the white and purple beads made from the quahog, or Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam. Quahogs are found in the waters from Cape Cod south to New York, with a great abundance in Long Island Sound. Wampum were used by the northeastern Native Americans as a form of gift exchange. European traders and politicians, using beads and trinkets, often exploited gift exchange to gain Native American favor or territory. With the scarcity of metal coins in New England, Wampum quickly evolved into a formal currency after European/Native contact, it’s production greatly facilitated by slender European metal drill bits. Wampum was mass produced in coastal southern New England. The Narragansetts and Pequots monopolized the manufacture and exchange of wampum in this area.
How are Wampum Beads Made?
Making wampum beads was difficult and took a lot of skill. The shell was first broken into small blocks. A stone or reed drill was used to create a hole in the block. The block would be drilled half way through and then turned over to drill through the other side. The blocks were then ground into tubular shapes by rolling or rubbing them against a stone. Finished beads were then strung on plant fibers or sinew. Later in history, iron drills replaced stone drills but the process was still very challenging. Over time as the tools improved the beads became more uniform in shape and were made up into strings.
Wampum Beads History, What does it represent?
Native Americans soon began to string the wampum beads on belts in symbolic patterns. The meaning of the symbols found on the belts was passed from tribe to tribe as they were traded further west and south. The natives who lived near the coast learned that the inland peoples found these beads to be most desirable and would ultimately trade them for fur pelts and other clothing items. The color of the beads had meaning, also. For the Algonquians, white beads represented purity, light and brightness, and would be used as gifts to mark events that invoked those characteristics, such as the birth of a child. Purple beads represented solemn things like war, grieving and death. The combination of white and purple represented the duality of the world; light and dark, sun and moon, women and man, life and death.
Wampum Beads History, how they are made and sold:
Once again the quahog shell is being transformed into shapes reminiscent of those produced thousands of years ago. These days wampum generally refers to the purple part of the quahog shell regardless of the shape. The value of crafted wampum is in the difficulty involved in procuring the right shells and the hours of intensive work required to shape and refine them.