What did Wampum look like?

The pictures above are sample wampum designs from the general area where the Wampanoag Indians would have lived. Wampum beads could be strung together in "belts" or could be on a single string.

Beads were made from shells and could look like balls, cones, diamonds, squares, or hourglasses. However, the beads could be a variety of colors including white, purple, black, or red, depending upon the type of shell used, and what the artist wanted the wampum to say.

How did someone weaving wampum
decide which colors to use?

Different colors had different meanings:

White wampum meant health, peace or purity.

Purple and black wampum sometimes meant disease, distress, pain, or anger, particularly when used as a background colors in belt patterns.

A wampum belt painted red could be sent to someone as a way of declaring war.

A combination of these colors together helped to tell a story. For example a belt could have white designs on a purple background, and be surrounded by a white border, and so show that a relationship that was once violent is now peaceful.

Designs had meanings too

A black cloud could mean something bad happened, or could be a sign of war.

A sunshine or a straight path of beads could be a sign of peace.

A black bird could mean bad news, while a white or yellow bird could mean good news.

A design showing a fire being made could be a sign of wanting to discuss what was happening between two groups of people.

What was Wampum used for?

Wampum had many purposes.

1. Storytelling: As in the novel Guests by Michael Dorris, wampum could be used to help people remember stories. Often, story-tellers would hold belts and point to certain parts of the belt while they told their story.

2. Adding on to History: New events were woven into a belt or added on to a belt to tell the history of a tribe.

3. Asking for marriage: Sometimes, a man who met a woman he wanted to marry would give wampum to the woman and her family. If the wampum was accepted it showed that the woman and her family said "yes" to the idea of the marriage. If they returned the wampum, they were saying "no."

4. Gifts: Belts were also give to people as gifts. Belts could be given from one tribe to another a way of indicating peace, war, or friendship.

5. To show an agreement between two groups of people: After European people came to America, wampum was sometimes used as a "treaty"-- a way of showing an agreement between the white people and Indian people.

6. To declare war or request peace between two groups: Wampum could be given from one group to another as a way of declaring war or requesting peace.

But I heard Wampum was used as a form of money...

Before European people came to North America and started trading with Indians, wampum was NOT used for money.

After Europeans came, however, it was sometimes used for money. For instance, a certain number of white and a certain number of purple beads could equal a "penny." When wampum started being used for money, many people (European people as well, not just Indian people) started making lots of beads. This lead to the creation of lower quality and less artistic beads. Since anyone could find shells to make them from, people made so many beads that wampum eventually lost its value as a form of money.

How was wampum made?

First a person had to make beads. To do this, they cut the bead from shells such as clam shells, polished the beads to make them smooth and shiny, and bore a hole through the beads.

Next they had to weave the wampum into a design.

Sometimes wampum was made through finger weaving or only using one's hands, string, and beads. Othertimes wampum was a made on a loom. The loom below shows one way that wampum was made. To make a loom, a stick was curved like a bow. Then, the artist strung the beads onto twisted plant fibers, and used bits of leather or othe ranimal skin to help in the weaving.


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Images Copyright Tara Prindle 2001, NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art. Internet URL: http://www.nativetech.org



This page last updated on September 27, 2001
Rachel at Liberato@grinnell.edu