About the project

On the Wampum Trail: Restorative Research in North American Museums

(left to right) Stephanie Mach, Lise Puyo, Margaret Bruchac

We are conducting field research in the summer of 2014, across the Northeastern United States and Canada, visiting museums with collections of wampum (woven shell bead) belts and collars. Our research team will survey these collections and conduct interviews to construct more detailed object histories for wampum belts in regional collections. One area of focus includes collections that illustrate wampum manufacture (for example, Fort Shantok in Connecticut and the Campbell site in New Jersey). Some of the wampum belts we’re analyzing suggest connections with the Seven Nations Confederacy. We are also interested in wampum and other collections linked to Frank Speck (one of the founders of the Penn Department of Anthropology).

Background:

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, while anthropologists were conducting ethnographic research among various Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois) and Algonkian communities in the northeast, some noted both the persistence of traditional religious practices and the ritual use of wampum belts in governance. During this era, however, a number of wampum belts left the possession of Native nations and were sold to museums. At these museums—Harvard Peabody Museum, the Heye Foundation/Museum of the American Indian, McCord Museum, Penn Museum, and Canadian Museum of Civilization, among others—wampum was variously interpreted as decorative art, private property, relics of forgotten traditions, or items with mysterious origins. Although wampum belts in museum collections may appear to be vaguely labeled and poorly provenanced, our research suggests that some points of confusion actually result from curatorial misrepresentation or incomplete scholarship. In many cases, more complete object histories can be compiled by close material analysis of the details of wampum construction and symbols, by collating records and photographic evidence from disparate sources, and by interviewing Indigenous knowledge-bearers.

The team is conducting interviews and provenance research using a restorative methodology that entails, not just examination of the objects, but close examination of the collecting processes and curatorial practices that have influenced the distribution, display, and interpretation of Indigenous objects in museum settings. We are also studying curatorial protocols that encourage respectful and productive research with Native communities, leaders, scholars, and artists.

This wampum research is part of a larger project that tracks 19th and 20th century records of anthropological collectors, and investigates the social negotiations that shape museological understandings of Indigenous objects. By tracing and documenting object cartographies and object histories, we hope to revitalize connections between Indigenous objects in museums and contemporary Indigenous communities linked to those objects.

5 comments

    1. Greetings, Jim – Yes, we met with a few wampum artisans, and it’s very interesting to see how people are making wampum today! We’d like to visit with you if possible – Where are you located?

  1. Hello I am interested in a wampum belt that was made by the Onondaga Nation and given to the Nanticoke Indian Tribe in 1680. The belt was described in 1707 as having 21 rows and three human hands. The human hands represented the Onondaga, Nanticoke, and possibly the Choptank Indians and their pledge of peace. This belt is mentioned in numerous history books that I have read. However I have not been able to tract down a picture of the belt. If we were able to tract down this belt this would signify that the Nanticoke joined the confederacy and that those families that were left in Maryland and Delaware are rightly adopted members of the Iroquois.

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