On the Wampum Trail: Restorative Research in North American Museums
In May 2014, three members of the “Wampum Trail” research team (Dr. Margaret Bruchac with research assistants Lise Puyo and Stephanie Mach) set out to follow a century-old trail left by University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Frank G. Speck. Our field research led us across the Northeastern United States and Canada, visiting museums with collections of wampum (woven shell bead) belts and collars. Our goal is survey these collections and conduct interviews to construct more detailed object histories for wampum belts in regional collections.
With funding from the Penn Museum and the Department of Anthropology, we made an ambitious list of wampum in museum collections to examine. Our areas of focus included: collections that illustrate wampum manufacture (for example, Fort Shantok in Connecticut and the Campbell site in New Jersey); wampum belts connected with the Seven Nations Confederacy; and collections linked to Frank Speck (one of the founders of the Penn Department of Anthropology). We received encouragement and guidance from Haudenosaunee wampum experts like Richard W. Hill (Tuscarora, Coordinator of the Deyohahá:ge Indigenous Knowledge Centre) and G. Peter Jemison (Seneca, Coordinator of Ganondagan Historic Site). Our goal was to chart the distribution of wampum belts into museums; along the trail, we discovered much more.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, while anthropologists were conducting ethnographic research and salvage anthropology among various Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois) and Algonkian communities in the northeast, 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. Over time, Indigenous meanings have been replaced by misleading stereotypes and idiosyncratic interpretations. 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 conducts 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.
Reporting From the Field, Summer 2014
During the summer of 2014, our research took us into the collections of thirteen museums and five tribal nations across the northeastern United States and Canada, including: the Archives of Nicolet Seminary; Canadian Museum of Civilization (now History); Kanehsatake Mohawk Nation; Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center; McCord Museum; Museum of Currency; Ndakinna Education Center; New York State Museum; Peabody Essex Museum; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University; Penn Museum; Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum; and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, among others.
In general, we found that misrepresentations of wampum (such as the notion that wampum belts are inherently unidentifiable) reflected, not the erasure of Indigenous memories, but the influence of processes that separated these objects from communities. In some cases, we found that data housed in one museum shed light on poorly identified wampum in another museum. Through close material analysis of a sampling of individual wampum beads, strings, collars, and belts, we recovered a wealth of lost information about these old objects. Through interviews with curators, scholars, and Native American wampum keepers, we also recovered new insights into wampum semiotics and display that reflect the evolving relations among Indigenous people and museums.
The most intriguing insights emerged from our observations of the physical details of wampum construction. We found: clear visual distinctions among different sizes and sources of shell beads (quahog, whelk, and conch); anomalous beads (stone, bone, clay, glass, rounded beads, and painted beads) in historic shell bead belts; various weaving materials (sinew, hemp, leather, linen, and cotton) and distinct patterns of twining warp and weft; various treatments of warp and weft, including rubbing with dye (red ochre, vermillion, ash, and paint), and wrapping, knotting, or braiding of edges and ends; and evidence of the re-use of older beads and leather warps in newer belts.
All of these details bespeak artisanal, aesthetic, practical, symbolic, and cultural choices, and they reflect savvy Indigenous technologies that deserve more careful analysis. After examining more than 50 wampum belts and collars, along with numerous collections of widely varying shell beads made from whelk, quahog, and conch, we realized that we had only just scratched the surface.
Reporting From the Field, Summer 2015
Current inventories indicate that there are more than 400 extant historic (pre-20th century) wampum belts in the collections of museums and Native American and Canadian First Nations tribes. Our hope is to recover as much data as possible on each of these objects, so as to restore their object histories, and reconnect them with each of their respective tribal nations. With that goal in mind, and with additional support from the Penn Museum, in May of 2015 the Wampum Trail research team set out for another round of research in northeastern museums. This time, Project Director Margaret Bruchac was accompanied by graduate student Stephanie Mach, and by two new research assistants, Sarah Parkinson and Zhenia Bemko. Meanwhile, across the ocean, Lise Puyo continued her research on wampum in French museums. Watch for upcoming reports on our new research findings along the Wampum Trail!
For more information about the Wampum Trail research, see the following:
• Margaret M. Bruchac. June 27, 2014. “Shells and Nails on the Wampum Trail.”
• Margaret M. Bruchac. October 2, 2014. “Wampum in Museum Collections: Tracking Broken Chains of Custody.” Colloquium for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center.
• Stephanie Mach. August 11, 2014. “A Balancing Act: Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum.”
• Sarah Parkinson. May 26, 2015. “On the Rail to the Wampum Trail.”
• Sarah Parkinson. July 14, 2015. “Of Words and Matter: Glass Wampum.”
• Lise Puyo. May 22, 2014. “Rummaging the Archives.”
• Lise Puyo. July 18, 2014. “How Much Does Matter Matter? A Glass Wampum Belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary.”
Also check out the Wampum Trail Facebook page for reports on our latest research discoveries and travels.