Notes From the Trail


Margaret Bruchac, Stephanie Mach, and Lise Puyo at the Bank of Canada Currency Museum.

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).

Richard Hill and Marge Bruchac holding reproduction of the wampum belt depicting five chiefs/nations linking horns/holding hands.

Richard Hill and Margaret Bruchac holding reproduction of the wampum belt depicting five chiefs/nations linking horns/holding hands.

We received encouragement and guidance from Haudenosaunee wampum expert Richard W. Hill (Tuscarora, Coordinator of the Deyohahá:ge Indigenous Knowledge Centre) who shared his foundational research on wampum, collected over the course of more than three decades of experience in museums and among Haudenosaunee Wampum-Keepers. 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.

Chief Curtis Nelson and Marge Bruchac with Six Diamond Wampum Belt at the Mohawk Nation of Kanehsatake, Oka, Quebec.

Condoled Chief Curtis Nelson and Margaret Bruchac with six diamond wampum belt at the Mohawk Nation of Kanesatake, Oka, Quebec. This belt, which recorded Kanesatake’s connection to the Six Nations, was secretly removed in 1913 and sold (in company with three other wampum belts) by J.B. Delay to Frank Speck. Speck sold two wampum belts to Edward Sapir at the Victoria Museum (now the Canadian Museum of History) and two to George Gustav Heye at the Museum of the American Indian. In 2014, one of the four wampum belts was finally repatriated to Kanesatake. Photograph by Lise Puyo.

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 the Canadian Museum of 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.

Lise Puyo with Archivist Benoît Thériault at the Canadian Museum of History, examining Marius Barbeau's research on wampum.

Lise Puyo with Archivist Benoît Thériault at the Canadian Museum of History, examining Marius Barbeau’s research on wampum. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

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 collecting processes that had separated these objects from their communities of origin. In some cases, we found that data housed in one museum, including correspondence among collectors, could shed light on supposedly mysterious wampum in another museum. Through close material analysis 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 gained new insights into wampum semiotics and display that reflect the evolving relations among Indigenous people and museums.

Detail of mid-18th century wampum belt showing the inclusion of a single blue glass bead in the original weave of shell wampum beads. Photograph by Lise Puyo.

Detail of mid-18th century wampum belt showing the inclusion of a single blue glass bead in the original weave of whelk and quahog shell wampum beads. Photograph by Lise Puyo.

The most intriguing insights emerged from our observations of the physical details of wampum construction. We found previously overlooked evidence of all of the following: 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, or 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. Two undergraduate student research assistants, Sarah Parkinson and Zhenia Bemko, assisted Project Director Dr. Bruchac and graduate research assistant Stephanie Mach. Our northernmost travels brought us to the Kitigan Zibi Algonquin nation at Maniwaki and Rapid Lake. Meanwhile, across the ocean, Lise Puyo continued her research on wampum collections in French museums.


Sarah Parkinson and Stephanie Mach at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

In May, during our visit to the Royal Ontario Museum,  we examined a shell bead wampum belt that (although it was accessioned as a 17th century “William Penn wampum belt”) contains late 18th century beads pulled together with a highly unusual weaving technique. A forthcoming blog article will reveal more details.

At ROM, we were also delighted to discover that Frank Speck had initiated (but never completed) a comparative study of wampum shell beads from various sources, and the envelopes and samples he collected, including some very early examples of disc wampum beads, remained intact in their collections.

Rick Hill with reproduction wampum belts crafted by Ken Maracle, at the Great Law Recital.

Rick Hill with reproduction wampum belts crafted by Ken Maracle, at the Great Law Recital. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

In July 2015, Marge Bruchac and Stephanie Mach were invited to attend the Haudenosaunee Recital of the Great Law at Akwesasne (for a glimpse of that event, see Stephanie’s field report). While there, we had the opportunity to study an assemblage of wampum belts that have been repatriated over the past several decades from the New York State Museum and other institutions, and that are now in the keeping of Onondaga and other Haudenosaunee nations. Each of these belts is remarkable; they all contain evidence of heavy use and, in some cases, reconstruction over time. During subsequent consultations with Haudenosaunee leadership, it became clear that the material evidence of repair and reconstruction we saw in these belts (including the occasional glass bead) is not a marker of inauthenticity. Instead, the evidence of repair and replacement and re-purposing is consistent with Indigenous practices of curation that preserve objects and traditions, not by locking them away or capturing them in a static form, but by engaging in continuous handling and renewal.

On October 1-2, 2015, Haudenosaunee and Algonkian scholars and tribal wampum researchers gathered together for a symposium at the Penn Museum to discuss wampum ceremonialism, diplomacy, materiality, and artistry in both Indigenous and museum contexts. See: Woven Words: New Insights into Wampum and Native Studies for more information, and photos on our Facebook page. Eventually, we will post some videos from that conference.

Stephanie Mach and Loren Spears at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Stephanie Mach and Loren Spears at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Reporting From the Field, Summer 2016

Our travels in 2016 included return trips to the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian Museum of Currency in Quebec, and to the Woodland Cultural Centre and Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Ontario, to re-examine wampum belts, ethnographic objects with wampum decoration, and depictions of wampum in museum exhibitions. We especially appreciated meeting up with Jonathan Lainey, one of the new Curators at CMH. In New York state, we spent several days with George Hamell at the Rochester Museum of Science and Industry, studying wampum samples in the Rock Foundation collections.

Extending our studies to depictions of Native people and wampum in living history museums, we visited the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center in Liverpool, New York, the Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan in Victor, New York, Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Aquinnah Cultural Center in Aquinnah, Massachusetts, the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Ledyard, Connecticut (see Lise Puyo’s field report on those visits). During our sojourn in New England, we also made some contacts with Aquinnah Wampanoag, Mashpee Wampanoag, Abenaki, Pequot, and other Native artisans who harvest quahog and whelk shells to craft wampum beads, belts, and jewelry. Thinking ahead to 2017, we look forward to future interviews along the shore with Marcus Hendricks, Jim Taylor, Annawon Weeden, and Berta Welch, among others.

grasac-at-woodlandIn September, the Wampum Trail team gathered together with an inspiring group of scholars, teachers, curators, and artisans during a meeting of the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Culture at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario. Many exciting projects emerged from that meeting. Rick Hill and Alan Corbiere will be collaborating with Marge to devise some new research articles and instructional tools for teaching about wampum in Indigenous communities. Ruth Phillips from Carleton University and Adriana Greci-Green from the National Museum of Natural History will be collaborating with Marge, Lise, and Stephanie to teach a new Museum Anthropology class, at each of their universities, focusing on applying restorative research in museum collections. In October, the Wampum Trail team presented their research at the first international gathering of the Association for Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums in Arizona.

Watch this blog for more exciting news and upcoming reports on our travels and our research findings along the Wampum Trail!

For more information about the Wampum Trail research, see the following:
• Lise Puyo. May 22, 2014. “Rummaging the Archives.”
• Margaret M. Bruchac. June 27, 2014. “Shells and Nails on the Wampum Trail.”
• Lise Puyo. July 18, 2014. “How Much Does Matter Matter? A Glass Wampum Belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary.”
• Stephanie Mach. August 11, 2014. “A Balancing Act: Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum.”
• Margaret M. Bruchac. October 2, 2014. “Wampum in Museum Collections: Tracking Broken Chains of Custody.” Colloquium for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center.
• Sarah Parkinson. May 26, 2015. “On the Rail to the Wampum Trail.”
• Margaret M. Bruchac. June 29, 2015. “Wampum Research: Notes From the Trail 2014-2015”.
• Zhenia Bemko. July 10, 2015. “Deconstructing Knowledge; Reconstructing Meaning.”
• Sarah Parkinson. July 14, 2015. “Of Words and Matter: Glass Wampum.”
• Stephanie Mach. September 2015. “Wampum Field Report Part 1: Blueberry Stands, Beaver Dams, and Mannequins.”
• Stephanie Mach. September 2015. “Wampum Field Report Part 2: Kaianerasere’Kówa.”
• Lise Puyo. July 2016. “Contemplating the Void: Peopling the Past in Living History Museums.”

Also check out the Wampum Trail Facebook page for reports on our latest research discoveries and travels. 


    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.

    1. Thanks, Kyle – I made notes on the belt you’re looking for, and am keeping an eye out for anything that might match that description. No leads yet, but we don’t give up that easy. Please do keep in mind that a “pledge of peace” is not the same as being adopted as “members of the Iroquois.” The Haudenosaunee exchanged wampum belts with many different nations, but the exchange of wampum did not automatically mean adoption.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s