My name is Stephanie Mach. I have been working with the collections at the Penn Museum for the past three years. Material culture has always attracted me — whether it is archaeological, ethnographic, contemporary art, or my own personal belongings. This may reflect the fact that I have lived in so many places and have lived far from my Native community (Navajo). The physical aspects of my culture were always present and able to travel with me wherever I went. My jewelry, my clothing, my blankets, and purses all carry messages inherent in their design and construction that allow me to craft my personal image and share my cultural heritage with the world. When I wear turquoise, I am conscious of the statement it makes. That is why, now living in Philadelphia, I became interested in what I imagined to be the turquoise of the northeast: wampum.
I am just beginning graduate study in Anthropology. My academic career started with studies of archaeology, then slowly incorporated art history, then museum studies, and then contemporary art. At one point in my life I might have thought those disciplines were separate. However, the more I learn about cultural heritage, the more the lines blur. At the very least, these disciplines are connected by their influence on and studies of the representation of Native America. The images crafted at archaeological sites, museums, tourist shops, trading posts, in movies, books, television, fashion, and logos (the list goes on…) all contribute to the general understanding (or misunderstanding) of Native culture, history, art, and contemporary political and social affairs.
I joined this project because I knew very little about wampum and wanted to learn more about something so important to American history, yet so misunderstood in popular culture. How and why do most Americans associate wampum with currency, instead of with cultural and political negotiations? Not only am I interested in learning about wampum as an agent of art and diplomacy, but also I am interested in wampum as an artifact of culture, collected and displayed by museums with varying degrees of understanding and sensitivity. How do museums negotiate, construct, and respond to requests for culturally sensitive display methods, storage, repatriation, or collaboration? Are museums being pro-active, or reactive, and in what ways? How are these interactions interpreted on each end of the equation?
Furthermore, I hope to learn about wampum as a mode of communication and a performance of culture. How has the introduction of new technology and materials affected the traditional use of shell? Does the message change when the material changes? What are the historical and contemporary barriers to gaining access to this material? I expect to learn more about trade, wampum manufacturing sites, commercial fisheries, access to land and waterways, assimilation efforts, and much more just by considering the raw material. In exploring the medium, I also hope to add visibility to wampum as a living tradition. At every powwow I attend, there are vendors with beautifully crafted wampum jewelry, reproductions of wampum collars and belts, and representations of the Hiawatha belt beaded, embroidered, and painted onto every surface imaginable. Both the material and the message endure. By contributing to wampum studies and by sharing insights that are acceptable to share, I hope to help convey, to a broader audience, the significance of wampum for the indigenous people who wield this powerful medium in constructing personal, tribal, and national identities.
• August 11, 2014. “On the Wampum Trail: A Balancing Act: Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum.” In Beyond the Gallery Walls. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA.
• July 19, 2014. “A Balancing Act: Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum.” In On the Wampum Trail: Restorative Research in North American Museums research blog.