Personal statements

Meet Stephanie

Stephanie Mach at the Penn Museum holding a Tlingit basket tray

Stephanie Mach at the Penn Museum holding a Tlingit basket tray. Photo by Tom Stanley.

My name is Stephanie Mach. I have been working with the collections at the Penn Museum for the past five 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 currently a graduate student 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?

Lise Puyo and Stephanie Mach at the Canadian Museum of History

Lise Puyo and Stephanie Mach at the Canadian Museum of History.

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.


•  “A Balancing Act: Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum.” On the Wampum Trail, July 19, 2014.
•  “Wampum Field Report Part 1: Blueberry Stands, Beaver Dams, and Mannequins.” Beyond the Gallery Walls. Penn Museum Blog, September 2015.
“Wampum Field Report Part 2: Kaianerasere’Kówa.” Penn Museum Blog, September 2015.
“Decolonizing Museums: A Visit to the Tomaquag Museum.” Beyond the Gallery Walls. Penn Museum Blog, April 2017.

Meet Lise

My name is Lise Puyo. I come from Orléans, a town south of Paris known for having been freed by Joan of Arc in 1429. Little did I know, coming to the University of Pennsylvania as an exchange student would mean discovering a whole new realm of cultural patrimony.

006_tourisme_2013My hometown, photo by my father, J. Puyo

Wampum studies drew me in when I realized wampum belts were across worlds, across functions, and across genres. It is at the same time material, because of the beads, sinews and threads composing it, and literary, because of the oral and written traditions associated with each one. It can bear conflict but is mostly an agent of peace. It travels between groups, nations, cultures across the continent, and sometimes even crosses the oceans. It is what it represents but it is also more than that. Trying to understand wampum in general and to contextualize wampum belts in particular is an exciting scholarly challenge, but when you study anthropology, most things can be seen that way.

In October 2013, I attended a conference on the subject in upstate New York, at Syracuse University and in Onondaga, where, in the documents I’ve read, shines the council fire of the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois confederacy. Seeing Haudenosaunee people, Jesuits, and Euro-American researchers share the stage helped me realized that wampum scholarship is more than history, archaeology or museum studies. Not only is it all that, but it also conveys political struggles, historical traumas, and issues of cultural sovereignty dramatically at stake today.

When I got the chance to talk to Haudenosaunee faith keepers, and to listen to wampum reading, I knew that wampum ceremonialism is more than mere traditions. Funerary offerings, ornaments, money, diplomatic words, sacred objects… all the interpretations of wampum overlap and compete with each other, when in fact they should complete each other.

The whole goal of this research is to put interpretations back together to make them dialogue with one another. My ethnicity and my national history comes into play in this research as a way to reconnect with people the French seem to have forgotten, and a way to address a history that many Europeans and Americans have forgotten. I am hoping my foreign perspective might bring a fresh look on apparently evident questions. Also, my fluency in French has already helped me understand several sides of the same story when looking at a few cases studies—it is fascinating what a sharp picture you get when you start to navigate between French ecclesiastical sources, French and English colonial sources, Mohawk sources, Six Nations sources, etc.

Rick Hill (Director of the Deyohahá:ge: Indigenous Knowledge Centre) and me holding hands at the Wampum Lot in PhiladelphiaRick Hill (Director of the Deyohahá:ge: Indigenous Knowledge Centre) and me holding hands at the Wampum Lot in Philadelphia

In 2014, I took the many teachings of the team and the people we met back to France, where I started to apply our methodology to the wampum collections in my home country. In the fall of 2015, I started the graduate program in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Looking to the future, more insights are certain to emerge.


“Talking With the Belts at Harvard Peabody.” On the Wampum Trail, May 14, 2014.
“Rummaging the Archives.” On the Wampum Trail, May 22, 2014.
“The Glass Belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary.” On the Wampum Trail, May 23, 2014.
• Masters’ Thesis Part I: “Les Ceintures de Wampum entrée musées, chercheurs et peuples autochtones” (Wampum Belts between museums, scholars, and Indigenous peoples). Université Lumière Lyon 2, France. July 2014.
“How Much Does Matter Matter? A Glass Wampum Belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary.” Beyond the Gallery Walls. Penn Museum Blog, July 18, 2014.
“Surveying Wampum Belts.” Expedition 56 no. 3 (fall 2014):14.
• Masters’ Thesis Part II: “Les Collections de Wampum en France.” École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, France, July 2015.
• “Contemplating the Void: Peopling the Past in Living History Museums.” Beyond the Gallery Walls. Penn Museum Blog, July 2016.
“Encounters in the Cathedral: Revisiting the 1676 Huron-Wendat Wampum Belt at Chartres, France.” Beyond the Gallery Walls. Penn Museum Blog, October 2017.