Project Director

At Penn Treaty Park. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

At Penn Treaty Park. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Kwai kwai, my name is Marge Bruchac. As Project Director for “On the Wampum Trail,” I wear multiple hats: cultural mediator, historical consultant, research detective, and mentor to a select group of wonderfully insightful and dedicated research assistants. My Indigenous ancestry is Abenaki from Ndakinna (Adirondacks and Northern New England), and my academic home is at the University of Pennsylvania, where I serve as Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Associate Faculty in the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, and Coordinator of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative.

This wampum project emerged out of research on colonial encounters with a particular focus on the material culture of the Indigenous peoples of the northeastern United States and Canada. For several decades, I’ve been a museum consultant specializing in the “hidden histories” of Algonkian Indians, working on projects for Historic Deerfield, Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, and the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, among other museums. During graduate study at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I served as the Five College Repatriation Research Liaison for Amherst College and Smith College, and from 2009-2012, I was Coordinator of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Connecticut. I’ve also done consulting work for a number of Native American nations, including the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and the Mohegan Tribe’s Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum.


Discussing antiquarian collections with fur trader Mark Humpal.

My research in museum representation and repatriation follows an approach that I call “restorative methodology,” which entails close examinations of the people, institutions, theories, and projects responsible for creating and interpreting museum collections. By tracking the interests and social relations of individual collectors, and by charting the routines of handling that have distributed Indigenous materials and records into different museums and archives, I can recover crucial clues to identity and patrimony. This research praxis directly engages with issues of Indigenous materiality, identity, knowledge, and survivance. It is more than just an antiquarian endeavor, since the challenges of identifying objects in museum collections have practical implications on the social, material, and political relations of Indigenous communities.

In 2009, the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee on Burial Rules and Regulations requested my assistance in tracing the provenance of two wampum belts advertised for sale at Sotheby’s. My research into these belts (one of which had been collected by Frank Speck) revealed a rather densely documented, and surprisingly complicated, narrative of wampum dispossessions. For more than a century, wampum belts have been tangled in multiple chains of custody among Native nations, antiquarians, scholars, and museums. Historically, Algonkian and Iroquoian people used wampum primarily as a significant material for adornment and a powerful agent of governance and condolence. Wampum diplomacy was also embraced by French, English, and American colonial leaders as a means of recording alliances and restoring positive social relations. Yet, modern disputes over the ownership of wampum belts in museums have generated considerable conflict and discord. This project aims to address that conflict by retracing and recovering object histories and connections to Indigenous communities.

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

Richard W. Hill Jr. with Bruchac, holding a reproduction of the historic “Five Nations Chiefs Belt,” depicting five chiefs/five nations linking horns/holding hands.

By pursuing this research in the northeast, I am stepping onto trails laid out many decades earlier by Indigenous collaborators who reached across cultural boundaries to function as translators, gatekeepers, and informants for previous generations of anthropologists (some of whom were better listeners than others). On the anthropological side, I walk in the shadow of Frank Speck, picking up the dropped threads of conversations that started a century ago, while working to repair some of the damage done. For understandings of Haudenosaunee culture, I am deeply indebted to Richard W. Hill Sr. (Tuscarora), Coordinator of Deyohaha:ge: Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic Institute in Ohsweken, Ontario, Canada, who has generously shared the data on wampum he has been gathering for three decades.

The University of Pennsylvania has been particularly supportive of this work, and I am grateful for the many colleagues and administrators who have encouraged this project. Dr. Richard Leventhal, Director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, sponsored Lise Puyo’s research internship for this project in 2014. Dr. Julian Siggers, Williams Director of the Penn Museum, and Dr. Stephen J. Tinney, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, approved the Director’s Field Research Grants that enabled me to bring Lise Puyo and Stephanie Mach into the field in 2014, and to return for more research with Sarah Parkinson, Zhenia Bemko, and Stephanie Mach in 2015.

In the fall of 2015 (with thanks for funding from the Faculty Working Group for Native American and Indigenous Studies, the Penn Museum, and the Provost’s office), we held the first of several Wampum Symposia at Penn. I was pleased to host an inspiring group of Indigenous scholars and museum curators for Woven Words: New Insights into Wampum and Native Studies at the Penn Museum, to discuss wampum in both Indigenous and museum contexts.

In 2016 and 2017, we continued with field research in museums in the United States and Canada. In 2017, Alan Corbiere and Rick Hill helped me to expand the Wampum Trail network by connecting with the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Culture to develop the Wampum Showcase Pilot Project. More insights are sure to emerge from this ongoing research!

Watch this blog for more news about our work and our findings along the wampum trail.

Relevant Publications: (partial list)

• Forthcoming: “Broken Chains of Custody: The Challenge of Identifying and Reclaiming Lost Wampum.”
• Spring 2017. “Living Pasts: On Anthropological Being and Beings,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 41 (2017).
• June 29, 2015. “Wampum Research: Notes From the Trail 2014-2015.” In Beyond the Gallery Walls. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA.
• May 20, 2015. “The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects.” In Beyond the Gallery Walls. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA.
• April 24, 2015. “Mackosi’kwe’s Baskets: Marking Relationships.” In Beyond the Gallery Walls. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA.
• April 21, 2015. “Deep Description and Refexivity: Methods for Recovering Object Histories.” In Penn Museum blog, Beyond the Gallery Walls. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
• June 27, 2014. “Shells and Nails on the Wampum Trail.” In Beyond the Gallery Walls. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA.
• June 21, 2014. “Of Shells and Ship’s Nails.” In On the Wampum Trail: Restorative Research in North American Museums research blog.
• Fall 2010. “Lost and Found: NAGPRA, Scattered Relics, and Restorative Methodologies” in Museum Anthropology 33(2):137–156. Theme issue: “Looking Back, Looking Forward: NAGPRA after Two Decades.”
• March 2010. “Ownership, Representation, and Repatriation” in Anthropology News 51(3):41-42.

Public Presentations: (partial list)

• June 22, 2017. “Re-examining Museological Interpretations of Wampum.” Paper presented in the session, “Indians in the Archive: Tribally-Centered Research Methodologies” at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Conference, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
• March 30, 2017. “Digging for Shells: Recovering Indigenous Wampum Technologies in Museum Collections.” Paper presented in the session “Reconstructing Indigenous Practices in Museum Settings: Perspectives and Approaches” at the Society for American Archaeology Conference, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
• October 12, 2016. “On the Wampum Trail: Adventures in Restorative Research and Recovery.” Invited speaker for the “International Conference of Indigenous Archives, Libraries and Museums,” hosted by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, Phoenix, AZ.
• September 9, 2015. “Lost and Found: Methodologies to Restore Meaning and Context to Indigenous Objects.” Invited speaker for Museum Summit: “An Interactive Approach to Developing Guidelines for Improving Access to, and Care of, Indigenous Materials,” at the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums Conference, Washington, DC.
• June 4, 2015. “Take Me to the River: Wampum Trade and Traffic in 17th Century New England.” Paper presented in the session “Dreaming the River Back: Recovering Indigenous Narratives of the Connecticut River Valley” at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Conference, Washington, DC.
• April 9, 2015. “Take Me to the River: Navigating the Materiality and Messaging of Wampum.” Invited presenter for “Entangled Trajectories: Integrating Native American and European Histories” Conference at George Washington University, Washington, DC.
• October 24, 2014. “Following the Wampum Trail.” Invited presenter for Plenary Session at the 46th Annual Algonquian Conference, Mohegan Sun Casino, Uncasville, CT.
• October 2, 2014. “Wampum in Museum Collections: Tracking Broken Chains of Custody.” Talk for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the Penn Museum, Philadelphia, PA.
• June 14, 2014. “Recovering the Path: Tracking the Origins of Colonial Wampum Belts in the Penn Museum.” Paper presented in the session “Objects of Meaning and Communication in the Early Modern World” at the 20th Annual Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture Conference at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
• May 31, 2014. “Re-awakening Historical Memories of Philadelphia’s Wampum Lot.” Paper presented in the session “Interdisciplinary Intersections of Haudenosaunee Representation, History, and Narrative” at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Conference, Austin, TX.


    1. Greetings, Charlotte – Finally, we are planning a research trip to Rhode Island in late June of this year, and we would like to meet up with you and see the collection. I will email you so we can work out a schedule. Thanks!

  1. Frank Speck came and stayed with my great grandfather down in Millsboro, Delaware when he was doing research on the Nanticoke Indian Tribe in Indian River Hundred. I am quite familiar with a lot of his work on the Nanticoke tribe. I would love to have a discussion with you if possible about some projects I am currently involved with. His work is not finished until we are able to govern ourselves as a sovereign nation. He was familiar with a belt that was exchanged between between the Onondaga and the Nanticoke that was a pledge of peace between the nations. The belt was described as having three human hangs in purple wampum and the rest of the belt in white. It was 21 rows.

    1. Greetings, Kyle – Thanks for sharing that info – I would be delighted to hear more! Things are incredibly busy here at present, but maybe we can meet up this summer?

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