A Balancing Act: Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum

by Stephanie Mach

In many ways this project is as much about exploring the cultural significance of wampum as it is examining how museums curate and construct understandings about wampum. So far, we have visited ten museums and noticed a variety of protocols, handling practices, and storage methods. When contacting each museum to request a research visit, we were aware of the fact that we were asking to see culturally sensitive material, and museum staff informed us about objects with active NAGPRA claims. We are keenly aware of the delicacy of our position as researchers moving among multiple tribes and institutions. Our intent is to gain a broader understanding of wampum use and production while simultaneously focusing on minute details of material and construction that may help to clarify temporal, regional, and cultural differences. Hence, we consulted with the Haudenosaunee and others ahead of time, and we are sharing what we’ve learned with relevant tribal nations and institutions.

Reproduction of the 1794 George Washington Treaty of Canadaigua wampum belt. Made with electrical wire insulation and artificial sinew by Jake Thomas. Item III-I-1867, Canadian Museum of History. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Reproduction of the 1794 George Washington Treaty of Canadaigua wampum belt. Made with electrical wire insulation and artificial sinew by Jake Thomas. Object # III-I-1867, Canadian Museum of History. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

In general, institutions with active claims were more cautious in their approach; they placed more strict protocols on our visit, particularly regarding photography and handling. For example, before confirming our visit, several museums contacted tribal representatives to ask permission to show the collections to outside researchers. Another museum does not allow photography of wampum without prior tribal representative approval. At one museum, we were prohibited from photographing certain collections, understandably because they were from a burial context. Yet, we were allowed to photograph reproductions of these same collections that were on public display. In another museum, we examined a reproduction wampum belt constructed of plastic beads and artificial sinew that was treated with the same respect and restrictions afforded to historic shell wampum. The strict protocols placed on these reproductions raise interesting questions. Does it matter whether these objects are reproductions or not? Are wampum belts sacred in and of themselves, or are they made sacred by the rituals and meanings attached to them? This experience allowed me to think about wampum in an entirely new way.

If we consider the fact that wampum belts are made of organic material–shell, sinew, hemp, leather–then we know that these materials will not last forever. However, there are no fixed expiration dates on meaning and significance. What happens when the material severs, cracks, or breaks? Does the meaning also diminish? Or does the significance get passed into a new material–new shell beads, new leather strands, a new generation? Can a reproduction embody the significance of the original?

Cotton gloves, cotton twill tape, and white  polyethylene board used to store and handle wampum. McCord Museum, Montreal, Canada. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Cotton gloves, cotton twill tape, and polyethylene foam used to store and handle wampum. McCord Museum, Montreal, Canada. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

On the subject of preservation, we can compare the various ways that museums have chosen to preserve, conserve, and store wampum. In collection storage, belts were laid out on padded tables for us, handling protocols were explained, and gloves were provided so we could carefully lift the ends of the belts to see their construction techniques. To ease the movement of these objects, wampum belts and collars were typically placed onto strips of polyethylene foam or archival-grade paper board and tied down with cotton twill tape in storage. A few museums cut object-shaped cavities into thicker foam and laid the object into the cavity. Both of these methods allow collections managers to transport these objects more safely from shelf to table, since the foam or board supports the weight of the belt and the ties and foam cavities ensure that the object does not move or fall.

The Fort Stanwix Treaty belt has been sewn to a fabric backing for support. Item # 37415 in the New York State Museum, Albany, NY. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

The Fort Stanwix Treaty belt has been sewn to a fabric backing for support. Object # 37415 in the New York State Museum. Photo by Stephanie Mach. Courtesy New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

At several institutions, we encountered wampum belts that had been sewn down to fabric backing. In each case, this had apparently been done for display purposes and presumably left intact post-exhibition to provide added support in storage. Some belts were quite fragile, so the stitching provided reinforcement, but the foreign threads interfered with our ability to examine original construction and condition. In a more extreme case, one belt had been glued to a plexiglass backing and was completely immobilized. We also encountered a very long belt that is roughly five feet in length, however, less than half of the belt was visible due to an artistic display mount that coiled the belt at two mid-points. These curatorial strategies likely created dramatic visuals for display, but became a disadvantage for the objects in storage and for potential researchers and tribal visitors. I was disappointed as a researcher not to be able to see details of the other side. Of greater concern is the fact that tribal representatives visiting these belts would not be able to lift them freely from their backings.

When I first encountered a belt attached to a backing, my first thought was that I selfishly wanted to see the other side, but understood that this arrangement provides the belt with more support and stabilization than if it were free moving. However, my mind was quickly changed when we visited a repatriated wampum belt under the care of Chief Curtis Nelson at Kanehsatake. This belt is stored in the same box that it arrived in from the museum, including the standard foam support and twill ties. Everything seemed quite similar, until Chief Nelson lifted the belt from its box, draped it over his shoulder, ran his hand down the beads of the belt, and began to speak about its significance to his community, historically and presently. It dawned on me that the reason I had not seen a belt move or be moved in this manner before is that it would be inappropriate for a museum collections manager or curator to handle a belt in this way. Until this point, I could have considered the museum protocols for careful handling to be aligned with the goal of preservation–but I now believe they are equally aligned with cultural sensitivity.

Chief Curtis Nelson holds up the repatriated wampum belt in his care.

Condoled Chief Curtis Nelson at the Mohawk Nation of Kanehsatake (Oka, Quebec, Canada) holds up the repatriated wampum belt in his care. Photo by Lise Puyo.

A box of smudging materials is available for use by museum visitors. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

A box of smudging materials is available for use by Museum visitors. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

I was impressed by the efforts of several museums to consider and respond to the challenge of managing these and other culturally sensitive materials. One museum had a separate area of storage specifically for housing culturally sensitive material. In this space certain objects were draped with cloth to hide them from sight, offerings of tobacco were allowed to lay loose on shelves, and the entire section was roped off from the rest of storage to signal that this area was restricted. We encountered offerings left on or near objects in storage at several other museums as well. Those offerings included tobacco pouches, medicinal herbs, and quahog shells. One museum allowed smudging in storage, while several others had a room specifically designated for consultation meetings where smudging is permitted. I also noted at least two museums that had smudging kits available for use by visitors.

After witnessing the care of wampum at so many different locations—tribal museums, non-tribal museums, and in the hands of a traditional Wampum Keeper—we are able to consider the many negotiations to be made among tribal members, collections managers, curators, conservators, and so on when balancing traditional care and standard museum collections management.

The Glass Belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary

group-picture-1024by Lise Puyo

On Tuesday, Marie Pelletier, who manages the Archives du Séminaire de Nicolet (Nicolet Seminary) welcomed us for a whole afternoon to examine the two wampum belts in their collections. One of them is entirely made of black glass beads.

Now, one might argue that if it is not shell, it is not a wampum belt. Yet, being made of glass beads does not necessarily mean the belt was not used in a meaningful way. With the wampum belts we have seen so far, we can make a few general observations about the prevalence of shell and glass. Although white shell beads are said to have been more numerous, purple shell beads are far more common than we would have expected. Glass beads were supposedly used as replacements for the shell material out of scarcity. If this is so, then the remaining collections seem to indicate that white shell beads were more scarce (or perhaps more meaningful) than purple shell beads. At Harvard Peabody, we discovered that glass beads were most often found in white designs. In the collections we visited, there were only a few belts with a white background. The sheer volume of purple shell in collections suggests that when Native wampum makers wanted to use purple shell, they had access to an abundance of this material. The selective use of glass beads seems to evoke a particular intent, and maybe sends a particular message.

At the Dartmouth Powwow, while meeting with traders and contemporary wampum makers, we learned that there are at least two types of dark glass beads resembling wampum: Czech ones, dark blue and translucent, letting the thread appear inside the bead; and French ones, either dark blue or nearly black and opaque. At Nicolet, during our first long glance, it looked like one belt was entirely made of these very dark French glass beads. This would fit the pattern of settlement along the Saint Lawrence and in Canada in general. Those beads—often referred to as porcelain in the written documents—were commonly used as trade goods to exchange for furs and other articles coming from Indigenous people.

Glass belt lit from behindAfter looking at other aspects and spending time with this belt, however, we spotted a reddish hue, coming not only from the rawhide and linen, but also from the beads themselves. There was no sign of red ochre being rubbed onto the beads (as we saw on several other belts). Was the red color just a figment of our imagination? By shining a white light underneath the belts, we realized that these beads are not exactly black: they are a very dark shade of red. If this object was intended to be held up around a council fire, picture how the shimmering light would give it a dramatic aura. The belt would simply come alive.

This close-up picture is helpful to show both the red color of the beads, and the red dye deeply soaked into the rawhide and linen warp and weft (giving them an orange hue). According to our observations so far, when red ochre is rubbed onto the belt, the warp is not tinted where pinched by the weft; it remains a pale color when the rest of the material is dusty red. Here, however, it seems that the leather was dyed before weaving the beads together, contributing to the overall reddish color of the belt.

We observed similar weaving techniques in several other belts so far: the warp is leather, the weft is plant fiber, and the long edges are wrapped with either dampened leather or rawhide so that the edge will harden as it dries, securing the weave. The ends of this dark glass belt are short and knotted together, which in wampum semiotics tends to indicate a closed, independent message, as opposed to long untied ends, which indicate that the message and dialogue can continue.

Some beads are missing on both ends. The fact that the weft is still in place, bearing witness for this bead loss, is specific to the Nicolet archives collections. In most other cases, when beads have been taken out, the weft was pulled out as well. These threads allow us to estimate the number of beads that are missing. This belt has seen no repair, unlike many of the other belts we have seen. A single black thread was added to it, but this thread does not help the weave or support any bead; it stands out, loosely tied. We believe it formerly held a collection tag, price tag, or explanation tag, perhaps added by a Nicolet curator after the 1870s.

This glass belt was clearly made with care and with intent: the weaving material reflects the color of the beads. The dark red beads have been darkened even further by the addition of a black ash-like coating that has partially soaked into the leather. It is constructed following the same Native weaving techniques observed on shell belts, but it does not use shell beads. As Dr. Bruchac observed, in wampum semiotics, the message is quite clear: dark beads (in the absence of any white beads) signal trouble, complexity, something powerful in a potentially harmful way. Those beads were apparently selected because of their ambiguity between black and red. The fact that they are foreign might indicate several things; we theorize that either it was made by Europeans, or it was made about Europeans.

According to the curatorial records at the Nicolet Seminary, this belt was given by the Blackfoot of Alberta to l’Abbé Georges-Henri Laforest during his sojourn in First Nations territory far to the west of Nicolet. This appears to be an early belt, using a style of glass bead common in the east, but uncommon in the west. If this belt originated in a region where wampum making is more common (the Northeast Atlantic coast, the Saint Lawrence seaway, or Haudenosaunee territory), it would have carried a very recognizable message that transcended language barriers: trouble is coming, involving foreigners. Since glass beads were common trade goods, the origin of the beads might identify which group this message would refer to: could a French bead represent the French?

Marie Lise Stephanie phone on the belt 1024

With this belt, as with all the others, we are following Dr. Bruchac’s guidance in what appears to be a unique research approach. Our method is to examine every bead, every thread, every repair, and every bit of dirt and other material evidence while we talk around the belts, creating a visual and verbal thick description. Since we are coming with fresh eyes, and since we have familiarized ourselves with the various materials—quahog, whelk, conch, glass, sinew, brain-tanned leather, rawhide, hemp, linen—we often notice details that might have been overlooked before. The curators look on, and we invite them to share insights on how each belt has been handled and cared for, on other items it might relate to, and on any other information needing an inside eye. Only after close visual analysis do we turn to the examinations of provenance data and historical research that might track the movement of each belt from a community or event to its current environment. Since we only have a few hours to spend at each location, we gather as much data as possible while we are present with the wampum, and leave the written reports for our long debriefing sessions.

At each locale, museum curators have been delighted to hear stories about our previous discoveries and the insights gained from all of the different communities we’ve talked to: Indigenous wampum-keepers, wampum makers, antiquities dealers, and other museums. This has been a very collaborative effort so far, resulting in exciting new insights. However, as Dr. Bruchac reminds us, we need to recognize that our research may raise concerns, since museum wampum collections have been so carefully guarded, so poorly understood, and so hotly contested. She notes: “We are shining light into some dark corners of museological collections and recovering some provenance data that has been long missing. We have discovered evidence of Indigenous wampum-making techniques and messaging that both transcend and incorporate European materials. We expect to encounter contested Indigenous patrimony, and hope that we can encourage productive conversations about what each wampum belt has to tell us, and which Indigenous communities these belts are linked to.” All of us hope that our new museum colleagues will be as excited as we are that this restorative approach to research might hold the potential to solve some old mysteries, and heal some old wounds.

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.

Talking with the Belts at Harvard Peabody

Group picture storage rooms(From left to right: Margaret Bruchac; Patricia Capone, Museum Curator and Director of Research and Repatriation; Lise Puyo; Stephanie Mach; Susan Haskell, Curatorial Associate and Research Coordinator)

by Lise Puyo

When we entered the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, I thought looking at the belts would be a courteous visit before we can delve into the real work: rummaging the archives, looking at collectors’ correspondence and accession ledgers. When we passed the storage doors, stepping on a sticky carpet to leave our dust outside, Susan Haskell said “We don’t have much data,” and I thought I would soon be able to take off my gloves and chill out before lunch. Four hours later, we were still talking with excitement, taking notes and pictures as fast as we could.

For the time being, we cannot share our pictures of the belts and collars we paid a visit to, but we can share our impressions (and you can see the collections online).

I thought we would soon be done with looking at the objects because I trusted the pictures: I had seen those belts and collars, I knew their designs and the number of rows, I knew their inventory cards. Looking at them more closely, however, new insights began to surface. One collar was entirely woven on linen threads of a reddish brown color and a deep green color. That’s unusual! The constructions allowed us to differentiate artists, styles, and maybe regions of production, so maybe different uses as well. Whether the collar is worn or held, the ends are not tied the same. Sometimes sweat has soaked into the leather, giving this specific shine to it, indicating how often it was worn.

We are also starting to notice glass beads. Since those are in the white designs, it is hard to tell in photographs if you do not know what you are looking for. They do not shine, they are somehow greyer than the shell beads and more regular. Now, we are looking for glass beads in every belt we meet! Some of them have none, some of them have some, and some of them have an unexpectedly large number.

Group ic with Emily cropped 1024(With Emily Pierce, Curatorial Assistant and Academic Partnership)

On our second day at Harvard, Emily Pierce showed us the material from the Campbell factory, which was great for comparing the shells that beads were being made from. With the debris from the site, we were also able to reconstruct step by step how they would turn a full shell into tiny beads. We realized that they were not only making wampum on the Campbell site; they were also making long beads for breastplates and abelone ornaments.

Going forward, we are now aware of the increasing complexities of wampum manufacture. We are looking for: glass, quahog, whelk, conch beads; brain tanned leather, rawhide, sinew, hemp, linen, cotton; sweat, red ochre, and dirt (the list is still growing).

All of the above are indicative of artists, intents, and relationships.

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.