Wampum, small beads made from shells, were at the center of diplomacy in North America in the early 17th century. The exchange of strings and belts adorned with wampum were diplomatic tokens, gifts, and most notably, treaty markers between Indigenous peoples and Europeans. On this episode of cultureXchanges we speak with Darren Bonaparte, cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation and current director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.
Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host, Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts.
Today on cultureXchanges, we are in conversation with Darren Bonaparte on wampum diplomacy. Wampum, small beads made from shells, were at the center of diplomacy in North America in the early 17th century. The exchange of strings and belts adorned with wampum were diplomatic tokens, gifts, and, most notably, treaty markers between Europeans and indigenous peoples. Darren Bonaparte is a cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation. He’s a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, museums, and historical sites in the United States and Canada. He’s written three books, several articles, and a libretto for the McGill Chamber Orchestra’s Aboriginal Visions and Voices. Darren is a former chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. He is the creator of the Wampum Chronicles website and historical advisor to film and television. He currently serves as the director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.
TK Harvey – Hi Darren, really great to have you on this episode of cultureXchanges. I thought before we dive into the diplomatic history of wampum belts, I’m hoping you could speak about the wampum belt shells themselves. What are they and where can they be found?
Darren Bonaparte – Thank you for having me. The shells are all found on the Atlantic Coast. They were one of the things that the colonists stubbed their toes on as they were walking ashore. They’re the quahog shell, which many call the “hard shell.” If you’ve ever had clam chowder, you’ve eaten wampum. And the other shell which was actually used, probably first, would have been one of the many varieties of whelk. That’s the shell that you hold up to your ear to listen to Atlantic City. So those shells, before Europeans came to North America, the shells that everybody really used, were the whelks. And they were used by the native, the coastal tribes to ornament themselves, to decorate themselves, and they were probably used in ceremony.
The trade in shells predated Europeans. They are found all over the eastern seaboard as well as into the interior. They came up the river routes, the rivers that emptied into the Atlantic. All the tribes that lived up and down those rivers eventually got a little bit of the shell articles because they show up, I think, as far as the Great Lakes in archaeological sites. So, the reverence that people had for those shells was widespread. And over on the Pacific Coast, I think they used dentalium. I’m not even sure what that is. But they had the same kind of thing going on out there. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that people understood how important water was. The things that came from the water, especially those things that were organic yet durable, which those shells are. If you take a clamshell and properly care for it, it’s going to last for a long time, and that was made by a living being. So, I think it has that special character of being organic, yet completely hard and durable. Yet you can also use it to manufacture things out of it. It takes some effort, but it can be done. So, you have right there a special artifact for indigenous people that transcended the different tribal divisions, that was revered universally. And so, when colonists showed up, they realized how important those shells were to the coastal tribes. So they thought, “Well, why don’t we use our tools? We’ve got drills, we’ve got saws, we’ve got grindstones, you name it.” And they began to commercialize those shells. It became an industry. They employed the form that they knew very well in Europe, the tubular shape, and began to make those beads. And then when the natives that they were dealing with saw the tools that they were using, they took those tools and began to make the beads themselves.
So, it was both an indigenous and a colonial enterprise. It was, I call it, an “interface” between the two widely different cultures. It kind of caught fire. Everybody loved it and I think even the culture, the indigenous culture, adapted to this new item that was available. And we began to use it, even the tribes that lived far from the coast that weren’t necessarily involved with the trade with the colonials. They also used the beads that came through trade and began to use it ceremonially. And some tribes even began to weave them into belts. Some call them “collars.” Also, they were used to ornament people. People had ornamented themselves with the shell beads previously. Well, they continued to do that. We have numerous examples of little cuff links and plisses, headbands, wristbands, you name it. Everybody who had a lot of the beads was using them for that purpose in addition to the ceremonial aspect. And so, that artifact is a hybrid of native culture and European technology. And it created something new. Something new was devised out of those beads. And it kind of became like a turning point for the relationship between the natives and the colonists. That they now had something that could transcend the language differences, the culture differences. It brought a lot of exchange between the groups. So, a lot of the groups who were a little hesitant to use the trade goods thought “Well, this will be a good start, at least, to get these wonderful beads.”
So, I think it all began with the whelk. You have this kind of white, off-white bead, which native people love anything of that color. They took it as very symbolic and wonderful. And so then as time went by, I think probably within 20 or 30 years, they began to incorporate the darker quahog shell. Those were used and turned into beads of the same size and nature as the other beads. And so, with the introduction of the quahog — they call it black or dark wampum — it all kind of creates this binary, a dualistic set of beads. You’ve got the light, you’ve got the dark, and that came to represent the cosmology of a lot of the tribes, in particular the Haudenosaunee. When we got our hands on the purple and white beads, that evoked to us our creation story, which is all about celestial beings coming from the heavens, interacting on earth, and creating essentially a polarized world with the nighttime, the daytime. We associate those with the twins of our creation story. We have one twin who dominates the daytime world and one twin who dominates the nighttime world, and so there’s beads that go with them.
That might just be my personal leap of faith, my interpretation of how it all shook out. But to me, it suggests that whenever you use wampum, you’re invoking those primordial celestial forces. You’re recognizing them. You’re recognizing yourself as the continuation of our creation story. It continues to go on through time. It doesn’t end. It’s like a Star Wars trilogy. It just keeps going on and on and so it kind of encompasses the past, the present, the future. So when you employ wampum, it’s like you’re acknowledging that those creative forces are present and observing what’s going on. Your use of wampum is of prime importance, and it’s meant to be eternal. So, when you enter into a covenant with somebody using wampum, that’s for all time. That’s forever. And of course, yeah, some of those relationships did not survive the test of time. You know, sometimes we switch sides, we join the other colonies, whatever.
But I think it was very significant that we had a culturalized way of looking at these new artifacts. It fit perfectly, as if it had always been there. And in fact, when you ask a lot of traditional people, when you ask them about the origin of wampum, we have legends for all of that. We have stories. So, it’s taken root in the culture in a way that is very natural. It’s when us historians start to fret about “Well, when did it specifically get made? When did these tubular beads?”. That doesn’t have much bearing on the living culture because they already have stories to account for the use of it, the origin of it. And so, it’s a fully indigenous thing in our minds, but the reality is that it’s a hybrid of European and indigenous beliefs and technology and culture.
So I think it’s wonderful that of all the things I study in history, wampum is so beautiful. I have, you know, real wampum beads that I just treasure. And I also have all my replicas. And when I have them all set up in an auditorium or on a stage at a school or a university or a museum or wherever I go, when people first see them all hanging on the racks that I set up, they’re stunning. They’re just … They just blow you away. And I’ve had so many students, for instance, who would come up to touch them. They just can’t resist. They begged me to let them touch the beads and hold them. I had one girl take the actual quahog beads in her hands, and she didn’t want to give them back. She said “These belong in my hands. I can’t let them go.” And I said, “Well, you can go online. There are people selling the exact same beads on various websites. You can go on eBay or whatever and buy them.” You know, it’s expensive, but they can be had.
I should also point out that the wampum period was not very long. Its heyday began in the early 1600s, and it kind of faded away as an official form of interchange. That started to fade away, I would say, around the War of 1812. Just over two centuries of time was the heyday of wampum, and the early 1800s was the last time we start to see the British and the Americans employing wampum officially to, you know, engage us in conflict or wars. There is a wampum belt held at the Six Nations community in Ontario that was supposedly created during the War of 1812. And I’m not sure about the exact specifics of it, but that was about pretty much the fading away of that tradition. Because then the reservation period kicks in and everything changes. The United States and Canada move into a period where they say, all right, it’s a new game in town. We’re the conquerors. We’re not going to entertain your notions. You guys are going to be on reservations and your artifacts, we want them. So, collectors swoop in on native people offering money. They want to buy these for their own personal collections, for museum collections, and some native people participated in the beads leaving. So, I’m getting a little bit off …
TK Harvey – Yeah, no, no…
Darren Bonaparte – I’m going off on a tangent here. Sorry about that.
TK Harvey – But you know it’s quite a beautiful art form. I love how you laid out its origins and kind of where it came from, and the short-term period in history that, as a historian, is just the blink of time. So, I wonder if we could back up just a little bit and talk a little bit more about how wampum became a tool for diplomacy between North Atlantic indigenous peoples and European settlers. And really, how does this fit into the larger context of the history of this relationship?
Darren Bonaparte – Well, I don’t know the exact moment of what tribe and what nation. It was probably the Dutch. That’s a pretty certain thing. The Dutch colonists came up on shore and then soon after you have English colonists not too far away — all of them making contact with those coastal tribes and beginning to make inroads. And around the time wampum began you have Henry Hudson making his way up the Hudson River, which was named after him, and getting as far as the Albany, New York region, which is where our river, the Mohawk River, met the Hudson River. And so, in that area there were the Mohican people, and they were an Algonquian tribe that were the enemies of our people, the Mohawk. And when I say our people, the Mohawk, I recognize that the Mohawks of today are basically an amalgamation of not just the Mohawk people, but other Haudenosaunee tribes as well as Abenaki and you name it, any tribe that’s in that region. Their DNA is in our people today. We had an open-door policy where natives were brought in. It didn’t matter what nation or what tribe. They could be adopted ceremonially and made a part of our population. So that’s what I mean when I say “Mohawk.” That’s just an identifier that we use today acknowledging, of course, that we’re really made up of all the different tribes in the whole region because of all the wars and migrations and our policy of taking people in. That’s actually a strength of our people. And some archaeologists even acknowledge that the taking of captives and, you know, the people we adopted made us physically stronger, built up our immunity, and made us genetically able to withstand — to a better degree — the diseases that came in and decimated other populations. So, the more isolated tribes that didn’t take in a lot of newcomers, some of them did not fare so well when faced with foreign contagions and diseases and things like that. So, that turned out to be one of our strengths. Who would have thought all that raiding and capturing people and adopting them would, you know, end up becoming one of the things that allows us to survive a coming cataclysm.
And that is not to say that all the contact was negative between the tribes and between the natives and the colonists. Obviously, there were times of peace where we exchanged and traded and, you know, got to know each other and began to work at chipping away the linguistic boundaries between us until we started to understand what we were saying. Having those beads and having those ceremonies that arose from the use of those beads allowed us to get beyond that linguistic hurdle to the point where we could actually learn how to communicate and exchange between the two different cultures.
TK Harvey – Yeah, really, really an excellent form of cultural exchange, right? I mean these beads were given to these newcomers, these settlers as tokens of peace. And you know, obviously history has unfolded in a way that perhaps didn’t land as well as they had hoped. But I wonder if you could speak a little bit more on how the early settlers worked with the indigenous peoples, specifically around the wampum tradition and the wampum cultural heritage. Darren Bonaparte – Well, a few things emerged from the employment of wampum belts. When you start to use the purple and white beads, first you start off with some very geometrical patterns, things like diamonds and squares and sometimes human beings. Other things are depicted in the symbology that is woven into the belts. What you see in the colonial record is that a kind of meta language emerges using those symbols, so the symbols start to have a universal quality to them. So, when you see two people on a belt holding hands, that implies that an alliance or a friendship has been struck between two different groups. When there is a band between them and they’re holding what seems to be a rope or a chain between them, that suggests that there’s a real alliance and that there’s a path of peace between them. The covenants, they’re getting more elaborate. And when you see diamonds or squares or rectangles side by side in a row, it implies that there’s now a more formal alliance of multiple groups. A kind of basic language starts to emerge. A lot of that has actually survived, even though a lot of the belts have left their possession.
The knowledge of the symbols and the metaphors that came with it, they’re still talked about. A lot of times a belt will show up in an auction, and people will look at it and say “Oh, this is obviously an alliance or a support.” The most common metaphor, believe it or not, is actually a diagonal bar. And you see them. There’s an old photograph floating around online of a wampum belt — actually, a whole display of wampum belts. And I think at least nine of them have diagonal bars represented. And there was also a bit of a convention — you see this mentioned in the literature — that if a belt was white, it implied peace, friendship, and the symbols of course would have been purple. But then also they say that if there’s a purple background with white symbols, well that may imply a more negative thing such as war. You might see a purple belt with a white tomahawk depicting a war belt or you might see human figures in white. The rule of thumb is that those belts are related to mourning or perhaps warfare. That was not always … like I said, that was just the rule of thumb. It didn’t always apply. The rule of supply and demand also took effect. You would make a belt based on the quantity of beads you had. For instance, if you had a lot of purple and a little bit of white, you threw out the rule of, well, this is going to be a negative belt, this is going to be a positive belt. So I don’t know how all those rules really played out, but you do see it mentioned in the literature. But they’re to be taken with a grain of salt.
They also say that more beads in the belt implied a greater importance, lent a greater gravity to the affair. If you get a little skinny belt, that may just be like an opening draft kind of thing. Whereas a bigger belt implies that this is a really significant even, that this is a really memorial kind of thing that is being devised. So there’s those rules of thumb. Purple meaning darkness, white meaning positive love, friendship, whatever. And the size matters. Those things are there, they’re present. A lot of that knowledge survives into modern times even if the story of a specific belt may have been lost when it was taken to a museum. Sometimes the story went with them, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the story doesn’t come back when we repatriate the belt. But with quite a few of them, we can actually reconnect to their original story, their original context. And some of them we can’t. There are a lot of what I call “mystery belts” that come back to us. We’re engaged in a process of trying to figure out “What story does this belt belong to?” Now, there are thousands of pages of colonial documents, some of them published, some of them still sitting in archives.
A lot of our researchers — not just Haudenosaunee people, but other tribes, including Abenaki people, you name it — we’re all poking through the same archives, looking at those old records, and trying to link speeches to the belts. Because that’s really what a belt is. It’s the material version of words spoken aloud, and it’s those words that are supposed to remain attached to the belts themselves throughout time. So, you had this tradition. You had a wampum keeper whose job it was to memorize the stories that went with each particular belt. You may have to come back and break it out again someday. You may have to take it to a new council to remind, say, the British that, “Hey, remember when you promised this, we’re holding you to it.” It’s a sacred covenant. You have to live up to —
TK Harvey – Yeah, they are early forms of storytelling. As a leading scholar in the space and certainly on your website, The Wampum Chronicles, you discussed one of the most famous belts. The Two Row Wampum Belt, which is described as a white wampum belt with two rows of purple running across the belt. Over the years, there’s been much debate about the belt’s meaning. For our audience, can you expand on the “boat and canoe” versus the “covenant chain of peace and friendship” interpretations of this?
Darren Bonaparte – This is one of those … I don’t want to say “debate” because a debate implies that there’s actually people arguing and talking about it right now, whereas it was really a thing that came up 10 years ago. What I will explain to you is that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy gained possession of a document which was purported to be a Dutch transcript of the original treaty with the Mohawks. The document says it happened in the year 1613. And the Confederacy decided “Well, we’re going to celebrate the 400th anniversary of that relationship.” And they decided that they were going to reenact the whole “boat and canoe” metaphor by having a real canoe trip down the Mohawk River to the Hudson and then down to New York City. It was a big event. There were a lot of people that participated. The “boat and canoe” comes from a contemporary oral tradition that a lot of the Haudenosaunee leaders discuss. That is, when the first colonists came ashore and met the Mohawks, they were given a two-row wampum belt to say, basically, “These two bands represent you and us sailing side by side down the river of life.” You are in your ship, and in your ship, you have your Dutch language, your religion, your beliefs, everything. Your material culture is different. What we have in our canoe is our own language, our own customs, our own traditions and beliefs. What’s good for us may not be good for you and vice versa. We didn’t know the meaning of “vice versa,” but I’m just using that. And so, as long as we don’t try to interfere in the steering of the others’ vessel, we can sail side by side down the river of life, as friends, as allies, as trading partners. It’s just that we have to respect these differences and try not to interfere with the others’ vessel.
It sounds wonderful. It sounds like a unique, beautiful, harmonious metaphor. People hear it and they fall in love, and they think “Oh my god, let’s make two-row wampums and put them everywhere.” And one of the other things we say about that story is that it was accepted by not only the Dutch, but then the British when they took over the Dutch colony and it became New York. The French did too. And during the emergence of the United States, they also say the British accepted it when they got relegated to Canada and Canada became its own country. They kind of imply, “Yeah, they kind of agreed to that too.” And we say that this is what we have always said. So that’s the contemporary story of European contact as it relates to a specific wampum belt, the two-row wampum. You can pick any Haudenosaunee person from one end of the Confederacy to the other. And not only that, but other indigenous nations embrace that concept. Perfect, wonderful. This is where all the confetti go flying into the air and we’re all happy and wonderful, and it should end right there.
However, you would think an event like that would appear in the colonial record. No, it’s not there. There’s nothing. There’s nothing about a boat or a canoe. Also, the history of wampum itself, which I discussed when I first started speaking, doesn’t suggest that when we met our first European, we already had the art form of wampum belt-making. Or that we had indigenous-made wampum beads ready to be woven into a belt. Maybe not. So, the real history doesn’t quite match this contemporary oral tradition that we love so much and hold so sacred and so dear. So, at some point scholars reacted to this plan of the celebration of 400 years since 1613. When 2012, 2013 came about, some scholars of New Netherlands — the Dutch colony — and some scholars that would have studied the archaeology of the Iroquois, got together and said this is not real history. This isn’t what’s reflected in the accepted and understood history of the Dutch. The timing isn’t right. The first contact with the Mohawks wasn’t in 1613, it was much later. There weren’t peaceful relationships between the Dutch and the Mohawks. In fact, it was pretty horrible and violent. In fact, the chief was murdered for even going near the Dutch. They emasculated him. It was horrible. So, where’s this “kumbaya” moment on the shores of Albany? There’s just no record of that. And furthermore — I’m kind of guilty of this too, because I weighed in on this so-called “debate” by writing an article to say — we don’t even actually have the oral tradition of the Haudenosaunee correct in this case.
If you go back in time and search the colonial record, you will find that, in the 1740s, an Onondaga chief was actually at a treaty in Pennsylvania and gave a speech where he described our story of first contact. And then four years later, you have Sir William Johnson (the Superintendent of Indian Affairs), who lived in Mohawk country by the way. He also records a speech where he is recounting what was taught to him by Haudenosaunee people about first contact. It matches almost word for word what the Onondaga chief had said in Pennsylvania. The metaphor used to describe it does have a ship, but the ship is tied to the shore with a rope, to a tree. And then the metaphor evolves, and it implies that we met the first Europeans at Albany and tied the ship to a tree. But then they say that we worried about the tree falling down or the rope rotting, so we replaced the rope with an iron chain that was tied around a rock on the shore. And then the iron chain began to rust, so they replaced it with a silver chain which was tied around the mountain. I know our metaphors are kind of crazy like that, but what it’s implying is that the European is always in a ship. He’s always tethered to the shore. As this relationship evolves, he’s temporal. He may decide to leave. We’re the thing tethering him to the shore. We’re the tree, and then we’re the rock on the shore. Then we’re the mountain. So, the relationship is between us as the ship and the tree. It’s a rope. It evolves. There’s more trade. Suddenly it’s an iron chain tied to the rock. Then the relationship becomes the silver covenant chain, tying the ship to the mountain, which symbolizes the Onondaga, the “People of the Hills.” It starts with the Mohawks and then it includes the other nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Not only that, but these same scholars believe that the Confederacy itself was a reaction to that incredible change. After European contact, we decided to solidify our friendship with the other Iroquoian tribes to the west of us because we sensed that the Europeans‘ relationship with the coastal tribes could be to our disadvantage there. If they’re getting new trade goods, weapons, axes, tomahawks, even arquebuses and muskets and things like that, we’re suddenly at a technological disadvantage to those other tribes. So, what actually emerged in that colonial period was an arms race. A technological change was upon us, and you simply had to get involved in European trade. There was no waiting it out, hiding out in the woods, and continuing to make clay pots and flint arrowheads and spear points. No, you had to get your hands on these new European goods. Sometimes it was the European goods that made it before European people because of those existing trading networks. The presence of Europeans inflamed those intertribal rivalries that we previously had. Now, that is not to say that we are always in the state of war with other groups. No, there’s evidence of extensive trading between the coastal tribes and the ones way into the interior, into the Great Lakes and beyond.
So those trading routes imply that there were peaceful relationships between the different groups, but they weren’t always peaceful. Archaeologists will tell you there’s evidence of wholesale slaughter and violence, but that’s only occasional. If there was constant warfare, there’d be no people anymore. There obviously was trade and movement. And so, the Europeans — with their industrialized pots and pans made of metal and their new firearms — they’re starting to change the balance of power. People were wise enough to say “We have to find out who these people are. We have to get to them and get involved in the trade.” So that’s why those Mohawks went to Albany and the Mohicans whispered into the Dutch’s ear, “Oh, those are the bad guys. Those are the bears. You don’t want to talk to those people. You better do something severe to keep them away.” That’s evidence of that rivalry, and the change of the balance of power has been suddenly shifted. That’s the real story of wampum and the colonial times. Our actual metaphor as evidenced by that Onondaga chief and Sir William Johnson, is the real story people told about European contact. It’s a completely different metaphor than the Indian in his canoe next to the sailing ship.
So that’s why I think it’s important for us to understand. It shows the foresight of our ancestors. They were hesitant, but they knew they had to get involved. It wasn’t a “kumbaya” moment where everybody’s sitting there, and we’re going to be brothers sailing side by side. To me, learning about the covenant chain metaphor and the original story of European contact suddenly makes the boat and canoe metaphor seem like a 20th century story, a newly created story. What it implies is that there’s a sense of equality between the native and the settler. Our ancestors did not see us as equals. I’m sorry, folks, but that is my conclusion. We saw the Europeans as temporal. If they didn’t live up to the principles that we were sharing with them, as embodied by the rope and the chains, we could unravel them and let them drift back to where they came from. So, it wasn’t a metaphor of people setting down roots. Nope. They’re in a boat. They can leave. I just reject the whole concept of where we’re sitting in a little canoe next to the ship, and somehow that’s equal. No, it’s starting to sound more and more like some kind of Boy Scout campfire tail, a more modern thing. And you have to understand that this story emerged after the Indian Act came in, after New York State imposed elected governments, after all the US laws that were trying to pull the rug out from under indigenous nations, make them citizens, and all those things. It’s a modern reaction to a very troublesome present. It’s looking back into the past and trying to find a little bit of equality in an unequal situation today. It’s looking at the past through rose-colored glasses in a sense.
When studying the literature, studying the documentation, you can actually see how the metaphor emerges. They invoked the metaphor of the boat and canoe in the late 1800s during speeches, but it wasn’t associated with a particular wampum belt until time went by. I believe it was Chief Jake Thomas, the late Cayuga Chief from Six Nations, and Roy Buck, who was also a chief. I’m pretty sure that is the gentleman’s name. Those two individuals really seized the opportunity to look and do the same kind of work I do, that of trying to connect real wampum belts with speeches in the colonial record. They did that work long before I even became aware of any of this stuff. This is like, you’re talking about maybe the 1960s, the 1970s. That reconstruction narrative did the same thing. They were looking for belts. They were looking for stories to try to rebuild and reconnect people to the past. And so, that’s what I think happened. It’s a natural process. I’m not saying, “Oh, Chief Jake Thomas was a liar and he made stuff up.” No, I do the same kind of thing. When I’m searching into the past, my mind is trying to connect the dots. It’s a natural human impulse. And maybe Jake Thomas just didn’t encounter the speech given by the Onondaga chief in the 1740s, or the words of Sir William Johnson.
But I do know for a fact that Jake Thomas embarked on a project to reconnect the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee — basically a written version of it that he found in the archives. And he was trying to say “Okay, we’re going to look at the known wampum belts and see which one might apply to which part of the Great Law.” There are several very large belts that have been returned to the Onondagas. One is called the Hiawatha Belt, the other is the Evergrowing Tree, and another is the Tadadaho Belt. Well, based on what was recorded about those belts, it’s pretty clear that they relate to the story of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the founding, which we call the Peacemaker Legend. What he did was say “Okay, well, these belts are undoubtably related to that.” But then he started looking for other belts that were known, that were being repatriated, so he could say “Well, maybe this one relates to this part of the Great Law.” It was basically him putting his best foot forward to say “We can probably connect the dots with these belts and with this story.” And there’s also evidence that some of the belts he was looking at may have had another story already. But he just decided, “No, if it’s our purpose, it’s better today if we call it this.”
So that’s kind of what I’ve been able to do in time, now that Jake Thomas has passed away. I think he died in the 90s. I’m not sure, maybe the early 2000s. I just can’t remember it offhand. But a lot of people are trying to pick up the same track and continue rebuilding the narrative. And so that’s what I’ve done. I looked at what he did, what others have done, and tried to sort through it all to reconnect people to the past. In 2013, when they planned the big 400th anniversary and sent the two rows of canoes down the Hudson River, it was a really big public event. But then those scholars stood up to say, “Well, we have our doubts that this is based on a real event.” And so, all it did was put the scholars at odds with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and various public speakers at the event. There had already been a little bit of a chasm between the scholars and the living Haudenosaunee because of previous disputes about history and the past. It just brought those divisions forward.
So, me being a history guy, I’ve committed myself to history and basically the past. I don’t feel my role is to confirm or go out and prove what our Haudenosaunee leaders or chiefs say about any particular aspect of the past. That’s their call. It’s their job to convey a particular position. As a person who descends from the Haudenosaunee and as a historian, I don’t feel like … that’s not really my purpose. There are other scholars out there who come from our communities and who feel that it’s their highest calling to go out and prove whatever the chiefs are saying about the past. I don’t feel that’s … I’m not required to do that. My obligation is to the real historical past: to find out what really went down; to understand why people say what they say today about the past; and to take all of that into account and try to come up with what probably happened. As the biblical scholar Bart Ehrman is fond of saying, “That’s what a historian is. Somebody who’s trying to determine — based on all the lines of evidence — what probably took place.” You can’t say for sure what actually did, because we can’t go back in time and look and verify, but you can say what probably did. And you have to use Occam’s razor and all those other things to show that what most likely happened is the real story.
TK Harvey – Yeah, I mean, historical interpretation certainly is not linear. And I do encourage folks to visit your website, The Wampum Chronicles. I thought we could bring the conversation to present day. As a collector yourself, I’m hopeful that you can shed a little light. And how would you describe the current relationship between indigenous communities and the private collectors and institutions that have wampum belts in their collections?
Darren Bonaparte – We know that a lot of wampum belts are still out there in the public realm. Private people own wampum belts that occasionally show up on the auction block, and they’re going for thousands and thousands of dollars. We try to put a stop to a lot of those auctions. And there are other museums that have wampum belts and usually people find out where they are. So for a while, there was a little bit of animosity between the native people and the museums and the collectors and stuff because they felt threatened by the fact that we were repatriating wampum belts. I think the New York State Museum in Albany, the Smithsonian, and various museums in New York City began to give collections of wampum belts back to the Confederacy starting in the late 1980s and even into the 1990s. It’s still going on. In fact, that’s one of the things I do as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. My job is to negotiate the return of not just wampum belts but human remains, ceremonial things. So, that’s an ongoing thing.
In fact, I’m working on three wampum belt repatriations at present, and I’m also involved with a big exhibit which originally started in France. A number of museums and organizations hosted a great big exhibit of wampum belts that were in France. Now those same wampum belts are back in North America. They’re at the Ganondagan Museum in western New York, South of Rochester. So they’re on display now. And then in October, those same wampum belts are going to travel to Montreal, Canada. The McCord Museum is going to have them on display for several months. I’m in contact with the curator, Jonathan Lainey. They’re going to have not just those belts from France, but also the McCord Museum’s collection of local wampum belts. Also, he’s engaged other museums across Canada, I think maybe even some private collectors, to have all of their belts brought out and put on display. With that amount of wampum belts on display at the McCord, Jonathan says that it is likely the biggest public display of wampum belts ever. I mean this is massive. It’s going to be the historical event of all time. Even in the colonial past there weren’t that many belts at any given council. This is going to be the most epic display, and hopefully the Haudenosaunee Confederacy will bring out their own collection of repatriated wampum belts. They bring those out for readings of the Great Law of Peace. Whenever there’s a big recital of the Great Law, they usually bring all of their repatriated belts, put them on tables, and let people come up and take a look. And it’s amazing to actually be in the presence of the Hiawatha Belt and all these 300-year-old belts. To be able to touch them with your own hands, it’s … oh my god, you can’t get a more “Indiana Jones” type moment. You can hear the choir of angels and it’s pretty impressive to see them for real.
TK Harvey – Do you see an emergence of real attention to this art form kind of happening in real time right now? In other words, where do you see the future of the wampum belt art form and diplomacy.
aparte – Well, to me, we’re living in the golden age of wampum. There was a past golden age for wampum, which I said ended in the early 1800s. But now we’re in a new era where the belts are coming back home and other belts are emerging from their hiding places to educate us, to entice us, to challenge us. And there’s another great thing. People are making real wampum beads again. You can go online. I think “Wampum Magic” is one of the websites where you can buy hundreds and hundreds of beads if you can afford it. It’s still pretty pricey and a lot of people are still using glass replica beads and beads made by hand. I’ve used these beads for my reproductions, and I’ve made about two dozen wampum replicas. I use handmade acrylic clay for the beads. I don’t make the beads myself. They were made by a lady named Tara Prendo Block. She was an archaeologist, and she made all these wonderful replica beads. So that’s what I’ve been using in my work when I go out and teach wampum to schools and stuff. I use those kind of replica beads. I can’t afford to have belts made of real quahog and whelk, but I do have a couple strings that I employ. I let people hold them in their hands and feel the real weight and polish of real wampum. And it always has that wonderful effect on people. So, we’re entering into a new era of wampum appreciation and availability.
Also, the late astronomer Carl Sagan — a long time ago when they were transmitting signals into outer space — devised a visual symbol which looks like a wampum belt to me. It was transmitted into outer space as a kind of greeting call to any alien civilizations out there. It was a binary code that was transmitted by the Arecibo Telescope into the heavens, and it created a deliberate pictograph that an intelligent society would be able to easily figure out. It was a representation of our solar system, and a human being was even woven into this image — not that it was actually woven. But that’s going to go on for millennia. The signal that we’re sending into outer space is a wampum belt that is going to transcend eternity, just like wampum was originally intended. And it connects us again to the cosmos that the purple and white represent.
TK Harvey – That’s a wonderful way to circle back to its origins. And how exciting for you to be a scholar, a creator, and a historian in this space as it’s emerging into a very timely narrative. I want to thank you so much for joining us today. I feel enlightened after having received a master class in the history of wampum, diplomacy, and creation. So thank you, Darren, very much for helping us and our audience understand this history more clearly.
Darren Bonaparte – It was my pleasure. Thank you very much for the opportunity.
TK Harvey – Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy in its many forms on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web page do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.