The Story of Wampum

What is Wampum?

Wampum is a contraction of the Algonquian word ‘wampumpeage’ (phonetically pronounced ‘wom pom pe ak’) or white shell beads.

Iroquois history states that Hayehwatha introduced the wampum. The wampum was sacred and used as an invitation and/or treaty, recording significant events.

Wampum are small tubular beads made of white or violet seashells. They were commonly strung into what are called “belts.” The contrast between the dark and light beads made patterns. These patterns had definite meanings, and their interpretation was an important task.

The Hayehwatha Belt

The Hayehwatha Belt symbolizes the unity of the five Iroquois Nations. The squares from left to right are: Mohawk, Onondaga (the tree; they are the wampum keepers), Cayuga and Seneca. The line between indicates alliance with the ends open to invite other nations to join.

The Origin of the Wampum

The story of the wampum is written in the book Concerning The League – The Iroquois League Tradition as Dictated by Chief John Arthur Gibson (and translated by Alexander A. Goldenweiser) in 1912.  The following is from that book:

The Death of the Three Daughters (Reference #1)

Concerning The League tells the story of Hayehwatha’s three daughters who had recently died (p.138).

“Now Hayéhwátha’s heart breaks. He decides to leave the settlement and await Tekánawita’s (Deganawidah) arrival at Standing Stone (a village). Approaching that settlement, Hayéhwátha sees a lean-to near a cornfield, and that is where he decides to spend the night. He lights a fire.

Then he takes sumac twigs, cores them, cuts them into short lengths, and strings them up. Producing several short strands. These he hangs on a horizontally suspended rod. Then he sits down, head bowed, gazing fixedly at the strings. (Author’s Note, p.xxiii: This is an early form of wampum).”

“A man who has been guarding the field (p.140) sees the smoke, goes to investigate, and then reports to the chief of the settlement, telling him about the visitor’s puzzling behavior. The chief sends two messengers to fetch Hayéhwátha. They address him three times, inviting him to the chief’s house, but Hayéhwátha does not answer. When they tell the chief what they have seen (p.145), the chief guesses what is expected of him, that is, he should use strings of objects similar to the ones Hayéhwátha has been gazing at, to communicate his invitation. He cuts the shafts from an assemblage of feathers, and strings them up, instructing the messengers that (p.147).

“the short strands are my words, and these will lead the man this way.” This time Hayéhwátha accepts the invitation, the messengers return to the settlement with the news, the chief calls a meeting of the inhabitants, and, shortly Hayéhwátha follows to participate in the meeting. (Authors Note: This episode explains the origin of the ‘invitation wampum’).”

The First Confederacy Council (Reference #2)

At the first meeting of the Confederacy Council procedures are outlined. The story states:

“At one point in the meeting the Seneca chiefs advise that Hayéhwátha be sent to summon two warrior chiefs before the council, because he has “the short strands which shall become our words”. (p.272 – that is, the invitation wampum). The suggestion is approved by the other nations, and then ratified by the Onondaga.”

The Great White Wampum (Reference #3)

Further in the meeting a great white wampum belt is discussed:

“Tekánawíta establishes the symbolism of the central hearth, that is, the Confederacy fire, ‘whose smoke will rise, the beautiful smoke, piercing the sky” (p.294). At the central fire, they will plant a tree – a great white pine tree – that will put forth white roots East, West, North and South. The tree will shade the chiefs as they sit on opposite sides of the council fire.

Near Thatotáho’s seat will be placed a great white mat, a large bird’s wing, and a rod suspended horizontally between two poles and used for wampum, all of these representing his power.

And each nation will contribute one arrow to form a single strong bundle bound together with the sinew of deer. So joined, the arrows represent the Confederacy’s solidarity.”

Author’s Note: (p.xxvii) In the Chief’s version the white mat represents a great white wampum belt, which “signifies purity and great peace”. In the Gibson-Hewitt version, Tekánawíta and Hayéhwátha themselves fashion these objects.

After The Council Meeting (Reference #4)

“On the way home, Hayéhwátha comes upon a lake. He sees ducks floating all over the surface of the water (p.236). When they notice him, they take off, and in doing so magically remove all of the water from the lake.

Hayéhwátha sees “white objects” (shells) which remind him of his string of feathers lying on the lakebed.

He collects them into a pouch made of fawn skin, deciding that these objects shall be placed near Thatotáho’s central fire and serve as reminders of the Great Law (the Confederacy).”

Author’s Note: (p.xxviii) In the Gibson-Hewitt version Tekánawíta directs Hayéhwátha to go to the lake, and foretells the events that will take place there. Hayéhwátha goes to the lake, picks up the shells, and returns with them to a place where Tekánawíta awaits his return.

Tekánawíta shows Hayéhwátha how to construct wampum belts from shells, and the two of them fashion the “great white mat” of the Confederacy. In this version, the shells Hayéhwátha finds are variously colored.”

The Council Meeting Resumes (Reference #5)

“Next Hayéhwátha reports on his discovery of the shells (p.345). He points out the similarity of the shells to the strings he used at … and at Seneca, where they served as invitations that “lead” persons to appointed meetings, and he presents them to the council.”

The Evidence of Wampum Belts

In an article by Howard McLellan, reprinted from The New York Times, June 7, 1925, he discusses eight wampum belts of the Six nations of the Iroquois, hidden from white men’s eyes since George Washington, that had been brought out of the “Long House” of Iroquois Council Fires on the Onondaga Indian reservation near Syracuse, N.Y.”

Regarding the wampum belt associated with Hayehwatha, Mr. McLellan states:

“The League of Nations, or Iroquois Confederacy Belt, begun in 1550, is the most ancient of the belts and a prize from the standpoint of the archaeologist. It records the world’s first League of Nations for peace established by Hiawatha, earliest chief of the Onondagas, whom tradition has raised to an Indian sainthood.”