Welcome back to “Best of Anything That Strikes Someone’s Fancy” series. This is from 2012. It’s a pleasure to welcome back author, storyteller, illustrator and poet Linda Boyden. She does it all and she does it all so very well.
Excerpt From “Giveaways, An ABC Book of Loanwords from the Americas”
©Linda Boyden 2010
W w Wampum
From Massachusett and Narragansett, wampumpeag
To English, wampum
The gift of wampumpeag, wampum, came from the Atlantic Ocean, from common seashells washed up on its shores. For thousands of years, the Massachusetts, the Narragansetts, the Pequots and other coastal Native nations collected them, much the same way that modern beachcombers do, but used them in different ways.
From the white, spiraled shells of the whelks and the dark purple eyespot of the quahog (Q page) the People made wampum. They broke, sanded, shaped and drilled the shells into beads, to be strung on twisted plant fibers or animal sinew. At first wampum was used for hair decorations or jewelry, and quickly became a popular trade item. Eventually, Native people near and far desired and depended on wampum.
By the 1600s when the first Europeans arrived, wampum was a well-established way for Native people to communicate and trade. Messages woven into the wampum’s designs helped people speaking different languages to understand each other and conduct business. The European settlers observed this complicated system and because they had a shortage of coins from their mother countries, decided to use wampum as money. However, they failed to understand that Native people considered wampum to be much more than currency.
The People of the Longhouse, the Haudenosaunee, (Iroquois) are six nations of the northeast woodlands: the Mohawk, the Cayuga, the Seneca, the Oneida, and the Onondaga, with the Tuscaroras joining later. They say that wampum was first brought to them thousands of years ago by a holy man called the Peacemaker and his follower, Ayonwatha, (Hiawatha). The Peacemaker asked the warring nations to consider peace and end the practice of cannibalism. He proposed that they still keep their own council fires, their Council of Chiefs and Clan Mothers, but in matters that affect all the nations they should act with “one mind.”
This first of its kind message, that nations work best separately but together, was woven on a thirty-eight rowed purple and white wampum belt known as the Hiawatha Belt. It is estimated to be at least 4,500 years old. The heart-shaped symbol in the center represents the Great Tree of Peace or the central nation, the Onondaga. Surrounding it are four white squares to represent other member nations. The belt’s story, like hundreds of other wampum message belts, was read and still may be read by those trained to memorize the story within the beads. The Hiawatha Belt’s opening words, “We the People…” influenced the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who penned those words into the Preamble of the United States Constitution.
(From the glossary/acknowledgements section at the back of the book)
Wampum According to the American Heritage Dictionary, one meaning of the word, book is, “something regarded as a source of knowledge or understanding.” In this sense, wampum belts should be considered one of the world’s first kinds of books. Besides the sacred meaning of wampum described on the W page, American Indians used wampum belts and strings primarily for diplomatic purposes, helping nations to come to collective agreements. After Europeans settled in America, they were at a loss for currency, so for them wampum became a type of money. Soon, factories were started to mass-produce it. According to http://www.us-coin-values-advisor.com in its section on the history of U.S. coins, wampum in the Colonial Period could be used to pay your Commonwealth of Massachusetts taxes or attend Harvard University.