Wampum’s Spirituality

Written By: Paul  Hunter

The manufacture of wampum was isolated to the Atlantic shore tribes from Rhode Island to Virginia, but its discovery by the Dutch made local wampum famous.  The very best quality was produced on Gardiners Island and along the shores of Peconic Bay right here on Long Island.  Even the Indians of New England preferred local shell adornment to their own.  We will consider only one aspect of its significance – how it was primarily perceived by the indigenous people who created it with the greatest care.  Almost all local wampum was traded upstate to the Iroquois.

When beginning my research I had no idea of the complexity of the topic.  Others have written about how wampum was made, how it was used as personal adornment, and its conversion to currency by the Dutch.  But I discovered that the “culture gap” makes telling this little known aspect of wampum almost an impossibility.  Now I understand why so little can be found in resource material about the authentic native perception of it.  One really does need to be an Indian to perceive it from an ethnic perspective.

I claim no particular expertise on this subject.  Rather I am forced to rely on human intuition to attempt this daunting task.  And I must also rely on your patience and your own intuition in the hope that this story conveys a new understanding about wampum’s significance in the Native American Culture.

One must be either a religious person or be able to suspend one’s personal prejudice against religion if the following concepts are to be understood.  So much depends upon psychological and philosophical truths, that without them, no understanding will be possible.  “For believers, no explanation is needed – for unbelievers, no explanation is possible”.

There resides in all humanity an unfulfilled longing which seems never to be completely satisfied by anything we can do in this life.  So powerful is it that we still insist on some form of belief system to explain what is beyond our power to comprehend.  Paradoxically, both religion and science investigate such truths, and may eventually meet on the path of knowledge which seems to be a circular one.  Nuclear physicists have found an end to matter in their investigation of the sub-atomic particles.  They simply call it “energy”.

Energy can be understood in two ways:  spiritual or immaterial.  We speak loosely of such when we talk about “energizing ourselves”, “recharging our batteries”, “attitude adjustments”.  In other words, we speak in figurative language which is actually spiritual language.  We do not put our finger into a light socket to “energize” ourselves or “recharge our batteries”, or recalibrate some inner gauge to adjust our attitude.  By such use of language we admit of immaterial existence which we can name energy or spirituality.  Neither is composed of matter.

Apply this awareness to how a native mind might also perceive this.  They were no less aware of things immaterial.  While they had no science or Scripture to explain many things in the universe, or daily life, their longing to know was as keen as ours is.  So by their own intuition, they invented a somewhat authentic belief system which assigned power to almost every object in creation.  They called it by our English word “medicine” after they understood its meaning.  Very few Europeans, especially missionaries, took the time to investigate the realities of native spirituality.  “A rose by any other name is still a rose”.  Native spirituality was not all that far removed from our religious concepts despite some anomalies.

Like the Greeks, Indians assigned many human characteristics to their gods, yet there remained the need to find explanation for those phenomenon which exceeded both the mind and the physical power of humans to master.  They had no choice but to empower some force to be supreme.  Whatever name they gave that supreme power – “Great Spirit”, “Manitou”, “Wakantankan” – is of no great significance.  A rose is a rose and a God is a God.  They arrived at an ultimate truth.

Further, the native mind believed that all things possess a life force of its own – even a kind of intellect whereby they could bargain with natural law.  Without science, the names they chose to identify all the effects of nature were arbitrary.  But generally, each power they encountered was assigned to a god or a sub-diety.  Around this perception they built a ritual belief system wherein sacrifice, dance, music, prayer, and liturgy were involved.  They simply invented religion.  And along with religious thought – hand in hand – goes spiritual thought as well.  For what is religion or spirituality without some kind of faith in things unseen?

But not only did they assign effects to a system of belief in god(s), they also assigned to things rank and order.  Some things were greater than others depending upon their usefulness or support they gave to the lives of the people.  For us, money has power, but money is metal or paper.  It’s value is the trust we put in it.  Without our faith in money, it’s worthless.  The same is true of a belief system.  This begins to sound like humans invent gods.  Rather by our own human intellect we suspect there are such things, and at some point in history, monotheists met One who claimed supremacy over creation.  The Native belief system was getting there but needed the experience of monotheists to put the right spin on it.

Among all the things in creation are seashells.  Who would believe that seashells had power?  Yet if gold fascinates us, why not seashells in a native culture.  But while we will allow the Indian his favorite shell, some explanation is absolutely essential if we are to understand wampum.  And which shell most fascinated our local Indians?  The whelk.  And what’s so special about a whelk?  It’s mythology.  What happened to spirituality?  Nothing.  Mythology and spirituality are a marriage of concepts entwined so tightly they cannot be separated.  Mythology is the story of spiritual reality.  There are many spiritualities and therefore there are many myths.

The mythology of wampum arises from the accumulation of different spiritualities in the shell, the artisans, and the ultimate reality for wampum, the ceremonial belt.  In native ethnicity, reality is perceived as the truth.  Whatever exists is true in itself.  And reflects some truth about its maker.  Its design speaks about a power it possesses over man.  In the case of the whelk, its double helix  configuration suggests its mythology.  Truth hidden within.  The interior core spiral represents a circle in motion simultaneously traveling in opposite directions while also moving in one direction.  This is the stuff of mythological mysticism.. Mysticism is hidden religious truth.  Like a snowball rolling down a long hill, its power increases.  Likewise wampum’s power increased in proportion to its accumulated realities just considered above.  Blended with some as yet unknown ethnicity which died with the native culture, wampum came to symbolize truth much as Sacred Scripture does for contemporary believers.  If an orator was draped in wampum belts it was as if he had taken an oath on the Bible to tell the truth.

The gathering together of thousands of wampum beads woven into a small tapestry was the same as calling up witnesses in a court trial to testify to the truth.  No sincere Indian would contradict wampum or the belt.  They were sacred realities – and still are among many Native Americans today.

Wampum’s evolution into a totem of truth culminated with its use in the Iroquois Ceremonial Wampum Belt.  This belt had existed for a long time in the Native culture. Thousands of them were created, but only a few still exist.  They were not always called wampum belts, simply because until the widespread use of wampum, they were made of short segments of quills from feathers and porcupines, and perhaps even short wooden tubes.  The changeover to wampum testifies to its greater significance.

The belt is a new mystery.  Its origins are lost.  How it came to be regarded as an icon may lie in its known use as a mnemonic device, a symbol of the power of the word spoken over beads endowing the belt with a truth that could never be broken as long as the belt remained and an Indian was still alive who knew the story of the belt.  The physical belt remained all that wampum was.  But once the belt was “spoken” in a tribal ceremony, it acquired yet another reality or truth, namely the literary narrative imparted to it by the tribal elder.  Indians thereafter could recite the belt verbatim.  However, the belt itself had only its design whose meaning was lost if no Indian remained who knew its story.  The spirituality of the belt was two realities – the wampum and the story.  The story was true because wampum was true.  No other native reality received such credibility.  The Indians tried to get the white man to submit to the truth of the belt, but none were willing, either to keep the truce or learn the belt.  Indians could never understand the white man’s lies.  For an Indian, reality and truth were synonymous.  If someone lied it was a denial of reality.  To the Indian this behavior was a type of insanity.  How can anyone deny reality, and still claim to be sane.  The Indians were mystics.