Published on August 25, 2014 by Amy
Wampum belts are belts made from wampum, or shell beads traditionally crafted by the Eastern Woodlands tribes. Wampum are made from purple and white mollusk shells that have been fashioned into barrel shapes. Native Americans have used wampum belts for ceremonial or ornamental use for centuries, and they remain popular to this day.
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The word “wampum” comes from a Narragansett word meaning “white shell beads”. White wampum beads come from the Whelk shell, while purple beads are made from growth rings of the Quahog shell. These shells could be found along the coast of New England, as well as on the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern coasts of the United States.
Wampum were highly valuable to Native Americans, partially because simply obtaining shells to create the beads was an arduous task with their stone drill bits. The shells were brittle and hard, so the process of fashioning the bead was equally as difficult; bead makers would break the shells into white or purple cubes and clamp them together. A stone or reed drill was then used to bore a hole into the cube. They strung the beads on a thread, and ground them against a smooth stone to shape and smooth the beads.
Native Americans used wampum beads to create intricate patterns on belts. White wampum was the emblem of health, purity and peace. Purple and black wampum had more serious implications, such as distress or hostility. Native Americans would use the symbolism behind the beads to create meaningful designs. So, for example, a belt with a purple background with white designs and border could indicate a hostile relationship that turned peaceful. The patterns would also narrate history, laws or traditions, or they could simply serve as decorative patterns. A belt painted red with vermillion or red ochre was sent as a summons for war.
Belts consisted of rows of beads woven together. Although a loom could be helpful in assembling the belts, it wasn’t necessary; Native Americans would often employ the ancient tradition of finger weaving, in which one end was anchored and the other was left free to weave the elements into the belt. The weavers would string beads onto plant fibers, such as milkweed, velvet leaf or toad flax, which were twisted into fine threads. The threaded beads were secured to animal sinew or a leather thong warp.