Wampum beads

Woven Words: Cultural Significance of Wampum

What is wampum?

Wampum is made from various sea shells.

The word wampum is not a Haudenosaunee word. It is a  shortened form of wampumpeag or wampumpeake, an Algonquian word of southern New England origin meaning a string of white shell beads. In the 17th century Dutch colony of New Netherland these shell beads were also known as sewant or zewant, derived from a Narragansett Algonquian term.

White wampum beads were made principally from the central spiraled columella of periwinkles, knobbed whelks (Busycon carica), and channeled whelks (Busycon canaliculatum). Dark purple beads were manufactured solely from the dark purple spot of the hard clam, or northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria).

(Source: George R. Hamell, New York State Museum, Albany, New York)

Both of these shell animals lived along the Atlantic coast and not in Haudenosaunee territory.  The Algonquin peoples who lived in these areas supplied the Haudenosaunee and other  Native peoples with “wampompeag” (or wampum) in exchange for flint, furs, and other items that were more plentiful in their regions.   

The archaeological record shows that shell beads were used for earrings, necklaces, and other forms of decoration by Native people long before the Formation of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Later, it was used by American Colonists as a form of currency.  But, to the Haudenosaunee wampum is  sacred.  Most date its sacred origins to the story of Aiionwatha (Hiawatha).  Grieving the loss of his family and his failure to bring unity to his people, Aiionwatha discovered fresh water clam shells in a dry lake bed.  He strung the shells together and used the strands to carry a message of healing. According to Haudenosaunee tradition, The Peacemaker also used  wampum to break down the resistance of the evil Tadodaho or Atotarho’, which allowed a new peace to flourish. 

How was it made?

Making wampum beads was difficult and took a lot of skill.  The shell was first broken into small blocks.  A stone or reed drill was used to create a hole in the block.  The block would be drilled half way through and then turned over to drill through the other side.  The blocks were then ground into tubular shapes by rolling or rubbing them against a stone.  Later in history, iron drills replaced stone drills but the process was still very challenging.  Finished beads were then strung on plant fibers or sinew. 

(Source: Learning longhouse,

Overview of Wampum

Bound on strings, beads were used to create intricate patterns on belts. These belts are used as a guide to narrate Haudenosaunee history, traditions and laws, The origins of wampum beads can be traced to Aiionwatha, commonly known as Hiawatha at the founding of the League of Five Nations. Archeological study however, has found it to have been used long before the union of the nations.

Most commonly made from the Quahog, a round clam shell, the word wampum comes from the Algonquin term for the shells. While it is called Ote-ko-a in the language, wampum is the most widely recognized term.

The process of making the wampum beads is arduous.  Once  acquired, the shell was broken into white or purple cubes. White wampum signifying peace while purple relates messages of more  serious or political matters. The cubes were clamped and a stone or reed drill was used to bore into the cube. Later, as technology  advanced, iron drills were used. Droplets of water prevented the drill’s friction from heating up and breaking the cube. A hole was drilled halfway through and then reversed and drilled from the  opposite side. In order to shape and smooth the beads they were strung on lengths of thread and ground against a grooved stone. Through this process wampum beads, long cylindrical beads about ¼” long and 1/8” in diameter, were created.

The use of wampum beads has been much debated throughout the years with many claiming that Aboriginal people used the beads as currency. Historians however have proved that it was first used as currency by the American colonists. For the Haudenosaunee,  wampum held a more sacred use. Wampum served as a person’s  credentials or a certificate of authority. It was used for official  purposes and religious ceremonies and in the case of the joining of the League of Nations was used as a way to bind peace. Every Chief of the Confederacy and every Clan Mother has a certain string or strings of Wampum that serves as their certificate of office. When they pass on or are removed from their station the string will then pass on to the new leader. Runners carrying messages would not be taken seriously without first presenting the wampum showing that they had the authority to carry the message.

As a method of recording and an aid in narrating, Haudenosaunee warriors with exceptional skills were provided training in interpreting the wampum belts. As the Keepers of the Central Fire the Onondaga Nation was also trusted with the task of keeping all wampum records. To this day wampum is still used in the ceremony of raising up a new chief and in the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving ceremonies. True wampum is scarce today and only wampum strings are used. Many belts have been lost or are in museums to this day.