Wampum – Early American Currency
Twenty years ago, if someone was looking for a piece of jewelry that was quintessentially American Indian, it would more than likely have featured turquoise and silver, a hallmark of western tribal artisans. An emerging trand toward wampum has eclipsed that notion in the last two decades, and the popularity of jewelry made with pieces of the purple and white shell from the quahog by eastern Native aritsans has soared.
Berta Welch, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe who has served as a Plimoth Plantation Overseer and on the Wampanoag Indigenous Program Advisory Committee for more than a decade, grew up working in her family’s gift shop on the top of the Gay Head Cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard. In recent years she has played an active role in hte wampum jewelry phenomenon. Thse days her family business can hardly keep up with orders for custom jewelry, but she can testify that for many years wampum was an unsung jewel of the sea.
She recalls gathering the chips of shell washed clean in the surf and sparkling in the summer sun as a young girl. But as beautiful as they were to her, there was little interest in them outside of the tribe and local beachcombers.
“It was only the Natives and people interested in history who knew what wampum was,” she says.
Used traditionally by the Iroquois and Algonquin tribes, including the Wampanoag, in ceremony, as adornment, and as a medium of trade, wampum has always been a significant part of the Native culture in the Northeast.
Historically, creating a single bead from the hard shell of the quahog-tedious and time-consuming, even with modern tools-was a considerable effort. White beads were more common than those made of the deep purple color found only at the hinge and very edge of the quahog shell making those beads rare and more valuable.
Wampum belts often worn by tribal leaders were designed to illustrate tribal stories and were considered a symbol of wealth and station. Strands of wampum would be worn as ornamentation or traded for commodities. As such, wampum became the earliest form of currency between Natives and European settlers in this country.
“The quahog has sustained our people culturally and nutritionally forever,” explains Berta, who pays homage to the ancestors and the quahog with every piece of jewelry she creates. “You can’t help but think about all of the gifted people who made these beads, and how important the quahog has been to our survival. We have really been blessed with this food staple that also provided us this precious shell.”
During the 1990s Berta recognized a surge in popularity for indigenous shell work and began to develop a unique style of jewelry that incorporates various types of shell, stone, and sea glass featuring wampum.
She became so renowned for her work that she was commissioned by the Smithsonian to craft a wampum-inlaid design that is featured in the woodword of the gift shops in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Berta’s entire family (including husband Vern, son Giles, and daughter Sophia) is involved in a small shop dedicated to jewelry crafting. The shop is attached to their island home.
Working with natural elements and in particular the quahog shell requires a lot of patience, says Berta. For every perfect bead there is one that split or failed to conform to its full artistic potential.
“Wampum really has a spirit to its own,” she says, and that is what makes it ultimately so rewarding.
As challenging as it is to work with, the quahog shell has one feature that lends itself quite easily to crafting jewelry. On either side of the hinge of the shell a mirror image of deep purple color merges, marbling into the whiteness. Each side is virtually identical.
“It is as if nature has given us a perfect set of matching earrings.”
While she still gets a few of her shells from strolls on the beach, Berta depends heavily on hte shell fishing efforts of tribal members for much of the raw material she needs to create earrings, bracelets and necklaces.
“That is definitely a part of the value of what we create. Anyone can go to a bead store, and buy machine-tooled shells and string them together, but that is not indigenous wampum. What Native people bring to the craft is a passion and respect for wampum we are born with. It’s an organic art.”
Paula Peters, Associate Director, Marketing and Public Relations, Plimoth Plantation,
Plantation Life, Volume 7, Number 1, 2008