March 1991

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Wampum and Bones


Robert G. Koch

Wampum and the bones of American Indians are in the news in our region, and elsewhere. American Indian voices are raising troubling issues about the care and handling of both, as they point out that wampum is more than fetchingly woven beads, that archaeology and grave robbing are sometimes confused, and that "land," the surface of the earth, is understood differently by Indians and the land "owners" and developers who have replaced them.

Before East Coast Indians acquired metal awls from European settlers, the white and dark purple beads woven into wampum designs were shaped and drilled from seashells through patient, laborious use of sharp stones. White beads were fashioned from the inside of conch shells and the dark beads from a hard-shell clam, the quahog. The dark beads bore a higher value than the white. Since the raw materials for both came from the sea, inland tribes often traveled hundreds of miles to trade pelts or other valuables for the beads. European metal awls and porcelain beads—probably vastly overpriced—"modernized" the wampum bead craft industry.

Wampum designs had definite denotations and additional connotations of great importance to the various tribes or nations. Strings and belts; necklaces, collars, and bracelets were decorative but also served as credentials and indicators of status or function. While average wampum belts might have upwards of a thousand beads, larger belts—as much as six feet long— contained a few to several times that many. One treaty belt needed about 7,000 beads to record its visual text.

At issue today in the care and handling of wampum belts are both the connotative messages greatly treasured by Indians and the records of treaties, alliances and other events of importance to the Indian nations.

The New York Times has reported agreement to return to the Onondagas 12 such archival wampum belts that have been in the New York State Museum since 1898. One belt—about 11 inches wide and 25 inches long—"reflects the formation of the [Iroquois] confederacy" over 500 years ago. "[It] shows two white squares on each side of a white tree against a background of purple...For the Iroquois, the white beads had a positive connotation, like peace, love and friendship...while the purple beads signified death, war and suffering."

An Onondaga spokesman said, 'The negative background is trying to say we must think of the dark times before the Peace Maker [Daganawida] came, times of war, death and suffering. The tree in the middle represents the Onondagas and peace. The two white squares on each side represent geographically from left to right the Senecas, Cayugas, Oneidas and Mohawks, tied together by white beads.

"It shows they are independent but tied together, just like the Federal Government of the United State[s] and the states. It's the same tradition, but we had it first."

When an Iroquois chief died, wampum was used in the elaborate funeral ceremonies, which served to "requicken" the stricken mourners. In 1851 Henry Lewis Morgan also wrote of the journey back from grief. "A beautiful custom prevailed in ancient times, of capturing a bird, and freeing it over the grave on the evening of the burial, to bear away the spirit to its heavenly rest." So, death and proper burial were highly important to the Indians, long before the current controversies.

Poorly provided for, the deceased often proved restless, even dangerous, spirits. Indians wished to be buried near loved ones and, until that time, to continue living on the land in which those loved ones were interred. As one Seneca chief responded when removal from ancestral land was suggested: "We can not go to the west and leave the graves of our fathers to the care of strangers. The clods would lie heavily on our bosom in that distant country should we do it."

And a missionary working among the Senecas a century and a half ago wrote: "The feeling of reverence for the graves of their ancestors is universal among them. Tis a national trait." He also reported that, "Mothers often visited the graves of their children and noticed the least change in the appearance of the enshrouding earth; sometimes they identified the spot of an unmarked grave after years of absence."

It is against this background of practice and belief that we begin to understand the great stirrings that have finally moved the Smithsonian Institution toward first tentative steps to return to modem tribal descendants some of the nearly 19,000 American Indian remains in its collection. Or closer to home, Peter Jemison, a member of the Seneca nation and manager of the Seneca village site at Ganondagan in Victor, has made strong efforts to prevent residential development on another site in Mendon. State laws do not protect such village sites, with their associated burial grounds, so the decision rests with town boards.

Jemison was quoted as saying, "Imagine the stink that would be raised if I came in and wanted to put up condominiums in Mt. Hope Cemetery. I'd be run out of town.

"So why is what I am fighting for less important than that?"

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
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