The Use of Wampum Belts
Otgoä (wampum) is a vital part of Haudenosaunee culture. Wampum are shell beads that are created from whelk and quahog clam shells. The brittle pieces are rounded, sanded, and drilled to make a bead. Because of the effort that is needed to make a bead, wampum is highly valued.
Wampum has many uses including that of using it as an adornment, it is used for jewelry and added to clothing and accessories. Another of the uses is to verify truth; when a string of wampum is held in a person’s hand, it conveys that they are speaking truthfully. An extension of this is that strings of wampum are used to invite nations to council meetings and to symbolize titles within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Every Chief and Clan Mother in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has a string or strings of wampum that serves as a certificate of their office. When a leader falls, the wampum representing their title and authority is passed on to their successor.
Wampum is also thought of as a living record of the Haudenosaunee. When woven into a belt, wampum was used to represent the treaty or agreement made between nations. The speaker puts the words of the agreement into the wampum as the strings or belts are woven together. Each speaker thereafter uses the wampum to remember the initial agreement and the history that has happened to date. For the Haudenosaunee the belts are our living history.
In this video, founding Site Manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site, Peter Jemison (Seneca, Heron Clan), explains the meaning of three wampum belts. The Hiawatha belt represents the peace of the five original Haudenosaunee Nations. The Two Row belt represents the peace between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Dutch in 1613. This belt served as the basis of which all other treaties between the Haudenosaunee and European and American governments were made, today it serves as a reminder of Haudenosaunee sovereignty. And the Canandaigua Treaty belt, also known as the George Washington belt, which represents the peace agreement between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the United States made in 1794.
To learn more about the Ganondagan State Historic Site, visit their website here.