Of Words and Matter: Glass Wampum

July 14, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

Student Report from the Wampum Trail
by Sarah Parkinson

Since leaving for the “wampum trail” I have been thinking a lot about words and the weight that they carry, especially in relation to glass bead wampum. First, I am interested in the written word and its productive effect—how words produce real change, and why this matters. The way we write about glass wampum (or any substance) changes the way we think about it, and this affects our interpretations. Second, I am interested in spoken words as they intersect with written words in wampum belts.

Penn students Sarah Parkinson (left) and Stephanie Mach (right) meet with Richard W. Hill Jr. (Tuscarora), Coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic, Ohsweken, Ontario.
Penn students Sarah Parkinson (left) and Stephanie Mach (right) meet with Richard W. Hill Jr. (Tuscarora), Coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge Centre in Ohsweken, Ontario. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Although wampum is traditionally made from shell beads, we have found belts in museum collections that include glass beads mixed with shell, as well as many belts that are entirely made of glass beads. Given the time and effort that goes into constructing a belt, the careful designs and contexts in which glass bead belts have been found, I find it unlikely that these belts are insignificant. However, before considering what glass beads may signify, it is important to consider how they are talked about—the discourse surrounding them.

It is important to understand the productive power of speech. Although it seems natural that words are connected to any given idea or thing, language is heavily influenced by culture. Words do not necessarily flow from our mouths as neutral, apolitical, disinterested speech. Any given term comes with a long history of literature and discourse, and the associations that people have with that term. What happens when fraught terms are used indiscriminately?

For example, there are two basic terms for wampum beads: shell and glass. These are routinely attached to different values: traditional/real and fake/imitation. In relation to glass bead wampum, what is the difference between imitation and fake? In museum collections, I have seen curators refer to glass bead wampum in a variety of ways. Some museums categorize it in a group of its own, distinct from traditional shell bead wampum. This includes storing it separately and requiring that researchers make a separate request if they wish to examine it. Other museums include glass bead wampum in with their shell bead collections. Most museums label it as imitation or fake. Although these categories may seem inconsequential, I would suggest that the nuances of how we categorize and talk about glass bead wampum have profound effects in terms of its perceived significance.

Stephanie Mach shining a light through the glass belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary. Photo by Lise Puyo.
Examining a glass belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary. Photograph by Lise Puyo.

Some scholars speak about glass wampum based on the assumption that it is insignificant; that it was never used in ceremonies and that it is simply a fake version of the real thing. In our research, however, we have found evidence that suggests otherwise. There are many glass bead belts that have been found in burials, which in itself indicates its significance. In ethnographic belts, glass wampum beads were sometimes used as a stand in for shell beads, and imbued with the same meaning as “the real thing.” By speaking about glass wampum as fake and insignificant, scholars degrade it to a lesser category, one that negates the possibility of it being culturally significant. The more that these scholars cross-reference themselves, and the more that museum categories fail to address the significance of glass wampum, the more this assertion is perceived as true. I suggest that this perceived truth is based on a fraught assumption that persists despite historical and cultural realities that suggest the possible significance of glass beads. As a result, glass wampum is deprived of the attention that it may deserve. In order to undo this, we must write and speak about glass wampum more accurately, avoiding fraught terms such as “real” and “fake” and “insignificant” and “authentic” until we can back them up.

As I thought about the discourse surrounding wampum, I increasingly realized the relevance of the intersection between written and spoken words. Words are spoken into wampum belts so that messages can be recorded and transmitted across time and space. After their messages are communicated and used for a time, some wampum belts are re-purposed, their messages altered in order to adapt to changing situations. Belts are meant to signal ongoing relationships amongst individuals in Native groups, and between Native nations and colonial entities. Like all functional relationships, these require the ongoing presence of living people who can negotiate and interact with one another. Written agreements are intended to be permanent and constrained by strictly defined words. They can function in the absence of living people. Therefore, their words can be “spoken” without any real ongoing relationship, and these dead voices can begin to speak louder than the living, often to the detriment of the people they speak about. In contrast, wampum belts remain relevant to communities because of their ability to adapt meaning to fit the needs of a living relationship. I suggest that wampum belts can be understood as a crossroads between written and spoken words. Like written documents, wampum belts can be fixed records of history (in some instances), but they are also dependent on oral communication in order to adapt to changing situations.

Detail of mid-18th century wampum belt showing the inclusion of a single blue glass bead in the original weave of shell wampum beads. Photograph by Lise Puyo.
Detail of mid-18th century wampum belt showing a single blue glass bead in the original weave of shell wampum beads. Photograph by Lise Puyo.

Collectors put objects in museums so that they will stay put; so they are saved from the shifting times and all of the messiness that might imply. It seems that this also applies to the knowledge that museums hold; once objects are labeled as “real” or “imitation,” museums are reluctant to change their thinking. Academic discourse surrounding wampum functions in much the same way—the more that scholars build a discourse surrounding glass wampum based on the assumption that it is insignificant, the more ingrained this idea becomes, producing the illusion of truth. Wampum, as ritual complex, is meant to sustain ongoing relationships between living people. These relationships require more words to be spoken. Yet, in their current state, museums and academic discourse tend to operate in ways that run contrary to the essence of wampum.

The way we write and speak about wampum matters. As we all play a part in shaping the discourse surrounding glass wampum, it is absolutely critical to avoid charged terms that might contribute to a pejorative understanding of it without closely considering their consequences. What are the implications of “imitation?” “Fake?” “Insignificant?” Because museums and academia are perceived as authoritative sources, they strongly influence the discourse surrounding glass wampum. This influence can overshadow Native voices in speaking about wampum and its continued relevance. There is a profound difference between speaking for and speaking about a Native group, and the conversation about wampum should not turn into a contest over whose voice is louder. Perhaps most importantly, we should listen to Native people as they continue the conversation surrounding wampum in a way that makes sense for their current needs, as the essence of wampum discourse seems to encourage.

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For more information on this project, see the Wampum Trail Research Blog and Wampum Trail Facebook page