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.
This is Part 2 of the overview of my summer fieldwork as a team member of the On the Wampum Trail project. At the Saint Regis Mohawk community in Akwesasne, New York, I had the opportunity to witness Haudenosaunee community engagement with wampum during the Recital of the Great Law of Peace (Kaianerasere’Kówa).[i]
Over the course of five days, each morning, with Tim Horton’s coffees in hand, more than 500 Haudenosaunee people gathered in the old IGA building across the street from the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino. There were elders, children, babies, women, and men present from Haudenosaunee communities across the continent, including Wisconsin, Ontario, Oklahoma, Quebec, and New York State. I soon learned that my 7-hour drive up from Philadelphia was nothing more than average. We were all there to attend the Recital of the Great Law of Peace—the oral history of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy, which describes the events and interactions that inspired the Haudenosaunee philosophy of peace, power, and a good mind. At this event, the Great Law was recited from memory in several of the Haudenosaunee languages (including Oneida, Mohawk, and Onondaga) in increments over the course of several days. This recital included periodic English translations, since the audience was comprised of speakers of several different Iroquoian languages with varying degrees of fluency.
Eight, sometimes nine, male speakers (including chiefs and interpreters) sat together on a central stage. Behind them, hanging high on the wall was a large representation of the Hiawatha Belt in cloth with colors reversed; the belt represents the founding of the original Haudenosaunee Confederacy and depicts the Five Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk) linked together in peace. Today, the Confederacy includes Six Nations; the Tuscarora nation was included during the 1720s. Hanging over the stage backdrop were 28 wampum belts made by master wampum weaver Ken Maracle, representing[ii] historic wampum belts. The term “belt” is a bit of a misnomer, since these objects serve no functional clothing purpose; instead, they serve as message holders for the Haudenosaunee. The designs woven into these wampum belts carry messages for the people, representing words that speak to their histories and to their futures. As one person I spoke with stated, “WE put the words in them.”
Sixteen historic wampum belts were prominently displayed on two long tables just in front of the stage—placed where the words of the Great Law literally flowed over their surfaces. These were the wampum belts that, after many years of effort, had been repatriated during the late 1980s and 1990s. They were returned from the collections of the New York State Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Museum of the American Indian (now the National Museum of the American Indian). They traveled long distances in the hands of wampum keepers from various communities to be present at this event, surrounded by the people that put the words into their very bodies. Included on the table was perhaps the most recognizable wampum belt of all, the Hiawatha Belt itself.
The Hiawatha Belt has passed through the hands of many generations of Haudenosaunee, and its physical condition shows evidence of that use over a very long period of time. A mix of older and newer beads signal repair, the variety in the warps and wefts also suggests repeated repairs, a greasy sheen along the edge warps and ends are the recognizable trace of body oils being deposited from handling, and various stabilizations to areas of loss suggest more recent preservation tactics. Its condition reveals the meticulous attention paid to its care.[iii]
For nearly a century, the Hiawatha Belt and other Haudenosaunee wampum objects were cared for by the collections managers and curators of the New York State Museum (NYSM). The institution had once been appointed as an official wampum-keeper, with the goal being that the museum would help recover wampum that disappeared during the generations consumed by land loss, boarding schools, relocations, and other governmental attempts at cultural assimilation. But if it were ever a beneficial arrangement, it had outlasted its necessity. During the 1970s, the movement to recover cultural traditions and strengthen Native communities not only included gaining access to basic human rights, but also regaining access to the material culture that embodied those very traditions.[iv] By the 1980s, discussions about the relationships between museums and Native communities increasingly focused on issues of representation and ownership; in New York State, those discussions emphasized the importance of reclaiming wampum belts that belonged, not to any museum or individual, but to the Nations. The repatriation process that became formalized in 1990 with the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act[v] in the end, used “the wampum belts of the Iroquois” as iconic examples of items of cultural patrimony.
Each afternoon, after hours of listening quietly to recitations and translations, we divided into smaller groups for decolonization workshops led by community educators Bob Antone, Howard Elijah, Richard W. Hill, Sr., Ken Maracle, and Leroy Hill. As a visitor, these workshops were a reminder that this was not a passive event, but that its participants were actively taking in, and taking on, the philosophy and responsibilities of the Great Law. Two full afternoons focused on wampum, including anecdotes about making and weaving wampum beads, histories of individual belts, and a call for community members to share in knowledge gathering and engage with wampum traditions.
Attending the Recital provided an amazing opportunity to experience contemporary wampum practice at an event at which wampum has been a central component since its conception. Furthermore, I was able to speak with Faithkeepers who had worked toward and been present at the famous 1989 NYSM repatriation and the homecoming events at Onondaga following their return. Other elders described memories of recitals that had happened over the past 40 or more years. And others I spoke with expressed innovative plans for future recitals that aligned with language preservation efforts, traditional knowledge sharing, Six Nations histories, and community-building workshops. The Haudenosaunee people that I met at this recital were active and savvy participants in what has been a very long process of cultural continuity and survivance.
This trip helped to reinforce, for me, that the On the Wampum Trail project is not just a project about wampum, but is part of a much larger framework that seeks to indigenize scholarship and deconstruct colonial systems: an effort that speaks to the heart of indigenous sovereignty through revitalization projects, repatriation, the deconstruction of academic authority, and the re-imagining of indigenous representations.
I would like to thank the Penn Museum for funding this fieldwork and to Dr. Bruchac for her continued advisement. I would also like to thank the individuals who welcomed and fed me as though I were kin. Additionally, I am grateful to Christine Abrams and Marlene Doxtater for reviewing the content of this post. I look forward to continuing to practice and develop decolonizing methodologies and to learning more from the people who put words into wampum.
[i] Additional resources on the Recital of the Great Law:
[ii] The term “representing” here is not meant to dilute the significance of these belts. Christine Abrams, of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation and member of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee elaborates: “A wampum belt [should not] be seen as just a beaded belt with a design, but that it represents words, a message. That is why we see the belts as living, thus sacred items. Yes, the designs are there to represent the message, as a guide to remind the speaker as to what had transpired to create this beaded document. The message remains to pass on to future generations” (Abrams, personal communication, September 8, 2015).
[iii] For a detailed analysis of the Hiawatha Belt, see Dr. Bruchac’s forthcoming post, “Seeing through the Glass Bead in the Hiawatha Belt.”
[iv] To read more about the 1989 NYSM repatriations see this article: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/13/nyregion/new-york-returning-wampum-belts-to-onondagas.html