On the Rail to the Wampum Trail

May 26, 2015

May 12, 2015

Amtrak Train to Springfield, MA – Sarah Parkinson

Photo from the Vermonter Line
Photo from the Vermonter Line – Sarah Parkinson

This morning, I boarded an Amtrak train on its way to Springfield, Massachusetts. From there, I will start my three week journey with the “On the Wampum Trail” team to research wampum in museum collections throughout the Northeast and Canada. There’s something about being on a train that makes me want to write, something about the constant motion and the way the scenery passes you by without giving you a second thought. What better way to get my own thoughts in order?

Wampum belts have been used by Northeastern Native Americans to mark important events, record agreements between tribes and with colonists, and to communicate messages between geographically separated tribes. These belts traditionally consist of white whelk and purple quahog shell beads, arranged in such a way that the light and dark beads signify meaning through a semiotics of dichotomy. By means of complex historical events, many wampum belts have now left Native hands and landed in museums.

“On the Wampum Trail” is headed by Dr. Margaret Bruchac, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. For this field trip, I’ll be traveling with Zhenia Bemko and Stephanie Mach, undergraduate and graduate students in Anthropology. Our project seeks to closely examine wampum in museum collections, paying close attention to the materiality, construction methods, and any small detail that may give us a clue about the object’s life both inside the museum and out. Along with close object analysis, we will also track object histories through a process which we call restorative methodologies. By investigating the history of wampum collection and curation, we hope to gain insight about rich object histories, provenance, and respectful curatorial practices.

Some “wampum” belts in museums contain glass beads; several are even entirely constructed from glass beads. This variation in materiality may seem accidental at first, but I suggest that the use of glass wampum in belts is intentional, since it seems to signify something that is absent from traditional beads. During this field project, I will be focusing particularly on glass bead wampum as distinct from traditional shell bead wampum. Because these objects are not constructed with “traditional” “Native” materials, museums tend to classify, curate, and display these objects differently than shell bead wampum. I hope to begin to answer: How do glass bead wampum belts differ from shell bead wampum, and how do museums understand this difference?

My introduction to the Wampum Trail project began with transcribing recordings from last summer’s field research. The object analyses and archival data were of course interesting, but what stuck with me most from these recordings were the personal stories attached to wampum—the way belts have touched people. For example, I transcribed a conversation between Dr. Bruchac and a Native curator in which the curator described a ceremony her community held to commemorate a belt. She reflected on the ceremony with great pride, and the way the belt moved her was evident just from the audio recordings. These moments are what is important to me in this research, the times that remind me that the wampum matters. The belts that the Wampum Trail team is studying are not just dead objects laying on museum shelves. These objects can be intensely culturally significant, and they very much have a life of their own. This project is important to me because the wampum items in museum collections deserve to have their stories told.

I brought these questions with me during a trip to the National Museum of the American Indian in March. Now, I have the opportunity to cover more ground. Today, to get a sense of the landscape, Dr. Bruchac brought us up Mount Skinner to view the expanse of the Connecticut River Valley. Tomorrow, we will traverse the state of Massachusetts on our way to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. From there, we will travel north to New Hampshire, and then on to New York, Ontario, and Quebec, including meeting with members of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee to report our research progress along the way. The next three weeks will certainly be exciting—we know where we’re going, but we don’t know exactly what new understandings we’ll uncover. My plan is to keep my eyes and mind open for new insights along the way.