The Haudenosaunee & Wampum

Photo by wampum & shell 2001©


Wampum Beads & Belts

written by Kanatiiosh (Barbara A. Gray) 2000©



Wampum beads are traditionally made from two types of shell, the Quahog (a type of thick shelled clam) and the Atlantic Whelk. The beads that are made from these shells are long and cylinder shaped, and they are about one-fourth inch long and one-eighth of an inch in diameter.

Wampum beads next to a six-inch ruler

White wampum is made from the Atlantic Whelk shell, which is a type of ocean snail. The Atlantic Whelk is approximately 2-4 inches in length. The white beads are made from the long center spiral located within the Atlantic Whelk.

Purple wampum is made from the Quahog shell. Sometimes people refer to the purple colored wampum as being black, but in reality it is a very rich deep purple, in color. The word Quahog comes from the Narraganset word Poquauhock, and the word Wampum comes from the Algonquin word Wampumpeg, which means a white string of beads. The New England settlers shortened the word to wampum.

The native people did not use wampum beads as currency. However, the coastal native nations, who had access to the Atlantic Ocean, did use wampum beads as a form of barter and trade especially with the inland native nations.

Quahog Clamshell ( Mercenaria mercenaria)

The Quahog clam is approximately 3-5 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide, and it has a very thick shell. The inside of the Quahog has a very beautiful natural purple band around the lip of the shell that is used to make purple wampum beads.

Making wampum beads takes a lot of skill and patience. The traditional way to make shell wampum beads is to first break the shells into cubes. Next, the shell cubes are placed into the slivered part of a narrow stick. The slivered stick is then placed into a larger sapling splint.

In order to drill the shell cubes, the splints are squeezed tightly together. Then, a hole is drilled half way into the center of each of the cubes with a hand-held pump and bow drill, which in the old days was made of stone or reed. Water is used to keep the shell cool because too much friction will cause the shell to heat up and break. Also, the right amount of pressure must be applied while drilling to prevent the shell from shattering. Once the hole is drilled half way, the shell cubes are turned over, and the other side is drilled until the hole is completely through the shell. It is said that the Haudenosaunee would take peach pits and boil them and the shells together to make the shells pliable.

The shell cubes with holes are then shaped and smoothed to form the wampum bead. It is said that sand stone was used to smooth and shape the rough cubes into the finished wampum bead. Traditionally, the Haudenosaunee would take the inner bark of the elm tree (Ohosera), and twist it together to form a thread on which the wampum beads were strung to form wampum strings, or to create wampum belts.

Replica of a Two Row Wampum Belt photo by Kanatiyosh

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Website created May 20,2000: Updated December 2001

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