Wampum Belts

How would you record an agreement you had with someone and make sure that people in the future understood what that agreement entailed? In modern times we would likely write down the details, perhaps in the form of a contract. The tradition of early First Nations was to make a wampum belt that contained symbols representing the event or covenant. Named for the short, tubular shell beads called “wampum,” these belts are sacred to the Indigenous people, as they are a record of their agreements made with European colonial powers.

Wampum belts were first developed by First Nations Peoples to assist community members and Nations in recalling and recording events. Wampum are carved beads made from white and purple edge clams that are woven or strung in a symbolic design or pattern that represents historic events, government agreements, and as a reminder device for oral tradition used in ceremonies. When given for an event to commemorate an agreement, they acted in much the same way that legally binding contracts did for Settler Nations making wampum the essential medium of all peacemaking. Every act of diplomacy had to be carried out through the giving and receiving of wampum. If a message had to be sent, it would be spoken into belts or strings of wampum, which the messenger would present to the recipient.

Even when people of different nations did not speak the same language, the symbolism of the wampum was understood. For example, Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee would exchange wampum belts as a peace symbol after a period of war. Similarly, Nations at peace would attach a wampum belt to their canoe when travelling through another Nation’s territory, outlining and reminding them of a specific peace agreement. All who read the wampum would recognize the meaning and allow the visitors safe passage under the wampum covenant.

Before Confederation some groups of Indigenous people, particularly those in the Eastern Woodlands (including, among others, the Haudenosaunee, Mi’kmaq, Ojibwe and Wendat (Huron) peoples) indicated their agreement to certain treaties by presenting long wampum belts to Crown officials. Some examples include the Hiawatha Belt (the belt of the Haudenosaunee) and the Two Row Wampum Belt (Kaswentha).

Hiawatha belt

The Hiawatha belt is a national belt of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The belt is named after Hiawatha, an Onondaga who was the Peacemaker’s helper in spreading the good words of Peace. This belt records when five warring nations; the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, buried their weapons of war to live in peace. Each square represents a nation, and the line connects all the nations in peace. The symbols of the Nations are placed in their traditional geographic order from east to west.

Two Row Wampum belt (Kaswentha)

The Two Row Wampum Belt (Kaswentha) of the Haudenosaunee symbolizes an agreement of mutual respect and peace between the Haudenosaunee and European newcomers (initially the Dutch) to North America. The principles were embodied in the belt’s design: two rows of purple wampum beads on a background of white beads represent a canoe and a European ship. The parallel paths represent the rules governing the behaviour of the Indigenous and European peoples. The Kaswentha stipulates that neither group will force their laws, traditions, customs or language on each other, but will coexist peacefully as each group follows their own path.

~ by Marion Thomson Howell