Wampum is a traditional shell bead of the Eastern Woodlands tribes of Native Americans. It includes white shell beads hand-fashioned from the North Atlantic channeled whelk shell and white and purple beads made from the quahog or Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam.

Wampum beads are typically tubular in shape, often a quarter of an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. One 17th-century Seneca wampum belt featured beads almost 2.5 inches (65 mm) long. Women artisans traditionally made wampum beads by rounding small pieces of whelk shells, then piercing them with a hole before stringing them. Wooden pump drills were used to drill the shells. The unfinished beads would be strung together and rolled on a grinding stone with water and sand until they were smooth. The beads would be strung or woven on deer hide thongs, sinew, milkweed bast, or basswood fibers.

Wampum belts were used as a memory aid in oral tradition, and were sometimes used as badges of office or as ceremonial devices in cultures such as the Iroquois.

Wampum strings may be presented as a formal affirmation of cooperation or friendship between groups, or as an invitation to a meeting.

The Iroquois used wampum as a person’s credentials or a certificate of authority. It was also used for official purposes and religious ceremonies, and as a way to bind peace between tribes. Among the Iroquois, every chief and every clan mother has a certain string of wampum that serves as their certificate of office. When they pass on or are removed from their station, the string will then pass on to the new leader. Runners carrying messages during colonial times would present the wampum showing that they had the authority to carry the message.

As a method of recording and an aid in narrating, Iroquois warriors with exceptional skills were provided training in interpreting the wampum belts. As the Keepers of the Central Fire, the Onondaga Nation was also trusted with the task of keeping all wampum records. Wampum is still used in the ceremony of raising up a new chief and in the Iroquois Thanksgiving ceremonies.

Wampum was central to the giving of names, in which the names and titles of deceased persons were passed on to others.


Adapted from:  Wampum Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.