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Wampum, The Haudenosaunee, and History

“Wampum is just a visual device by which memory is kept alive. Our ancestors were very skilled in how to make these abstract symbols that have great meaning, great power. We also believe that wampum has its own power.” ~Rick Hill

What is wampum?

Wampum are visual memory keepers that help record history and communicate ideas. Beaded patterns represent a person, nation, event, invitation, shared values and understandings/agreements between two or more parties.  Traditional wampum belts were used as covenants and petitions for understanding. Words spoken during an agreement are made into wampum to be used for ceremony, teaching, and reminders of law and values.

War of 1812: The Chippewa Experience; Exhibit display; Museum Of Archaeology; April 2015

Who do they belong to?

Wampum belong to the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee. The beads are from the Atlantic coast. The Wampanoag People along the American east coast around Boston, MA traded in Wampum with the Haudenosaunee. Ancient wampums are often replicated for educational purposes and to protect their fragility since some date back to before European contact in Canada.

Dish with One Spoon wampum (top left corner) from 1812 exhibit

What are wampum strings?

Wampum strings can be used to invite other nations to meetings. They include the topic that the meeting will discuss based on the colour of beads and number of strings. At the end of the strings is a wooden stick with notches which tells when the meeting will take place. Notches are cut off after each passing day until none remain. This marks the meeting date.

Wampum strings can also signify a position of honour. Clan Mothers or Chiefs are passed down a special wampum string from the previous leader. Carrying their own wampum string shows their place in the community as a leader.

Rick Hill, Tuscarora from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, gives lessons on Wampum (2014)

What are they made of?

Wampum beads are made of two different shells: the quahog and white welk shell. Quahog clam shells are purple or black in colour and represent war and suffering while welk shells are symbols of power, peace, goodness and friendship.

Shell beads are used because shells retain words spoken over it and pass these words on from generation to generation.

Beads are hand made by breaking the shell, drilling a hole, and grinding it into a tubular shape. It is  a long and delicate process.

What do they symbolize?

Today, the people who can read wampum belts are recognized as oral historians and storytellers. They have apprenticed to learn this knowledge and often how to make wampum beads.


By Chief Irving Powless Jr.

October, 21, 1989

Chief Irving Powless Jr.

The day started out early as everyone dressed their best and we were going to burn tobacco and dance for such a great day. For the first time in 92 years, the wampum belts were coming back to Onondaga. Last Friday, Chief Leon Shenandoah, Chief Vincent Johnson and I traveled to Albany. There we signed and agreement that would return the belts and the title of Wampum Keeper to the Onondaga Nation. It was the ending of a long struggle to see our belts again.

We entered the longhouse at 7 am and I put two rattles on the bench for our sacred songs. Chief Ollie Gibson went around to all of the people to gather our sacred tobacco to begin the ceremony. We followed Leon outside to burn tobacco and give thanks to the Creator for this special day.

As Faith Keeper Oren Lyons and Leon got ready by building a fire of apple sticks outside, the cold air and clouds reminded us of the forecast of rain and snow showers. But as Leon began the process of giving thanks that has been done by the Haudenosaunee for thousands of years, the sun began to break through the clouds. As the words and the smoke wrapped themselves around Leon on its way to the Creator, we knew it was to be a beautiful day.

The longhouse was full as Leon asked Hubert Buck and Peter Skye to sing our Great Feather Dance and he asked me to lead the dancers. We agreed. It is always a thrill to hear these sacred songs and to see the dancers. I lead the dancers around the longhouse in a counter-clockwise fashion as we have always done. Everyone has their own style when they dance for the Creator and it was good to see everyone’s smiling face as they danced. Sweat was streaming down our faces when the dance was done. Peter Skye then thanked the singers, dancers, and the people for coming to see the ceremony when our belts were to come home.

We got the longhouse ready for the belts as a 25 ft table was set up, covered in white treaty cloth, for the belts. I helped sweep as more benched and chairs were brought inside. The longhouse was ready and the women were bringing their pans of food for today’s feast. The women would be ready when it came time to feed the people for the celebration.

Eleven o’clock arrived along with 600 people. The vans carrying the belts haven’t arrived and everyone was anxiously watching the road. Finally a silence fell over the crowd as someone whispered, “The belts are here!”

Looking out the longhouse window, I could see the people surrounding the vans. The first of the 12 belts began its journey back into the longhouse. Each belt was covered in a case wrapped inside of white foam sheet. It was impossible to tell what belt it was. The wrappings were removed and the first belt was the Tadadaho belt. Soon all the belts were in view and everyone pressed forward for a better view. Our men explained that they would have opportunities to view the belts and take pictures later. We had to begin the ceremony.

The Representatives from the State were seated first along with the Chiefs, Clan Mothers and Faith Keepers. There was not enough room for all of the people so many stood outside. It was silent as Leon stood to give our Thanksgiving Address. His voice was the only thing heard as he mentioned all of the things that Creator has given to us to make our life enjoyable. I stood up and introduced the member Nations of the Haudenosaunee. All of the Nations had sent representatives to the ceremony. Then I introduced Martin Sullivan, Director of the State Museum.

Martin Greeted the Haudenosaunee. Then he explained about the meetings that lead up to this day and how it was time for the belts to be returned to the Haudenosaunee. He then introduced the Commissioner of Education, Thomas Sobol. Thomas explained his part in the exchange of custody of the belts and saw this as a new beginning in the relationship of our people. Martin Sullivan then introduced the Chancellor of Regents, Martin Bell. The Chancellor explained the condolence cane and how the drawing represented the leaders of the Haudenosaunee. Then the Secretary of State, Gail Schaffer, was introduced. Gail explained that Governor Mario Cuomo could not attend but sends his regards on such an important day. She said that the State has much to learn from the Native American. They have made many contributions to the State and the world including the foundations of democratic forms of government. Martin Sullivan then stated that he was given the Wampum Keeper’s Collar the other day. It has been with the State since 1900. Since the State was no longer the Wampum Keeper, he returned the collar to the Onondagas and placed the collar around Leon’s neck. This ended the speeches from the State.

Leon stood and thanked the people for the belts in the language of the Onondagas. Audrey Shenandoah interpreted what he said. She explained that the Creator had sent the message to us and that we must carry this message to the people. We were given a way to record these messages. That was placing the message into the wampum strings or belts. She explained how Leon spoke of our way of life and how important it was to continue on our path our Creator has shown us.

Chief Irving Powless Jr.

I then explained that after the Revolutionary War, some of our people moved to what is now Canada. Last year, the Heye Foundation returned 11 belts to the people at Grand River. Some of the people from Grand River are here to help us celebrate the return of the belts to Onondaga. Then I introduced Chief Jake Thomas.

Jake spoke to the people assembled. After he finished, he said he would elaborate on what he said. He explained that these belts present a visual document of our history and the formation of the Haudenosaunee. It would take a long time to explain each of the belts and today is not the time to do this. Jake Thomas then said that he hopes that we all learn from these belts. The belts that were returned to them at Grand River are now sitting in a museum in Brantford and are a benefit to no one. Jake then said he must stop talking for he noticed that Leon is checking his watch which means that he is hungry and wants to eat. He ended by stating that the 12 belts were returned to Onondaga and that maybe they would think about returning our land.

I then informed the people to go outside where Chief Jake Swamp of the Mohawk Nation would plant the Tree of Peace that Commissioner Thomas Sobol had presented to Leon when we signed the agreement. Jake has performed this tree planting ceremony all over the country, spreading the good words of our Peacemaker. The tree was exceptionally beautiful as everyone put a shovelful of dirt around the tree. It was cold and the wind brisk but the people stood as history was repeated as the Tree of Peace was again planted at Onondaga.

We returned back to the longhouse to dance. I knew that this event would be remembered for a lifetime, especially our white brothers who never had the opportunity to see the Round Dance before today. I joined Hubert Buck, Jerry McDonald, Robert Shenandoah and others on the bench to sing. Everyone held hands as they formed circles and danced around us. After the dance ended, Leon thanked the Creator for all of the living things that make life a joy. I reminded the people that we should work for the day when there would be peace throughout the world and that the Four Protectors would look after them as they journeyed home.

People then went into the cookhouse for a meal that would also be held in memory. Buffalo, deer, and turkey meats were accompanied with potatoes, squash, pumpkin, cranberries and salads covered the tables. Hot scoons were plentiful and cold strawberry drink was there for the hungry people.

The belts remained on display until 5 pm. Many took pictures, view and asked questions about the belts; most stood in awe at the sight of our 12 belts coming home. At 8 pm, we danced various social dances until 11:30 pm. Some of our Albany visitors soon joined us even though they didn’t know how to do the steps. We all had a good time.

Leon then gave the Thanksgiving which ended our day. It was easy to see that today was a day that would not be forgotten and would be told to their children and their grandchildren. It was a Great Day. We gave our thanks.

Dawneytoh, Chief Irving Powless Jr.

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