Devotional Wampum: Art and Prayer

Wampum is an American Indian bead made from the shells of the quahog, or hard-shelled clam, and the channeled whelk of the Atlantic coast. It came in two basic colors: white and purple, although beads were sometimes painted in other colors such as red. It required painstaking labor even with European tools, and a belt made of thousands of beads was an object of incalculable value to the Northeastern tribes. Because of this inherent value, wampum is often crudely thought of today as "Indian money", but it actually had a far richer symbolism than a mere medium of exchange. It functioned as an important instrument of record-keeping, diplomacy, and even mourning, all of which the French in Canada quickly learned to emulate.

With their conversion to the Catholic faith in the 1600s, the Woodland tribes began to use wampum devotionally. In one famous episode of 1650, the Christian Hurons of the Isle of Orleans sent one to the Jesuit house in Paris with a letter as follows:
Several years ago, you sent us some rich presents. We met together and said, ‘What shall we send to those noble servants of the Virgin? They need nothing from us,’ said we, ‘for they are rich; but they love the mother of Jesus; so let us send them a collar of our Porcelain, whereon is written the greeting that an Angel from Heaven brought to the Virgin.’ We have recited as many rosaries, in the space of two months, as there are beads in the collar—one bead of black porcelain being worth two of white. Present this collar to her, and tell her that we wish to honor her.
The symbolism in devotional wampum was multidimensional. There remained, of course, the value of the beads, amplified by the artistic skill that went into weaving them into a belt. But such belts also served as what we would call today a spiritual bouquet—a physical manifestation of a gift of prayer. There are other examples in the historical literature that were offered to Our Lord in reparation for the atonement of sacrilege, were dedicated to the honor of a particular saint, or were given to neighboring missions to exhort them to persevere in the faith. Some belts were affixed to beams above the altar and thus formed an important architectural element in mission parishes.

The artistic beauty of woven wampum was not lost on Europeans. A number of devotional wampum belts are still extant in ecclesiastical and museum collections in North America and France. Many, like the following belts at Chartres Cathedral, feature inscriptions in Latin:

Others are, instead, decorated exclusively with native symbolism. The Vatican Wampum Belt is one of these—showing, in the center, a Jesuit Black Robe and a Micmac together holding a cross. The keys of St. Peter and a church can be seen to the left.

A belt given by the Lorette Hurons to the Iroquois mission of Caughnawaga (Kahnawake) in 1677, shown in the old photograph below but now apparently lost, perhaps represented the incipient alliance that would later become known as the Seven Indian Nations of Canada—a confederacy of seven Catholic Indian nations that included Iroquoian and Algonquian tribes and which had its "central fire" or capital at Kahnawake.

The last few decades have seen a revival in the craft, and wampum beads are again being manufactured. Authentic ones made from drilled quahog shell are still very costly: several dollars per bead, but acrylic reproduction beads are now also available.

The modern wampum industry seems mostly geared toward historical reproductions, traditional dance regalia, and other secular ceremonial contexts. Its ecclesiastical and devotional uses have been all but forgotten except by academic specialists. But much may be gained from restoring its sacramental uses—particularly as part of the ongoing project of inculturation in American Indian churches. Doing so would reap enormous spiritual benefits, help preserve this native North American art form, and  provide an income for native entrepreneurs, as well as help re-establish the Church in its cultural role as a patron of fine art.

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