Thoughts on Caring for a Wampum Belt

Submitted by Kim Yates on Tue, 07/03/2018 - 15:14

Humanities at Large
16 January 2018

It is white, with two dark-blue stripes that run its length. I could tell you that it is 36.5” long and 4.5” wide (or 93 cm x 11.5 cm if you prefer the metric system), but it would perhaps be more accurate to describe it in its own terms. It is made of tubular glass beads, woven side-by-side in thirteen rows: three white rows, two blue, three white, two blue, and three more white. Each row contains 323 beads; multiply by 13 and you get 4,199 beads. It is woven on a light-brown waxed linen thread, and there are 14 braided tassels at each end of the belt. The white beads are opaque, bright white; the blue ones are translucent, a deep indigo that is almost purple.  It’s quite lovely held up to the light.

This object is a replica Two-Row wampum belt. It came into my office because the Jackman Humanities Institute is engaged this year on the annual theme of “Indelible Violence: Shame, Reconciliation, and the Work of Apology”, and one of our fellows suggested that it would be a good addition to the Institute. It has a name: kashwentha (sometimes spelled guswenta). This refers both to the object in all its many replicated instances, and to the agreement that it signifies.

Two-row wampum beltIf you google “two-row wampum” to learn more, you will have no trouble in finding the story: it even has its own website. The version below is quoted from the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.

The Haudenosaunee are comprised of six nations of people who practice very sophisticated yet simple diplomatic principles in their dealings with other Nations. Those principles are conveyed and reiterated through Wampum Belts.
     The Kaswentha is a sacred Wampum Belt that is the basis of agreements between Haudenosaunee nations and other nations of people. It is regarded as an important covenant agreement that sets the framework for future agreement.
     When the Haudenosaunee first encountered the representatives of Eastern European nations, they found that the Europeans were unaware of these principles, and that they had the potential to disrupt the peaceful existence that Haudenosaunee nations had secured for their people. The Haudenosaunee believed that it was essential that these newcomers learn the principles required to hold a relationship with them, based on peace, friendship, and mutual respect.
     The first newcomers and all those afterward were introduced to the Kaswentha or Two Row Wampum Belt which embodied the principals of Peace, Friendship, and Mutual Respect. These principles formed the basis of the numerous treaties and agreements between Haudenosaunee and non-Haudenosaunee nations.
     The Kaswentha or Two Row Wampum Belt is a visual instrument that was made with two parallel rows of Purple Wampum on a bed of white beads.

  • The background of white Beads was meant to symbolize the purity of the agreement and some say that it represents the "River of Life".
  • The two separate rows of Purple beads were made to symbolize and encompass the two separate peoples who were incorporated in the agreement. Some say it also represents the spirits of Haudenosaunee and non-Haudenosaunee people, past, present, and future.
  • Between the two rows of purple beads, are three rows of white beads. These were made to stand for the Friendship, Peace, and Respect between the two nations. As much as the three rows keep the two nations separate, it also binds them together.

Some say that the two rows of purple beads represent two separate vessels traveling parallel to each other down the "River of Life'. The Haudenosaunee are in their canoes. This symbolizes their culture, laws, traditions, customs, and life-ways. The non Haudenosaunee are said to be in their ship, which symbolizes everything that they carry in their culture, laws, traditions, customs, and lifeways.
     It is said that each nation shall stay in their own vessels, and travel the River of Life side by side. It is further said that neither nation will try to steer the vessel of the other, or interfere or impede the travel of the other.
    The Kaswentha or Two Row Wampum is a treaty of respect for the dignity and integrity of the other nation, and stresses the importance of non-interference of one nation in the business of the other. The early principles established in the Kaswentha formed the basis of all Haudenesaunee treaties with other nations including the Dutch, the French, the British and the Americans.

I try to think about this as a student of history might, but it slides away from me.  This is the wampum belt, the one that outlines our relationships as peoples. Presumably, I am still bound by the agreement that it marked.  “We are all treaty people” as John Ralston Saul said. I’m only barely starting to understand what he meant. I am a treaty person.

There is apparently some old-ish academic controversy about whether the Dutch version of this treaty is really from the early 17th century, or was faked up in the 19th.  There is a good article by a historian at Cornell who demonstrates that whatever the paper evidence may be (and the evidence is unclear), there is a very long oral tradition that demonstrably can be shown to go back centuries further. I am not a historian. I need to understand this object on its terms, in the now, in the here.

The belt lives in my office, and it will stay on long after this year’s theme is completed and reported.  I introduce it to the fellows this year, with the invitation that they can bring it to their own students, explain what it is and what it means. I think of it as more than just an object; it is so loaded with significance that it is like a relationship in itself. A symbol of a relationship. The Cree artist Kent Monkman recently painted Two Ships, a monumental meditation on the moment of first contact that the Two Row Wampum marks. He speaks to it in greater detail here.

How can I live up to this relationship? I ask the Indigenous scholars I know. They suggest a welcoming for the belt into its home at the JHI; a bowl; a cloth wrapping: I gather these things. A bit of background text for settler scholars who would like to bring it to their students and colleagues: I compile it. And yet, there it is: two long blue lines, separate but equal, suspended in a single river of white, and those soft fringes, edging back into history and forward into the future. It is precise and tactile.

How dreadfully it has been violated through the many years of this relationship. I am sorry.  I wish I had known before.

“It was essential for these newcomers to learn the principles required to hold a relationship with them based on peace, friendship, and mutual respect.” – this speaks to me.  I think that my job description as the caregiver (Caretaker? Carer?) for this belt includes a necessity to learn how to build this peaceful, friendly, and respectful relationship. The belt should be out there, teaching my friends too; not locked up in a frame or a case as an objet d’art, but a lively and beautiful spark for conversation and thought. Am I getting it right? I don’t know.  But it is a learning process. I hope to go on learning more.