Sacred Symbol: The Beauty of Wampum

by Sarah Schumann | photographs by Acacia Johnson


41_winter15_AllenAllen Hazard, a wampum maker and member of the Narragansett Tribe, carries on an age-old tradition of creating objects of beauty and symbolism with quahog shells. Hazard is one of only three artisans in the world who make wampum in the traditional Eastern Native way. Contrary to popular belief, wampum did not attain the status of currency until after the arrival of Europeans on American shores.

Here, Hazard talks about what the quahog shell represented, and continues to represent, to the Narragansett Tribe:

Wampum is sacred. That’s the word to use when you’re speaking about wampum with a traditional Eastern Native. Why? Because anything that gave its life so that we could continue ours was deemed special. There’s no other way to put it. Money doesn’t do that.

That’s why we give it respect, and the ultimate respect is that once we get the meat out, and see that beauty, there’s no way in the world we’re going to throw that away.

I don’t care what your nationality is, when you see that, you’re going to keep it. You’re going to put it on you table or your countertop. Because it’s beautiful. And we thought we were beautiful by wearing it, and making sure that our sachem had a lot of it. And that was probably the most real aspect of the quahog.

We just couldn’t throw it away.

It was just too beautiful.

We could throw away a scallop, we could throw away a clam or a razor clam, or a mussel, easy… This isn’t the only beautiful shell in the world, obviously. But it’s the one that has made history.

“IT WAS PROBABLY THE MOST PRECIOUS THING YOU COULD GIVE”

To all the elders, if someone used the term ‘Indian money,’ it was highly offensive. Pre-European, we really didn’t know what money was. They came over and landed on our shores and tried to bring that reality with them. When they saw us give wampum to each other, it was usually in the respect of ‘Thank you.’

For example, if I was closer to your camp than mine at the end of a hunt, and we were friendly, I could count on you to give me a place to stay. You would feed me and take care of me for the night. Before I left, I’d offer you a strand of wampum. And you and I both understood that it was probably the most precious thing that you could give or receive. And that the time put into making them was quite extensive.

We all understood that, whether it was Pequot, Mohican, Narragansett. We all did the same thing. And we had the same respect. The Europeans saw me give that to you and say, ‘Thank you for the night’s stay,’ and they said, ‘Oh, he just paid him for a night’s stay. That must be Indian money.’

As the years went on, wampum was used as a replacement for coins and such, because of the decrease of precious metals. It got to where you could actually pay for a ride across the river on a ferry with a few chips of wampum. But it was not what Indians used as money. It was what the Indians used—and [then] the Europeans used it as money. A traditional Native would feel disrespected if you used the term ‘Indian money,’ because it was sacred. And money’s not sacred.

Handmade wampum jewelry on display at Allen Hazard’s store, The Purple Shell, in Charlestown, R.I

Handmade wampum jewelry on display at Allen Hazard’s store, The Purple Shell, in Charlestown, R.I

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