Penn Treaty Wampum Belt, c. 1911

Historical Context
Native Americans used wampum beads to make belts and strings.  Beads were made from white and purple shells of the quahog clam.  They were put together in patterns to indicate important events.  The designs of wampum belts were memorized by elders; they were used as “written” records for the tribe to:
    -   call a council meeting
    -   speak at a council meeting
    -   elect a chief
    -   keep records and deeds
    -   show times of sorrow
    -   make a treaty official

Wampum belts were not used as money by the Native Americans.  When the beaded records were no longer needed, the belts were unstrung so that the beads could be used again.

The Onondagas were the Keepers of the Fire for the Iroquois League.  Since they were the "capital" of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Onondagas also were entrusted with possession of the wampum belts.
Essential Question
How does culture influence political interactions?
Check for Understanding
Describe the object and explain the role of this object in political negotiations.
[click to enlarge]
Native Americans. Penn Treaty Wampum Belt, New York State Archives, NYSA_A3045-78_35
Document Description
The Penn Treaty Wampum Belt, circa 1911.
  1. What shapes are on these belts?
Historical Challenge
Research the different uses for wampum and explain why they are now universally thought to have been used as money by the Native Americans.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: Research different patterns used for wampum belts. Using graph paper, create a wampum belt using an original pattern.
Science: Look at different types of clam shells, including quahog shells. Why do you think the quahog shell was the favorite material for wampum belts.
English Language Arts: Use the design created in math to write or tell a tribal story to the class.
  1. Levine, Ellen. If You Lived at the Time of the Iroquois. Scholastic, Inc., September 1999. ISBN: 0590674455