A wampum is a string of white shell beads. These beads were traditionally produced by Native Americans in the Northeastern region of what is now known as the United States from mollusks such as the quahog clam and whelk, and they had great cultural and ceremonial significance. Several examples of artifacts made with shell beads can be seen in American museums, works of artwork depicting early Americans, and in the private collections of various Native American tribes and communities.
There is some confusion about the meaning of the word “wampum.” The word is short for wampumpeag, an Algonquin word which literally means “string of white shell beads.” More valuable dark and purple beads were known as sewant or sucksuahock, although today people often refer to them as wampum. This term also refers specifically to beads which have been strung, not to loose shell beads. However, these definitions have been blurred over time, especially in the European community.
In Native American culture, strings of shell beads were traditionally given during gift exchanges. People could seal treaties, elections, marriages, and other agreements with wampum, and the beads were also used as memory aids to assist storytellers and help tribes preserve oral traditions. A belt could contain a number of motifs which told a story in images, prompting the memories of members of the tribe so that they could remember events in tribal history.
When European colonists reached North America, some were presented with wampum and other gifts by the Native American community. The Europeans introduced the concept of utilizing the shell beads as money, leading to the common misperception that shells were a form of currency among Native American tribes. In fact, it was primarily Europeans who treated it as currency, with Native people adopting the trend and using wampum in trade with Europeans. The Europeans also constructed factories to make wampum, with the ability to produce large numbers of big beads for use in trade.
These tubular beads could be strung in simple strings, or more ornate belts, some of which were woven for extra strength. Several depictions of colonists who settled in the Northeast include renderings of wampum belts presented by the local Native Americans as a gesture of goodwill, or to seal treaties and agreements made with the Europeans. Several Native American tribes from this region use stylized drawings of wampum in their flags, referencing the cultural importance of wampum to their people.