Wampum, the Iroquois Connection, and Monetizing the Landscape

A couple of months ago a professor of mine and I were ushered into a spare ante room of the Akwesasne Cultural Center and Museum in St. Regis, NY. The room was dedicated to a single exhibit; a glass case containing a 250-year old belt made from white and purple wampum beads. Our guide, Sue, explained to us that the belt is referred to by her people as the Wolf Belt, and commemorates the peace between the various Iroquois communities of the St. Lawrence Valley and the English crown following the Seven Years War (which ended with the vanquishment of France from North America) . The Wolf Belt, which had been housed at the New York State Museum in Albany since the turn of the 20th century, was repatriated to the Akwesasne Mohawks in 2010.

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Wolf Belt upon its return to Akwesasne (©Indiantime.net)

At the time of my visit to the museum I was reading Katherine Howlett Hayes’s Slavery Before Race, and was aware of the possibility that some of the beads threaded into the Wolf Belt, if not from Shelter Island, may have been manufactured in the general eastern Long Island area. Wampum, which comes from the Algonquian wampumpeague, is manufactured from either whelk or quahog shells, depending on the maker’s desired bead color. Contrary to popular historical perceptions, wampum was not “Indian money”; that is, it could not be used to purchase goods or services. Instead, wampum was exchanged among coastal Algonquian communities as a gift that carried political undertones; several strings of wampum might be exchanged among visiting sachems as a substantiation of a diplomatic partnership. These networks of exchange penetrated inland into the eastern Great Lakes region, where the Iroquoian nations, especially Haudenosaunee (the confederacy between the Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Mohawks) came to value wampum as a means of declaring war or, in the case of the Wolf Belt, friendship.

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Spiraled whelk shells were used to make white wampum beads, which were considered to be less valuable than purple beads from quahog shells.

Europeans, however, did treat wampum as a currency. Dutch settlers used wampum as a means of procuring beaver pelts from inland Indians, while both Dutch and English colonial officials at times sanctioned wampum as legal tender in monetary transactions for lack of standard coinage. Given Shelter island’s estuarine location, it is unsurprising that the manufacture of wampum was one of multiple commercial activities that took place at Sylvester Manor during its plantation days between 1652 and 1680. A ready supply of Manhanset laborers experienced in the techniques of shell bead making provided Nathaniel Sylvester with an additional source of wealth, at least until overproduction of wampum (as a result of the introduction of European steel awls) ate away at its value. Excavations of the original plantation core have turned up copious amounts of tool-worked outer shell fragments that were discarded in favor of the inner shell parts from which beads were produced. Some beads stayed in the economy of Long Island Sound, while others undoubtedly ended up in Haudenosaunee territory in northern New York and the St. Lawrence Valley.

Sylvester Manor’s one-time status as a mass producer of wampum bears special significance on several fronts, not least because it represents an early, explicit instance of European commercial interests monetizing an indigenous cultural practice. As it happens, Nathaniel Sylvester’s great-grandson, the lawyer Ezra L’Hommedieu (whose daughter, Mary Catherine, served briefly as the mistress of Sylvester Manor in the 1830s) had a hand in determining how the state of New York dealt with its indigenous nations. As a member of New York”s Indian Affairs Commission in the 1790s, Ezra and his colleagues negotiated with constituent members of Haudenosaunee (which was still divided in the aftermath of the American Revolution) for the overwhelming majority of each nation’s historical lands in exchange for reserve territory. The commission also treated the indigenous population as citizens of the new Republic; not out of altruism, but because land belonging to a citizen could more easily be sold to settlers than land belonging to a sovereign nation.

The realm of monetary valuation is a topic I will return to repeatedly in my writing, for the relentless commodification of the natural and human cultural spheres is a critical factor in creating the Crisis of Now. Yet Sylvester Manor offers a unique perspective from which to consider how Anglo-Dutch speculation and investment in the 1600s created the monetary system me know today, and how such an economic model marginalized the lives and power of indigenous Americans. From its inception, the colonial project in North America was an economic endeavor aimed at extracting pecuniary worth in terms of raw materials that were growing scarce in Europe. Even the Puritans, those righteous “First Americans,” could not have established Plymouth Colony without the backing of the London Virginia Company and the Merchant Adventurers. It therefore follows that, where one year Nathaniel Sylvester is overseeing Manhanset laborers turn shells into currency, another year Ezra L’Hommedieu is paving the way for white Americans to establish homesteads in what used to be Haudenosaunee country. Since capital for such monetary claims of ownership flowed exclusively from Europe and America’s settled coast, it was almost inevitable that indigenous landholdings in the American Republic would be decimated by the market demands of a new transoceanic Western society.

The Akwesasne Mohawk, with whom I worked this past spring as part of this project, are engaged in a decades-long, incremental mission to regain historically Mohawk land that was sold to non-native settlers under questionable legal maneuverings, and the Mohawks are not alone in this goal. The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in Connecticut has been trying to defend its land claims in the northwestern part of the state since the 1980s, while, here in the neighborhood of Sylvester Manor, the Shinnecock nation still disputes the legitimacy of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. If the indigenous peoples of the world were among the first to feel the shock of global investment capitalism, then, by reclaiming their lands and removing them from the market, it is appropriate that they should be at vanguard of transitioning away from the economic system that has landed us amidst so many converging global crises. Yet they are joined by many allies, including Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, whose focus on reviving local cultural traditions; reconnecting island residents with the rhythms of the growing seasons; and shedding light on the American landscape’s true past surely constitutes a movement away from the dominant mindsets of the past 500 years or so. If the the repatriation of a revered piece of Mohawk beadwork is a part of this new movement as well, then all the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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