Wampum belts are powerful. While they represent instrumental cultural objects that materialize and contextualize words, for Indigenous Peoples’ wampum are also physical representations of laws and agreements. Wampum belts are made from shell beads derived from seashells that were exchanged from the early 17th to 19th centuries during meetings between Indigenous nations on Turtle Island, as well as with European nations. Historically, spoken words were only considered sincere if accompanied by a wampum. With over 40 wampum belts from public and private collections across Canada, Quebec and Europe, Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy at McCord Stewart Museum (October 20, 2023 to March 10, 2024) invites viewers to consider the fundamental role of wampum in Indigenous and European nations relations, and how they can help connect and rebuild relationships amongst nations.
As an international collaboration developed and produced with the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris and Montreal’s McCord Stewart Museum, Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy was first presented in France and then at the Seneca Art and Culture Centre in New York. The exhibition was co-developed by Indigenous curators/wampum experts – Jonathan Lainey and Michael Galban, as well as Indigenous scholars Jean-Philippe Thivierge (Wendat), Darren Bonaparte (Mohawk) and Nicole Obomsawin (Abenaki). The collaboration also included representatives from Kanesatake cultural centre and band council.
Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy‘s only stop in Canada brings together the largest selection of cultural belongings; including: 13 wampum belts from McCord Stewart Museum collection, and a wampum belt presented from the Kanesatake community to Pope Gregory XVI in 1831. Wampum pays a significant role in diplomacy and relationship amongst nations. Prior to the opening of the exhibition, representatives of Indigenous communities from the Mohawk, Wendat, Algonquin, Onondaga, and Abénaki nations gathered at the McCord Stewart Museum to reconnect directly and welcome the wampum on October 14, 2023. Through protocols and community consultation, forty belts were welcomed by the Long House people of Kahnawake.
“This exhibition is an absolutely unprecedented opportunity in my career since wampum has been my main research subject for over twenty years,” says Jonathan Lainey, who is the McCord’s Indigenous cultures curator and a member of the Huron-Wendat First Nation of Wendake. “When I submitted my master’s thesis on the subject in 2003, I never imagined that one day I’d be supervising an exhibition bringing together so many wampum in one place, in an institution as celebrated as the McCord Stewart Museum. The relationships we’ve developed with other institutions and Indigenous nations over the years, and the trust they place in us, have allowed us to pull off this real tour de force.”
Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy includes Indigenous languages in the translations of the titles in Mohawk, Wendat, Abenaki, and spoken words in Mohawk and Wendat are heard throughout the exhibition. With over 40 wampum belts and many other related objects such as medals, ornaments, weapons and maps in the exhibition, Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy also features contemporary work by Indigenous artists Hannah Claus, Nadia Myre, Teharihulen Michel Savard and Skawennati, who are all deeply inspired by wampum, along with videos with a faith keeper, historians, artist and cultural workers.
Transdisciplinary Mohawk artist Claus’ Sky belt (2023) coloured photograph of the sky repeated creates a pattern akin to beaded wampum patterns. Algonquin artist Myre’s Light Assembly (Rita) (2023) gestures to the wampum through sculpture as grey and blue ceramic beads fuse together with pastel colours that create a sunset. Huron-Wendat artist Savard’s Reciprocity (2009) is a mixed media sculpture of The Indian Act, which was adopted in 1876 and is the primary document that defines how the Canadian government interacts with First Nations. The artist went into the forest with a copy of the Indian Act, and shot it with his rifle. The didactic panel explains Savard’s rationale behind the work is: “Red – the colour associated with Indigenous identity – flows from where the bullet has hit the document, along with the wampum beads that helped record the alliances and treaties violated by the Canadian government.”
According to curator Lainey, Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy creates opportunities to gather and exchange, and spark important conversations similar to what the wampum did in the past. While the majority of belts have no exact provenance, two nations/communities of origin are known for 15 wampum belts in the exhibition, which originally come from the Wendake and Kanesatake communities. During the 1600 to 1700s, wampum belts were gifted as wedding presents, were symbolic of new friendships, or invitations to official meetings. The wampum is both a peace and memory object – a means of communication and learning tool. Wampum helps communities to find new ways to work together instead of against each other. The wampum is also a way to facilitate conversations between two countries, and could be a promise of peace during a time of war.
The symbols on wampum belts are important. The square represents a nation and its territory. Diamond and hexagons symbolize the people and council fire. Axes are symbols of war. The pipe is a symbol of peace. A line in the wampum connecting the symbols are a pathway to peace, and promote trade and peaceful relations. If the wampum has a white background it symbolizes purity, honesty and alliance, while red pigments contextualize war and military alliance.
As the first major exhibition devoted to wampum belts in the world, the McCord Stewart Museum has created two programs dedicated to Indigenous school and community groups and family. Over 20 schools and community groups will be visiting Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy. Over 200 Indigenous students will be bused in to see the exhibition at the museum, and if required, will be provided with accommodations in Montreal. With content specifically designed for children, the exhibition helps students understand the history and significance of wampum.
But it’s hard not to question: why not return the wampum to the communities they honour and represent? Lainey agrees: “That’s one of the questions we’re asking ourselves, too.”