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Every American probably has heard the story of how Manhattan Island was sold by the indians for a few dollars worth of beads. That is why today it is thought of as the Native Americans' currency for barter or trade. And after the arrival of colonists to the Americas, wampum did become the coin of the realm -- but this grossly understates its role in Native American culture.

Wampum -- from the Algonquin word wampumpeag -- was made into belts with intricate and specific iconic patterns -- patterns which could be referred to and "read" by the wampum keeper. They were made to record treaties and commemorate important ceremonies. They served as repositories of knowledge. Wampum belts were information storage devices.

An elder of the tribe was designated as the wampum keeper. He would hold the tribe's wampum, memorize the events recorded, and use them as a mnemonic when disputes arose. Thus, wampum played an important part in the oral history of the tribe.

Wam"pum (?), n. [North American Indian wampum, wompam, from the Mass. wompi, Del. wape, white.]

Beads made of shells, used by the North American Indians as money, and also wrought into belts, etc., as an ornament.

Round his waist his belt of wampum. Longfellow.

Girded with his wampum braid. Whittier.

⇒ These beads were of two kinds, one white, and the other black or dark purple. The term wampum is properly applied only to the white; the dark purple ones are called suckanhock. See Seawan. "It [wampum] consisted of cylindrical pieces of the shells of testaceous fishes, a quarter of an inch long, and in diameter less than a pipestem, drilled . . . so as to be strung upon a thread. The beads of a white color, rated at half the value of the black or violet, passed each as the equivalent of a farthing in transactions between the natives and the planters."



© Webster 1913.

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