Sunday, June 19, 2022

Return of the Wampum

"This is the last of several parts on the long beaded belt of white wampum with two parallel lines of purple beads, the Gä•sweñta’."

A Canadian art museum site says the original Gä•sweñta’ exists today only in memory and reproduction. From what they say, one is left to speculate. Perhaps it is in the man cave of a Silicon Valley billionaire. Maybe it is in an oil lawyer’s private office on the 200th floor of a Dubai skyscraper. Perhaps it was on a wall of one of Saddam’s palaces before it was bombed, or in a private collection in ill-fated Fallujah or Mariupol.

Smithsonian returns belt to Six Nations of Grand River

Fortunately, we need not speculate. The Joseph Brant Grand River band took both the Two Row Belt and the Friendship Belt with them to Canada in 1783 to establish the Nations’ Council there following the Treaty of Paris. In 1843, Chief John Buck, holder of the Onondaga Wolf Clan title Skanawati, became the Grand River wampum keeper and, until his death in 1893, preserved some 22 important belts and their messages. Historian Kathryn Muller writes:

It is crucial to understand that these belts belonged to the League as a whole, serving as mnemonic devices to preserve political transactions and creation stories for generations to come and were not the personal property of John Buck. In 1871 Horatio Hale photographed the nineteen League belts of great historic importance, subsequently described by Elisabeth Tooker: six related to the founding of the League, four explained the first treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the English, one confirmed a treaty by the Canadian government, and the rest remained unexplained.

Unfortunately, what had happened to the belts held by Wampum Keeper Thomas Webster in the USA also happened to the belts held by Buck in Canada. After Buck's death in 1893, his son Joshua Buck refused to return the belts to the community and instead treated them as private possessions, offering them for sale to numerous dealers. J. N. B. Hewitt, an ethnologist for the Smithsonian Institution, attempted to purchase the belts in 1897, but Joshua Buck, at the time wanted for robbery and rape, fled to the United States. Eleven of the League wampum belts eventually wound up with T. R. Roddy, a Chicago dealer in First Nations artifacts. Roddy bought six from Cayuga Chief James Jamieson of Grand River, who was never a wampum keeper. Roddy later claimed that "they have been in the Jamieson family at least fifty years.”

Roddy attempted to sell his collection but New York State Archaeologist Arthur C. Parker warned all American museums of the Six Nations’ claim. Kathyrn Muller writes:

Regardless of who sold the belts to Roddy, their removal from Native custodianship demonstrates a clear shift in their ancient roles: originally living representations of historic pledges, the belts were reduced by their sale to simple commodities, pawns in the thriving, yet often unscrupulous, trade of Native artifacts.

This is what happens to the value of a non-fungible token (NFT) if it loses the trust it symbolizes. Its strength or fragility is not embedded. It relies on the entire chain of custody and custom. 

Follow the Money

Set upon by Parker, the US Department of Indian Affairs continued to contact Roddy, stating that "the loss of these belts is a matter of concern to their Indian owners, and I have to ask whether they are not in your possession, and, if so, what action under the circumstances mentioned you intend taking in regard thereto." Meanwhile, Roddy, negotiating through the Indian Trading Company of New York City, finally sold the eleven belts to George G. Heye for $2,000 in 1910. Heye exhibited them at the University Museum in Philadelphia, where he was a trustee. Not long after that, anthropologist Frank Speck discovered Heye's belts while working at the museum, compared them with a photo, and wrote to the head of the Anthropological Survey of Canada who contacted the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. Heye admitted they were original wampum belts but denied they were ever stolen.

Haudenosaunee efforts to repatriate the eleven belts lay dormant for just over sixty years until lawyer Paul Williams, director of rights and treaty research for the Union of Ontario Indians, wrote to the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Museum (MAI-HM). Heye once more admitted they originated in Grand River but demanded proof they were stolen. A Heye trustee performed independent research confirming the theft but rather than returning them, suggested they be transferred to the National Museum of Man in Ottawa.

Chief Jake Thomas, 1988
Finally, in 1985, the Haudenosaunee Council, represented by Williams, formally demanded the return of the wampum belts. Eleven belts were returned to the Grand River Onondaga Longhouse on May 8, 1988. At the repatriation ceremony, Jake Thomas of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs, read the Friendship Belt and the Two Row Wampum, using reproductions since the originals were too fragile to handle. He described in eloquent detail how the Friendship Belt "reaffirms an early bond of alliance,” notably the chain concept, representing the original agreements between the Iroquois and the colonists. Moving on to the Two Row Wampum, Chief Thomas described "two parallel lines that never converge on a white background, representing the enduring separation of Iroquois from European law and custom.”

Jake Edwards in January 2013 with replicas
The surviving Haudenosaunee that Justice Hiscock had ruled as “ceased to exist” is today 125,000 strong and still standing for their rights. Agreements entered into with the Smithsonian Institution and other museums have succeeded in returning many artifacts, including lost wampum.

The Two Row Wampum belt, originally recorded in three rows of white beads alternating with two rows of purple, is back in the possession of the Haudenosaunee. The Hiawatha belt—the federation Constitution—has been returned.

In the first installment of this series, I compared wampum to NFTs, employing proof of work as authentication of value. The blockchain of the day was the oral history carried across generations by designated wampum keepers, persons given care of the belts who were worthy of maximum trust. In that way, wampum is like a token based on proof of trust.

At a 2013 remembrance celebration, Jake Edwards said:

We agreed at that time to only take what was needed to survive and make sure there was something left for future generations, and not to pass laws on to each other. This agreement was made 400 years ago and it’s been violated. We’re looking to educate the other side of the ship people, so they can persuade their governments to honor the treaties and protect the Earth.

The Six Nations still observe the Gayanashagowa and adhere to the Kaswenga. They are still in the river with us, still paddling their canoe, and watching as we go our strange, separate way.

Gratitude versus Greed

Consider how different was the gift economy of the Americas before the arrival of French, Dutch and English merchants. The encounter was greed meeting gratitude.

In rural México it is customary when visiting the home of another that you bring some small gift to the host. When someone gives you a gift you tend to like them more. You are less likely to feel threatened. That gift culture ecosystem, carried through time from Aztec, Olmec, Nahuatl and Maya economies, represents an honor code where things of value are exchanged without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. The late David Graeber, lost to Covid in 2020, observed that no reciprocity is expected between unequals; if you make a gift of a dollar to a beggar, he will not give it back the next time you meet. Nor do you expect to receive anything of value in return. And yet, you do.

The Children of Peace were a 19th-century utopian Quaker experiment based on living values of peace, equality and social justice. They built Ontario's first shelter for the homeless and organized the province's first co-operative, the Farmers' Storehouse. Then Ontario enacted laws making accepting charity a sign of indebtedness and decreed that any debtor—any recipient of charity—could be jailed without trial. It was called the "poison of the gift,” an effort to stamp out the nascent gift economy. CoP opened the province's first credit union by transforming their fund into something like today's micro-credit co-ops. By offering the poor loans instead of charity, they were allowed to keep going. Unfortunately, they were also laying the groundwork for debt slavery and by that means accomplishing the regressive government’s plan.

Imagine for a moment that a neighbor comes to visit and brings in your mail for you. No doubt you are grateful for the gesture. Now imagine the neighbor asks for money in exchange or even says he/she will withhold the mail until you pay him/her for the kindness. In most places, ransoming your mail would be a crime, but in many jurisdictions, like the USA, the legal means to get it back would likely cost you more than your mail is worth. The design of the justice system, based on a lack of trust like everything else, impedes justice.

Take that kind of systemic blackmail to scale, as the European traders did at the time of the conquest, and you eventually achieve embedded and intransigent income and social class disparities, public health and education privatization, growth addiction to meet promises and political polarization that threatens all life on Earth. Scale it the other way and you get localized economic regimes of common property and non-commodified labor, perhaps even memorialized in beaded belts.

The Haudenosaunee spoke of remembering the “original instructions” given by the Creator. The belts helped. For the rest of us and climate change, it will come down to wanting to survive badly enough to consider the alternatives we know we have.


Barreiro, Jose. "Indian Roots of American Democracy.” Cultural Encounter I. Special Constitution Bicentennial Edition Northeast Indian Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1988).

Dwyer, D., Two Row Wampum campaign marking 400th anniversary of first Haudenosaunee treaty, Ithaca Times June 5, 2013

Graeber, D. and D. Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Penguin: 2021

Lopez, A., Pagans in Our Midst, Akwesasne Notes: 1977

Mann, Barbara Alice, Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas, New York: Peter Lang: 2000

Muller, Kathryn V., The Two “Mystery” Belts of Grand River, American Indian Quarterly 31:1 Winter 2007

Otto, Paul, and Jaap Jacobs. "Early Iroquoian–European Contacts: The Kaswentha Tradition, the Two Row Wampum Belt, and the Tawagonshi Document." Special issue, Journal of Early American History 3 (2013): 1.

Parker, Arthur C. 1912. The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet. New York State Museum Bulletin 163, Education Department Bulletin 530. Albany: University of the State of New York.

—. 1916. The Constitution of the Five Nations, or the Iroquois Book of the Great Law. New York State Museum Bulletin 184. Albany: University of the State of New York.

—. 1919. The Life of General Ely S. Parker, Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant’s Military Secretary. Buffalo Historical Society Publications 23. Buffalo, NY: Buffalo Historical Society. 

Towns, villages and cities in the Ukraine are being bombed every day. As refugees pour out into the countryside, ​they must rest by day so they can travel by night. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. So far there are 62 sites in Ukraine and 265 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”

The Green Road also wants to address the ongoing food crisis at the local level by helping people grow their own food, and they are raising money to acquire farm machinery, seed, and to erect greenhouses. The opportunity, however, is larger than that. The majority of the migrants are children. This will be the first experience in ecovillage living for most. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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1 comment:

Jim Parker said...

Albert, thank you for your research into the Wampum belts. I throughly enjoyed your essays. I think the comparison to NFT's and blockchain is very apt.




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