March Zoom

Among the significant events of antiquity, such as the first human-created fire and the carving of the first stone tool, an unnamed, unknown human created the first wampum bead. Wampum were prevalent within the Eastern Woodland Native American tribes whose shared domain stretched from Canada to the Deep South and from the East Coast to the Mississippi River. The word “wampum” is an approximation of the ways many of those tribes said “white shell beads.” It is a literal translation—wampum are essentially tubular beads with holes. They were usually made of the white shells from the channeled whelk sea snail or the white and purple shells of the quahog clam. Pump drills were used to create the hole and then the wampum were rolled on a grinding stone with sand and water until smooth. Archaeologists have found wampum thousands of years old, and these most likely had ceremonial significance and were strung like jewelry. But with the beginning of European contact, wampum became a highly visible symbol of Native American life, and they took on an unprecedented form—elaborately weaved belts consisting of hundreds and sometimes thousands of beads. And they were more than just currency. They were used to commemorate intertribal treaties, significant tribal decisions and helped pass down oral history through the ages, basically acting like record keepers. Once colonizing began in earnest, the colonists noted the significance of wampum to the Natives and began using them as currency and produced them in mass quantities. Interestingly enough, native Long Islanders played a major part in the history of the ubiquitous bead. By the 18th century the local Shinnecock tribe became known far and wide for their exceptional wampum creations. Words: Michael Isenbek I Photo: Stephen Lang

michael isenbek

Michael Isenbek, Associate Editor, dabbles in both fiction and nonfiction writing, coordinates the Pulse event listings and writes the text for "Zoom," among other editorial tasks. He has a Master's Degree in Liberal Studies and a Bachelor's Degree in Cultural Studies with a concentration in Journalism from SUNY Empire State College.