Object: Wampum Belt - Wampum - Sewan - Sewant

Image Credits

Museum of the City of New York, Amsterdam-New Amsterdam Exhibit



This belt was created in 2009 by Tyrese Gould for the Amsterdam-New Amsterdam exhibit and is intended to be representative of typical wampum belts used by Native Americans in 1609.


Native made beads- Among the Algonkian people, one of the most used beads, that was needed for almost every form of spiritual and daily life as well as general ornamentation was Wampum. Wampum (a Narragansett word for “white shell bead”) known in the Munsee and Unami dialects of the Lenape language as Sewan, which is used exclusively in Dutch documents. Wampum ( also known as Sewan, Peak, Peg, Wampumpeak) was created during the winter months in numerous coastal locations but heavily recorded in Long Island and Long Island Sound, from the center columns of the whelk shell , which would be ground down into a cylindrical shape and a hole drilled using a chipped stone drill secured onto a long spindle that was then secured into a pump drill that used a stone or wood counter weight that moved the drill bit up and down through the drilling device via a leather or natural fiber cord or a bow drill that is a bent piece of wood with a taut leather or natural fiber cord that secures the spindle with a hand hold , the motion of the device going back and forth.

The other shell to be used for Wampum/ Sewan is the quahog clam, this clam not only was and still remains a traditional and vital food source for many coastal Algonkian / Algonquin people but the shells lip contains a beautiful dark blue to purple black color, this color, so incredibly rare in nature, was highly prized. These early beads were made by taking the lips of the clams , breaking them into squares and then chipping them using a round stone on a flat anvil stone into disks the size of a penny to a quarter. These beads were then carefully ground on abrasive flat stone, taking away the chalky calcium exterior and smoothing the sides , the beads then have a hole drilled in by a stone drill bit via bow drill or pump drill. For both beads water is needed as a lubricant to make the drilling go easier and to cool the shell so it doesn’t crack or break.

By the time the Dutch arrive in 1613- 1614, some of the earliest items given in trade from the Dutch ships were iron nails and square files.  The natives would take these objects and repurpose them into drill bits for the manufacture of wampum, this in turn creates a new style of bead called the tube bead, which with stone tools is incredibly difficult to create but with metal tools can almost be mass produced, the best wampum makers were said to make between 4-30 beads in a day. These tube beads were manufactured very similarly to their predecessors with the exception of the shells being broken into thick columns that would then be drilled at either end till they met in the middle and were then heavily ground and polished. The highest quality of these beads were said to be the texture of glass with the same luster and shine.

Uses and importance – Wampum/ Sewan became entrenched in the socio/spiritual life ways for the Algonkian people being used for everything from personal adornment to being woven into extravagant belts that told of peace treaties, oral histories, and spiritual teachings as well as loose beads and strands being used for gifting, pecuniary justice and condolence. Issack De Rasieres , a Dutch merchant, trader and explorer wrote of it in his letter to Samuel Blommaert in 1626 where he says “As an employment in winter they make sewan, which is an oblong bead that they make from cockle-shells [quahog clam] which they find on the sea-shore, and they consider it as valuable as we do money here, since one can buy with it everything they have. They string it and wear it around their necks and hands; they also make bands of it, which the women wear on the forehead under the hair, and the men around the body; and they are particular about the stringing and sorting as we can be here about pearls.” (Isaack De Rasieres , Complete Works of the Mayflower Pilgrims PDF, Pg3) .

What the Dutch did not understand is that the Algonkian people had no concept of European currency and wampum was valued for its need in everyday life and spiritual matters: no peace agreement could be made without wampum, no one could have justice until wampum was given, and no one could get married or grieve for a loss without the giving of wampum. This is why these beads were so highly prized and needed in great quantities for just about everything.

Drew Shuptar- Rayvis; Northern Cultural Ambassador of the Pocomoke Indian Nation and Algonkian Living Historian of the 17th and 18th century