BOOK REVIEW: Cherokee Wampum weaves history and beads

by Feb 25, 2014A&E0 comments




Karen Coody Cooper’s short book of 72 pages entitled Cherokee Wampum: War and Peace Belts: 1730 to Present, including references and a description of the author, is not for the reader looking to be entertained. Purely informational, it describes in detailed but very readable text the origins of wampum, its various uses over time, and most particularly, its relationship to the Cherokee people.

Cherokee Wampum book coverNow retired from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Cooper is a member of the Cherokee Nation who not only writes, but is also both a finger weaver and a wampum weaver. Her book is well researched and documented, with 40 references cited.

Wampum is an English spelling derived from the Algonquian word, wampumpeage. It stands to reason that the Algonquian derived word would have been used cross culturally since purple wampum beads come from the quahog clam found in the North Atlantic. Over time, the Iroquois and other inland peoples, who had contact with the Mohegan, Pequot, Montauk, Narragansett, Shinnecock, and Wampanoag nations with whom wampum use began, came to value the beautiful wampum beads and use them. From the Iroquois, their popularity spread to the Cherokees and other nations living in the vicinity.

It is interesting to note that the term “belt” refers only to the shape and size of the wampum objects. They were never worn as belts, though they were worn on other parts of the body or simply held in the hand in acts of exchange. Cooper takes us from the oldest known wampum, which existed before 1510, all the way to the modern replicated wampum still produced today by Long Island tribes and often used to create very expensive, high end jewelry. She then weaves in the story of how wampum came to be used and even revered by Cherokees. We learn of its use by the Dutch and the English as currency for a time – later adopted for this use by Native people as well. When more easily produced coinage took its place, its short lived role as a type of commonplace money evolved into that of a plea for peace, the sealing of a pact (and as such often portrayed some aspect of the event), or a gift of sorts for acts of diplomatic service.

With the invention of Sequoyah’s syllabary in 1821 and the ability to communicate in Cherokee with the written word, wampum would assume yet another role among Cherokee people – a ceremonial one. Many belts were certainly lost when towns and villages were burned by the British, and as Cooper says, some were perhaps even tossed aside as being obsolete. Others were probably broken up when agreements failed. The ceremonial use given to some has permitted their preservation. Seven ceremonial belts are still kept in Oklahoma, passed down among descendants of Redbird Smith, who established the Nighthawk Kituwah to preserve traditional Cherokee ceremonial life.

Readers of Cooper’s narrative will be blessed with many details of Cherokee history, particularly as regards battles and acts of diplomacy during turbulent times, when Cherokee survival among the ever encroaching Europeans was a constant struggle. Readers will also hear the words of many prominent Cherokees as they engaged with leaders of other indigenous nations, and they will follow the path of the wampum belts that were preserved as they travel over the Trail of Tears.

As she states in her conclusion, “Although the wampum belts are seemingly out of contemporary public sight, Cherokee historical use of wampum was an extensive practice and should not be forgotten as one of the cultural hallmarks of Cherokee life.” Students of Cherokee history will want to give this little gem a read.