How a Native American Artisan Keeps the Practice of Wampum Alive

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  • Allen Hazard of the Narragansett tribe is familiar with both the traditional and modern ways of making wampum.
  • Allen’s modern techniques involve using a wet saw, a tumbler, and a multipurpose rotary tool.
  • Traditional tools for making wampum include a deer antler, a sandstone, and a bow drill.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Cracking a quahog shell with a deer antler is the first step in creating wampum beads and jewelry. But today, Native American artist Allen Hazard uses a wet saw to more precisely transform shells into shiny wampum pieces like these. Despite finding more modern ways, Allen still practices and teaches the traditional way of making wampum, a 4,500-year-old practice whose significance is still distorted today.

Jerry Seinfeld: If this works, the whole monetary system’s obsolete. We’re back to wampum!

Narrator: Before a shell is broken for wampum, quahogs, or hard-shell clams, are acquired from ocean waters. The art of making wampum beads comes from Native Americans along the northeast coast. This includes tribal nations from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Allen is from the Narragansett nation in Rhode Island.

Allen Hazard: The word “wampum” is what the Europeans took out of our Algonquian pronunciation. The true Algonquian pronunciation is wampumpeg. P-E-G was taken off the end of our pronunciation and shortened to the word wampum, which means white shell.

Narrator: At 62 years old, Allen has been making wampum for more than 40 years. And he’s accumulated lots and lots of quahogs, so there’s plenty to choose from. When selecting a shell, he looks at its size, color, and thickness, which determines what the shell will become. Then, Allen heads to the wet saw. He cuts into one side of the shell for smaller pieces. With the smaller pieces, he makes finer cuts and holds them against the saw to shave down rough edges. This part requires a considerable amount of skill. Though using a wet saw is faster than the traditional method, dust from cutting the shell is toxic. This is why Allen must keep adding water during this step, to prevent the hazardous dust from becoming airborne. From one shell, he creates a few different pieces. He’s transforming this shell into a classic tubular wampum bead as well as a matching set of earrings. The wet saw is the modern approach Allen uses instead of starting with a deer antler to pop the shell, then using a nipper to break off any rough edges. With the modern way, Allen lets the characteristics of a shell determine how he shapes it at the wet saw, while the break of a shell in the traditional process determines the shape of wampum.

Allen: The old tradition of making the traditional beads is rare. There’s very few left that know the old way of making them.

Narrator: After the wet saw, Allen uses a tool called a tumbler to smooth out the surface of newly created pieces. The tumbling action allows the beads to shine, just as the shells did when they were wet. While the tumbler requires a full night of work, it can still save him time compared to the traditional way of sanding by hand. Though one piece can take hours, Allen employs this traditional technique if the tumbler isn’t full enough to use. This sandstone is one that his son found, and it’s been with him for 40 years. Allen adds water and sand to speed up the process. Sanding helps shape and remove the calcium buildup on the outside of the shell. For beads, the next step is to drill a hole into the cylinder with a multipurpose rotary tool and thin needle. Similar to the wet-saw stage, Allen has to keep the beads submerged in water to prevent toxic dust from reaching the air. He drills holes on each side, then blows through the bead to make sure the two holes have met in the middle. This modern method is an alternative to using a bow drill, which has three parts: a pointed stick, a bow, and a burl, commonly found on trees. You can see how much more manpower is required to pierce this cowhide using the traditional method. The bow drill was replaced when settlers introduced metal needles to indigenous tribes. But with the arrival of settlers came colonization and greed. For northeastern tribes, wampum was a valued gift. But European settlers, whether by mistake or by design, adopted it as money. So in 1637, the general court of Massachusetts Bay Colony legalized wampum as currency and established rates for it.

Allen: It was not Indian money. Money is terribly offensive. All right? How can anything that is a living being that we feel is a gift from the creator be labeled as money? How dare them? But they did.

Narrator: The initially established rate was six beads to a penny. More value was given to darker beads, and exchange rates varied over time and sometimes areas, as colonists in several original colonies used wampum as money.

Allen: The Dutch actually invented a machine to make the beads that I showed you 10 to one. Maybe 20 to one, I forget exactly. They didn’t give a darn about respecting our traditions and our ways, and all they had was this glossy eye on making money. So that’s what they did. And we had no way of stopping it.

Narrator: An oversupply of wampum, plus a lack of standards and regulation, led to its devaluation in the late 1600s. Wampum’s last known use as currency was in New York in 1701, but the concept of wampum as money persists today.

Hotel Concierge: Unfortunately, we don’t take wampum.

Mr. Krabs: Ooh, ho, ho, sweet wampum!

Narrator: Along with preserving the original purpose for Wampum, Allen is passing along the traditional techniques for making it.

Allen: My apprentices, I have two. Josh Carter from the Pequot nation and Kristen Wyman from the Nipmuc nation. It was my wish that they understand the tradition and the meaning to each nation that had it way before they could learn anything else. Making money wasn’t even in the story of it. It was respecting the tradition of our ancestors and our elders.

Narrator: Pieces that he and Josh crafted are sold at Allen’s shop, The Purple Shell. He opened it 10 years ago, and he hopes someday it will be his granddaughter’s. I don’t think I’ll ever stop till they say, you know, “Your time is done,” or I got so much arthritis in my hands I can’t move them. Even then, as long as my lips move, I can tell somebody what to do.

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