Council for Museum Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Wampum belts, as assemblages of shell beads sometimes sourced over a long distance or reused from previous objects and time periods, are always the result of Indigenous acts of collecting. Woven to represent a community and materialize speech, wampum belts are generally meant to be exchanged in diplomatic councils, and periodically seen and explained to the groups who house them. Between the 1650s and the 1710s, Wendat and Abenaki people living in mission villages along the Saint Lawrence River sent wampum belts to Catholic sanctuaries in Western Europe, predominantly in France. Acting as shell diplomats engaging with European deities and human communities on multiple levels, these wampum belts also performed Indigenous self-representation in spaces where Indigenous presence was not experienced. In historical correspondence, Indigenous communities attempted to teach French ecclesiastic and local audiences how to engage with these foreign objects, with varying degrees of success.
When French museum collections were assembled through the nationalization of religious patrimony in the 1790s, the purpose and social agency of these wampum belts were locally re-negotiated. These subsequent transfers from Indigenous communities to French churches to public museum collections caused different types of spiritual, cultural, and institutional erasures. This paper will look at some of the ways in which these belts are memorialized, remembered, and still activated in Wendat and Abenaki communities, and how they might affect contemporary initiatives to renew some of these belts’ display, coming as opportunities to collaboratively re-think the diplomatic roles they have played and might play in the future.