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PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION

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BRUCE FERGUSON'S

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RELECTIONS ON THE ALGONQUIN WAMPUM BELTS

Wampum belts are not unique to the Algonquin peoples, the belts became a means of documenting history both in pre and post contact times.  The wampum belts and accompanying stories, facts, legalities are recalled in this form by most aboriginal groups living in what is labelled as the Eastern Woodland cultural area.  The limited focus on this reflection is to a) think about the earth’s teaching through these shells as indigenous peoples assigned the nature of the shell to the nature of the wampum belt, b) William Commanda’s three wampum belts held by the Algonquin people and c) general reflections on wampum belt and oral traditions and the gate-keepers.

Earth Centered Teaching

Earth centered teaching informed Indigenous peoples as we looked at the nature of the animal: we connected and assigned the animal characteristics to an indigenous interpretation that formed our metaphysical outlook.  The characteristics of the animal in the purple shell (the quahog shell) and the animal in the white shell (channeled whelk) grounded indigenous thinking about the nature of the wampum belt(s).

The animals in the quahog shell live a very long time; Quahog clams are known for their longevity.  “A 220-year-old taken from American waters in 1982 holds the official Guinness Book of World Records oldest animal title…”[1]  The long life of these animals and the shells that had protected them speak to indigenous metaphysics about the role of elders and wisdom.  The reference to the old age of the animals can also refer to the long lasting memory of these belts within a functional oral tradition.

The two animal shells live on the bottom of the water body (ocean or lake) which allows for the interpretation by indigenous people that speaks to the “depths” and significance of the wampum belt.  The depth of the shells signifies how deep our authenticity goes in regards to diplomatic statements and/or oral memories of an event.  The white shells are sewn on to eagle tails and as such the white shells on the eagle tail also represent how high in the skies our authenticity and commitment goes. 

The two types of animals in the white and purple shells are enemies; the animal in the white shell eats the animal in the purple shell.[2]  There is a dualistic interpretation by our people that label the quahog shell as representative of evil in our world, the channeled whelk (white shell) represents good.  Given that life is neither good or bad exclusively the wampum by exhibiting these two opposing colors representing sentiments such as balance, harmony, negotiation, peace, the balancing and the “counter-extinguishing” of the power of the other. 

The Algonquin Wampum Belts

William Commanda was the belt holder of three Algonquin belts; (1) 7th Fire Prophecies[3] 1400s[4], (2) 1701 Treaty[5] and (3) the Jay Treaty Border Crossing Belt (latter 1700s).  The Seven Fire Prophecies dates back to the 1400s and it was a series of prophecies told by seven prophets, the main idea is that there is choice between our relationships with all of the world’s peoples and with creation itself.  The Seven Fires Prophecies are an Ojibway teaching coming out of the Midewiwin Lodge but shared with Algonquins.  The values of sharing, balance and harmonious co-existence are the values the Seven Fire Prophecies in contradiction to western views.   The 1701 Belt was to witness the Treaty process of 1701 in Montreal; it is about sharing and living in peace as agreed upon at those meetings. The 1700 belt was about sharing our people’s understanding of our land, values, and ideology with the French and the English.  The Jay Treaty Border Crossing Belt (1790s) simply emphasis the state of being without borders.

General Reflections

The sophistication of inter-band/tribal communication (via the wampum belt) is the first thing that struck me as very empowering as an indigenous person.  Often, we are sold the idea that our people had no written language, implying of course we could not communicate.  The western narrative implied that we were incapable of understanding complex concepts of western law, when in fact the whole treaty process of 1764 put a rest to that western notion. 

Related to the ability to communicate are the two forms of communication (sign-written and oral-spoken).  Which is more accurate in the long term?  Many people argue that the written form is superior in regards to replicating the message, but I would argue that within a fully developed and operational oral tradition, the accuracy of the message is arguably as accurate.  An example, we can read a passage from Shakespeare, and have more than one interpretation of what the passage meant.  The whole point of the western court and judicial system is to clarify the written word from different interpretations, so while the written word is a great blessing it is not a perfect tool of communication.  Equally, I don’t think we can argue that oral tradition is that perfect tool either; it worked when there was no written records or other verifiable evidence to support what is being orally claimed by the practitioners of oral tradition, but does it work today?

Oral tradition is an area of reflection that became, for me, a form of self-realization.  I felt increasing uncomfortable with oral tradition claims dating back to the 1400s – perhaps being too influenced by academia.  Our philosophy of the Seven Fire Prophecies (late 1400s) is said to originate in the Ojibway medicine lodges (the Midewiwin) and the learning was done in secret, only Midewiwin initiates were privileged with this story and it is only through the witnesses of these participants that we can verify the legitimacy of the prophecy.  Do I doubt oral tradition, no not really, but I am not a gullible person either.  I don’t pretend to take all oral tradition claims as legitimate.  What is interesting though is that indigenous thinkers still look for verification and evidence in “truth claims” exercised by practitioners of oral tradition.  As an example, non-related science really confirms the legitimacy of a “time of choice” with regards to how we treat each other and the planet prophesied in the 7th Fire; these prophecies can be dated back maybe a century or two, but a century or two ago, who would have understood the peril of the human species and the planet in the way we understand these things now.  In logic, we call this a side-proof of the prophecy without having any direct evidence of the prophecy.  So, while oral tradition is dependable, it is not a perfect tool.  In fact, the reason the wampum belt was constructed was partly to remind the oral practitioner of what the story was; each of the symbols triggered a number of memories that formed part of the story, so in my mind, the wampum belt and its communication ability in itself is an acknowledgement that an unchecked or under-developed oral traditions does indeed have its failures.

My final reflection involves the notion of “gate-keepers” of knowledge; usually elders are the gate-keepers of culture, they know the traditions, they know the medicines of the plants and protect that knowledge, indigenous knowledge has been exploited and gate-keepers work to stop that exploitation of academics, of corporations, of the general public through cultural appropriation practices.  We need gate-keepers and in a sense I am a gate-keeper in that I believe in protecting indigenous knowledge by accurately articulating what it is that we believe or know for others to appreciate, understand and internalize.  However, when the gate-keeper suppresses knowledge that needs to be shared like the choice the human species must soon make in regards to each other and the planet, or an indigenous understanding of how our people, the British and French agreed to treat each other, gate-keepers should not be suppressing that info, and most gate-keepers don’t.  But we do have the ideological purist indigenous activist out there who tries to own and mystify our lives, which is the politics of polarization and that must be rejected in my own mind. 

Now, that I am on a roll, we should not accept the oral tradition claims without question that all things indigenous are secrets, are sacred, and must be kept from the “white man”…this is clearly stupidity.  Given that we live today, that our three/four generations together who are living are responsible to make decisions to allow us to be our indigenous selves and that we are “as much Indian” as past generations, we need to ask questions such as “what becomes a good way of managing indigenous knowledge, can we develop protocol that talks about appropriate use of knowledge?”  Certainly, in the field of arts we are exploring the notion of cultural appreciation which will allow for the borrowing of culture.  I consider it a compliment when a non-native person wears something or acknowledges something respectful of who I am and so forth, it is within our spirits to laugh and share.  So, I don’t agree with the indigenous purist who believes all indigenous knowledge should be denied, mystified, suppressed and not shared, or that non-indigenous philosophers cannot teach indigenous thought, but I do agree with how we treat each by honoring those things sacred to each of us, and it is on that basis that relationships and reconciliation moves forward, not on ideological gate-keeping but on authentic and sharing keepers of our peoples’ culture.


[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/10/071029-oldest-clam.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVvE6EItv_M

[3] http://www.wabanaki.com/seven_fires_prophecy.htm

[4] http://ojibweresources.weebly.com/prophecy.html

[5] http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com/fp_treaties/fp_treaties_earlyalliances.html

WAMPUM BELTS

(EASTERN WOODLANDS).

Figure 1 TOP BELT: Jay Treaty Crossing Belt, MIDDLE BELT: 1701 Treaty Belt, BOTTOM BELT: Seven Fires Prophesy Belt