The Wampanoag people of Martha’s Vineyard (originally called Noepe by the Wampanoag) have been crafting wampum out of the quahog shell (hard-shelled clam) for thousands of years. The purple and white striations and patterns on the inside of the shell are created by minerals in the mud where the quahogs are dug. The Wampanoag people were the original inhabitants of the Island. They would carve pieces of shell into beads for belts and other adornments, often to signify an important event, to give as a gift, or to tell a story. Long before wampum was a trade item between Native Americans and European colonists, it was a way for the Wampanoag people to keep records, and send messages. A runner delivering a message would have a wampum belt signifying the importance of the message. Similarly, wampum would denote a tribe member’s rank or status. White beads would often signify peace or prosperity, and purple might be representative of more solemn matters such as a political treaty or mourning of a death. Today, the tradition of carving quahog shells into beautiful pieces of art and jewelry is still alive and well in the Wampanoag community. Crafters like Berta Welch and Jason Widdiss continue to craft wampum jewelry through more modern means, using power tools.
Berta Welch, Wampanoag tribe member, owner of Stony Creek Gifts, and president of the Aquinnah Cultural Center, explained how today’s use of the word “wampum” refers to something different from what native people crafted with stone tools long ago. “Today’s wampum is commercial wampum,” Welch said. “I try to be careful using the word, because it refers to something specific.”
She went on to say that the word “wampum” is a Narragansett word loosely defined as “beads from shell,” but was eventually adopted by other Algonquian tribes as well.
“When it was originally made, it was the work of individual people. Only some knew how to craft it. Medicine people and other well-respected members of the community were often most heavily adorned in it,” Welch said. Welch’s family has been using the quahog for many years to eat, as well as carving the shell for beautiful keepsakes and gifts to sell. “We really put a lot of soul into shaping our jewelry,” Welch noted. “We are known for our deep purple, which people really love. People notice the quality of what we make.”
Welch’s father was a silversmith in Mexico, and even owned a jewelry store in Edgartown that specialized in Aztec and Mayan silverwork. Welch said she was inspired by her father and his metalworking. She started using precious metals and semiprecious stones and gemstones to bring additional vibrance and life to her work.
Today wampum is still used for tribal ceremonies, and represents an extensive and intriguing history. Welch wears wampum jewelry all the time, and for her, each piece holds a special significance.
Wampum crafting is one example of the Wampanoag people’s presence in Aquinnah — still strong and prominent after many thousands of years. “This is a way to say we’re still here,” Welch said.
Jason Widdiss is another skilled crafter and member of the Wampanoag tribe. He owns and operates Wayward Wampum alongside his father, longtime wampum wonder worker Donald Widdiss. Jason told The Local that wampum is a specific term for the cylindrical beads that were drilled vertically by the Algonquian tribes before and during European colonization. Over time, the term has been made applicable to virtually any type of shell bead or creation. “Wampum belts were used to keep history. There would be a belt holder in each tribe that would interpret the belt and read every bead. Some belts were 5 to 10 feet long,” Jason said. “Wampum was also used as a rite of passage.”
He explained that to the Wampanoag people, wampum is “much more than just making random pendants or pieces of jewelry.”
“I know people do beautiful things. But this is my contribution to my culture that has been passed down from previous generations. I don’t dance, sing, or play tribal drums — my part in honoring my culture is making wampum.”
Jason said wampum is first and foremost an essential part of Wampanoag history. “I respect non-native crafters; they are one of the reasons wampum has made such a comeback on-Island,” he said. “But I hope that in the future, other crafters will continue to recognize and respect the cultural and historical significance behind it. If you are doing it just to make a buck, well, I don’t respect that.”
Many contemporary jewelers and sculptors use wampum because it is so rare and unique to the coastal waters of Cape Cod and the Islands. Jewelers like Hannah Marlin and Phoenix Rogers use wampum to make necklaces, bracelets, pendants, earrings, and many other pieces of wearable art.
One of the reasons jewelers enjoy working with wampum is because it is versatile and can take on many forms. According to Hannah Marlin, owner of Littlest Fish Designs, anyone with the right skills, knowledge, and tools can make incredible jewelry out of wampum.
Marlin first started experimenting with wampum crafting in her aunt’s basement. She had just graduated from college with a degree in photography, but during her senior year she started working with sculpture, and immediately fell in love with working with her hands.
“The list of challenges is definitely longer than the list of successes,” Marlin said in an email to The Local.
“[Wampum] is a very soft and porous material, making it incredibly difficult to work with. Wampum beads are historically the most important and popular form the material takes on, but I prefer to make cabochons.”
Crafting wampum, just like in stonework or other work that uses saws, drills, and sanders, can be hazardous. Marlin said shell particulates are sharp, and can be “incredibly harmful” if inhaled, so finding the proper protective gear is essential before attempting to work with wampum. Marlin said if she could suggest one thing to first-time crafters, it would be “safety first.” Many people who carve wampum wear a respirator and have a ventilation system that keeps the air clear of fine shell dust.
Marlin also explained that in order to learn about wampum, you first have to know about the raw, unrefined quahog shell. “Certain shells can’t be used for what I do,” Marlin said. “Old, weathered beach wampum is too hard and calcified to cut, heat-treated shell [any shell that’s been cooked] can’t be used because it’s too brittle. Freshly shucked shell is all I use.”
Marlin said that shells have a certain smell depending on whether they have been exposed to intense heat or have been calcified with age.
Learning the intricacies of the quahog shell can mean the difference between a dull and chipped piece of jewelry, and a mirror-finish cabochon with zero cracks or imperfections.
“I’ve had hundreds of pieces break on me, lots of intricate feathers I’ve made will just snap in half if there’s a hairline fracture that I didn’t notice while carving,” Marlin said. “This material is not forgiving.”
According to Marlin, different parts of the shell are used for different things. “There are parts of the shell that are harder and thicker than other parts, like where the deepest purple coloring is,” she said.
Outside the Cape and Islands, artists who use wampum are “few and far between,” according to Marlin. She said her approach to creating wampum jewelry is special because her designs are modern and minimalist — traits which are rarely seen in shell jewelry. “I like doing something different with the material,” she said.
Phoenix Rogers, another skilled Island crafter and owner of Island Wampum, crafts beaded bracelets, metal and wampum necklaces, and much more. “I grew up getting lots of wampum bracelets from my mom. I even had a wampum bracelet as a baby,” Rogers said.
She outlined the steps it takes to get from freshly shucked shell, to shiny jewelry. “The first step is going out and getting the larger-size quahogs, or ‘chowders’ as some seasoned fishermen call them,” she said. “I go through almost 1,000 pounds a summer.”
Just like any other prime fishing spot, the best places for raking quahogs are often known by a few seasoned locals. Many avid shell fishermen rake their quahogs at Menemsha Pond, but Sengekontacket, adjacent to State Beach, is also a popular place to dig.
Rogers carves the shucked shells into squares which serve as blank canvases for her work. After that, she determines which square will turn into which creation — one could turn into beads for a bracelet, another could be transformed into a Martha’s Vineyard pendant. “I feel like I could carve a Martha’s Vineyard pendant with my eyes closed,” Rogers said.
The thickness and varying color patterns determine what shape the canvas might take.
Rogers said the color of quahogs on-Island are special because of the types of sediment found here. “They are a much deeper purple than you might find elsewhere,” she said.
Rogers has used many other marine mollusks in her work, such as conches, spiny oysters, and abalone. “I also recently started carving turquoise, which is really beautiful,” Rogers said.
Like Marlin, Rogers wears proper equipment when working with wampum. She dons a respirator and a full protective body suit, and ties her hair back in order to avoid the fine shell dust.
There are many different Island folks who use the quahog shell in their work. Some are carrying on traditions passed down for many generations and representing the depth of meaning that wampum holds for the Native Americans who live here. Others use the shell to express their creativity and individuality by crafting jewelry that is unique to them. Wampum is the quintessence of Martha’s Vineyard — an ocean jewel that holds a special place in many local hearts.
This article by Lucas Thors originally appeared on mvtimes.com.