Treasures of the sea
At first glance, it's just a clam, a small and salty inhabitant of Vineyard waters. It's a family permit, a peaceful day on the pond with rakes and waders. It's stuffed, it's fried, it's a cup of chowder.
Alive, the clam is the perfect food with its salty flesh high in vitamin B12 and iron. It provides a livelihood for local fishermen and, as a natural bio-filter, helps ponds recover from the abuse associated with human activity.
Once the animal is gone, its value remains. Within its shell, imbedded in the layers of calcium carbonate, lies a mysterious and precious pigment.
According to Professor Denis L. Fox in his "Animal Biochromes and Structural Colours," the Indigoid pigment responsible for the purple shell is a digestive waste product of the clam.
It was the Northeastern Native American nations that first discovered the potential of the pigmented, less dense part of the shells, turning wampum bead making into a traditional art form.
"The Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Niantic, and the Pequot - those were the four nations really heavily involved in the shell trade," explains Jonathan Perry, an Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal member. "We made art work: belts, crowns, earrings. We also stitched plates and tubular beads to our clothing."
Wampum was worn by men of power - the chiefs or sachems - or by people highly respected or connected.
According to Mr. Perry, belts were often used to record events with symbols, similar to a hieroglyphic system, and were read at ceremonies. "The sequence of symbols told a story," explains Mr. Perry, "showed certain alliances, creation stories, clan connections between the different native nations.
"It's much more complex than the monetary system because it has all this symbolism. The purple represents the eyes of our ancestors, the accrued knowledge over generations; white is said to represent health - spiritual, physical, and mental health."
The meaning of wampum changed with the arrival of the colonists.
"When the Europeans came they saw the sachems that had great power, they saw the belts and equated them with wealth. That's how you started to get the idea of wampum as money," says Janette Vanderhoop, jeweler and Wampanoag tribal member. Europeans had tools that made producing wampum easier and wampum beads became a base for the economy in the colonies.
"At some point the queen assigned a pound value to the wampum. The problem with that is you could just go to the beach and collect it," explains Ms. Vanderhoop.
With the depreciation of the beads due to overproducing, porcelain counterfeits, and the introduction of coins, the wampum drifted out of circulation. For a hundred years the bead seemed to have disappeared. But some northeastern natives quietly kept the tradition alive.
Wampum's comeback occurred on the Vineyard in the early 1970s when Kate Taylor, her late husband Charles Witham, and friend Joan LeLacheur took a particular interest in the ancient art form.
"My husband Charlie was a student of Native American culture and art, and spent a lot of time going to the museums and looking at artifacts," remembers Ms. Taylor, a singer/songwriter and wampum artist.
The Heye foundation in New York, the Peabody museum at Harvard in Cambridge and up in Salem have extensive collections of wampum belts.
"Charlie really liked the look of those and also the history of the wampum bead, what it meant to the native people and how it transitioned into a trade item," says Ms. Taylor.
"We sort of had it in our history from childhood," says Ms. LeLacheur, "going to the Peabody museum at Harvard, watching the display of the old wampum treaty belts and some of the tools, it was in our consciousness. When we came down here and went to the beach and saw all this shell, we recognized it." The three of them started collecting the ocean-tumbled pieces, researched and got a hold of some of the tools, and began cracking the code of Wampum bead making.
"We made our first tubular bead in January of 1975," says Ms. Taylor. "It was a trial and error."
With a lot of patience and practice, their bead making improved and for about 15 years they were the only people making wampum on the Island. Eventually other artists joined them, and today wampum is available in most jewelry and craft stores on the Island.
Wampum bead making is not an easy craft. Because of its dangerous dust, it requires the constant use of a respirator. The shell is sometimes hard enough to break a diamond covered bit, and sometimes too brittle to work with. Hidden worm holes can often ruin a bead in the last stretch. Because it takes 50 to 60 years for a clam to build a shell thick enough to carve a bead, quality raw material is scarce and getting scarcer.
But anyone who has touched wampum seems to have been touched by it.
After 35 years, Ms. LeLacheur is still passionate about her work and continues to be innovative in her techniques, mixing wampum with epoxy, creating tiles as "jewelry for the home."
"Wampum is soul," says Ms. LeLacheur. "It represents the spirit of the place. Each shell has a story to tell." And she listens.
Amandine Surier is a contributor to The Times.