Wampum: History, tradition, art


In the past handful of decades, wampum has emerged on the Vineyard as a staple of up-Island culture and fashion.

Wampum, made from the quahog clam shell, was used by the Native American Indians prior to the arrival of the colonizing Europeans. It served as ornamentation for ceremonial dress. With the arrival of the Dutch, English, and French settlers, wampum was crafted into purple and white tubular beads, becoming one of the main sources of currency for trade between the Native Americans and the newly arrived European traders and settlers. Many historians credit wampum with Plymouth’s economic recovery in the early 1600s.

Enter Featherstone Center for the Arts, where “The Art of Wampum” show opened last Sunday. The show — which is like an exposition of the craft itself with background and history included — runs through August 11, and presents the work of four up-Island wampum artists: Kate Taylor, Donald Widdiss, Berta Welch, and Joan LeLacheur.

Mr. Widdiss, an Aquinnah resident and Wampanoag tribal member, says, “Everyone here does something different. Everyone has a different style, but the one thing we have in common is the wampum bead.”

For Native Americans, the spiritual aspects of wampum were highly valued, as the beads were rich in meaning, often used as a means of extending condolences or invitations. Woven into belts, the various designs tell a story to a practiced eye. As colonists introduced more advanced tools to the material, wampum gained a more ornamental and decorative appearance.

“I always try to keep in mind and honor the tradition of the beads,” Ms. Taylor says. She is credited, along her late husband Charlie Witham and friend Joan LeLacheur, with bringing the special designs to the Vineyard almost four decades ago.

Ms. Taylor recalls becoming aware of the shell at a museum show. With encouragement from Charlie Witham, she began a process of research and trial and error experimentation that culminated in her creating a collection of intricately designed and embellished wampum jewelry. Many of her pieces, pins as well as bracelets and necklaces, boast unique designs crafted from the shape of whatever shell was chosen. “I always ask myself, what does the shell want to be?” Ms. Taylor says of her first design steps.

She finds the shells on the beach, either on the shore or from a clam fisherman — the latter is often beneficial as it ensures the ability to use the entire shell. The artist then decides whether the shell will be a ball or disc and then cuts it accordingly, before moving on to the drilling and then the polishing stage.

Ms. Taylor is sensitive to the shell’s color and texture, as well as appreciating its local significance. “It’s part of the language now,” she says. “It’s a fabric of the community, and it’s great to remind people of the tradition behind it.”

Ms. LeLacheur agrees. “The quahog is everything,” she says, “food, work, water, a way of life, a beautiful form, and then a treasure to be touched, worn, and shared.” Her jewelry is being displayed at Featherstone along with her tiles, a recent expression of the shell inspired by the mosaics and tile-forms she saw on a trip to Italy.

Berta Welch, owner of one of the jewelry and gift shops on The Cliffs, is joined by her husband and son, all of whom fashion the shell shapes into heavier jewelry. Ms. Welch, also a member of the Wampanoag Tribe, takes slabs of quahog shells combined with other shells to create an inlay of wampum. Ms. Welch began working with the shells after Ms. Taylor and Ms. LeLacheur first sold their products to her shop. As demand grew, the opportunity presented itself to create something different.

“I’m very inspired by the colors of the Cliffs and picking colors that really contribute to the beauty of the stone,” Ms. Welch says, adding that being Native American adds to her interest in Native American jewelry.

Like Ms. Welch, Donald Widdiss also sells his jewelry (along with son Jason’s) at a family’s store in Aquinnah. Many of his designs are variations of the classic purple and white wampum: shells are carved intricately into various shapes and symbols and are often connected to a thread to accent the cut of the stone.

Mr. Widdiss credits much of his creative edge to his mother’s pottery, made from clay materials from the Cliffs. Coupled with an interest in design and the local wampum, he was led to study the history and meaning of the shell. “I never wanted to just work with the material because of economics,” he says.

The show at Featherstone also includes the debut of a wampum belt with white shells against a background of purple beads. Created by Ms. Taylor and Mr. Witham, and Ms. LeLacheur, the design incorporates three symbols of a pond, a council fire (representing the town) and the Gay Head Cliffs. A symbolic road made of white shells connects the icons. Funded in part by the Aquinnah Cultural Council, it will be a gift to the town of Aquinnah.

Ms. LeLacheur says, “The shell goes out into the wider world and people ask, ‘What is this,’ and we can say this is from our home, a beautiful place.”