Exploring wampum at the Chilmark library

Visitors take in the wampum beadmaker exhibit at the Chilmark Library. — Photo by Valerie Sonnenthal

Throughout the month of October, the work of up-Island wampum beadmakers is being exhibited at the Chilmark library. Even if you managed to catch this exhibit when it first showed at Featherstone a couple years back, it is certainly worth another visit. Teachers should also plan to bring their students to this magnificent and educational show. The six Island wampum beadmakers who are featured include curator Joan LeLacheur, Kate Taylor, Berta Welch, Giles Welch, Donald Widdiss, and Jason Widdis. As Richard Skidmore of the Gay Head Lighthouse said, “it’s a great show of history, methodology, and spirit.” On Saturday, Oct. 24, several of the Island beadmakers will host a trunk show and sale of their work.

The library will also host a special event to further educate patrons on the history and beauty of wampum. On Wednesday, Nov. 4, archaeologist and Native American historian James W. Bradley will discuss the origins and meaning of wampum in a lecture called “Revisiting Wampum.” The sacred shell beads we know as wampum are often featured in movies about Native Americans, such as “The Last of the Mohicans,” but their historical reality is often obscured by Hollywood hype. Though much has been written about the small shell beads, the actual origins of wampum remain obscure. According to a press release, Mr. Bradley will utilize a combination of archaeological and documentary sources to examine different definitions of wampum and explore what cultural forces led to its creation.

Mr. Bradley spent his childhood in “Iroquois country” as the kind of boy who loved to be outside, getting dirty and looking for rocks, fossils, and snakes. “One day I found an arrowhead,” he says, “and that was it. I realized that whoever had made that arrowhead and the Onondaga people who lived on the nearby reservation were somehow connected. And more than that, here were people who still lived on their own land and spoke their own language 500 years after Europeans arrived in North America. Clearly, they had figured out how to survive, even when faced with profound and traumatic change. I wanted to understand how that happened.” So began Mr. Bradley’s academic journey into history, anthropology, crosscultural psychology, and archaeology that would result in dozens of published works about the history of the Northeastern United States, from the end of the Ice Age to the present.

Mr. Bradley is also founder and president of ArchLink, a private business that seeks to link archaeology with education and preservation. Mr. Bradley’s fieldwork has ranged from archaeological surveys on Cape Cod and Alaska’s North Slope to urban salvage in downtown Boston. He is nationally recognized as an expert on the archaeology of Native American people of northeastern North America and their cultures. Mr. Bradley received his Ph.D. from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in 1979. He served on the staff of the Massachusetts Historical Commission from 1979 to 1990, and directed a statewide survey of historic and archaeological resources. From 1990 to 2001 he was director of the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology in Andover; an active scholar, he has received numerous awards in his field.

Up-Island Wampum Beadmakers Trunk Show, Saturday, Oct. 24, from 3 to 5 pm, and “Revisiting Wampum” with James W. Bradley, Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 5 pm, both at the Chilmark library. Admission to events is free. Programs are sponsored by the Friends of the Chilmark Public Library. Please call 508-645-3360 for more information.