Aquinnah: Wampum jewelry and crafts

— Kyra Steck

There was an interesting thread on the Facebook page, “Islanders Talk” over the weekend that I found helpful. It addressed non-Native people making jewelry and crafts with quahog shells and calling it “wampum.” Wampum refers specifically to jewelry, beads, and crafts made by Native people, a fact that I am embarrassed to say I did not know. This is why Joan LeLacheur (a non-Native), who makes jewelry and beads from quahog shells, calls her work “ocean jewelry” and not wampum. The word wampum has a deep historical meaning and value to Native people. It is not just about what is made with the shells, but who made it: Where are they from? Who taught them to make it? The wampum (as I understand it) tells part of the story of Native people and their ancestors. The wearing of it is a way to honor them. Since non-Native people are not part of that lineage, to create jewelry from quahog shells and call it wampum is appropriation of Native culture and erasure of its history. Non-Native people are welcome to wear wampum as cultural appreciation (very different from appropriation), and are encouraged to support Native artisans.

The original thread on the page was not without its arguments, trolling comments, and misunderstandings, but through it all a core group of Wampanoag women calmly and extremely patiently walked the rest of us through the issue. This was a good reminder to me that: A. That’s not their job, and B. As Faith Smalley pointed out, Bridgewater State College is hosting a FREE Indigenous History Conference series now through November, and it’s a great place to learn about Native history. This Sunday’s workshops are “Reclaiming and Reviving Deep Indigenous Histories on Turtle Island” and “Historical Trauma: The Wounds that Won’t Heal” from 1 to 3:45 pm. You can register at Bridgewater State’s website: bridgew.edu/event/indigenous-history-conference.

This Thursday, the library will host a virtual book group to discuss Julia Spiro’s “Someone Else’s Secret” at 3 pm. The author herself will be present to answer questions and discuss her work. You can email aq_mail@clamsnet.org to sign up. The library continues to be open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from noon to 4 pm for contactless pickup. You can browse the collection online, or call the library at 508-645-2314 to request a book.

On Friday, Sept. 25, in honor of World Climate Day, about 30 people gathered in the fog at the Cliffs for the second “Earth First” flag-raising ceremony, this year sponsored by the Island Climate Action Network and Futures for Friday. Carole Vandal was the mistress of ceremonies, and led everyone in song. There were many speeches, Carole’s grandson, Bangii-Kai Bellecourt (an impressive young person), spoke; he was the one who encouraged the ceremony to be held again this year, even with a pandemic happening. Runar Finn Robinson (another impressive young person) gave an excellent, albeit bleak speech, about our current climate state and how income inequality adds to the climate crisis. Robinson says, “Here, in the global North, we are grossly exceeding our energy budgets. The global North is responsible for 92 percent of excess emissions, while the global South contributes only 8 percent, and the richest 10 percent globally consume more energy than the poorest half of humanity (3.1 billion people), but the destruction caused by massive overconsumption in wealthy countries like the U.S. will mostly come down on poor black and brown people in the global South who have barely contributed anything to the problem. They will be impacted the most by our actions.” These words really struck me and brought home to me the gravity of our situation.

For all those with children in their last year of high school during this crazy time, it can be difficult to ensure that your kids are getting the support they need to apply for college. So, the West Tisbury library will host a Virtual College Essay Workshop with Abby Remer on Saturday, Oct. 24, from 2 to 3 pm. It will be held via Zoom; please email mlawson@clamsnet.org or lhearn@clamsnet.org for more information and to register.

I hope everyone had a great Indigenous People’s Day weekend. Thank you to the Native community that protested in Boston over the weekend to officially change the name — everything I read about Columbus reaffirms that we should not be celebrating him. I also hope that Wampanoag tribal members here on the Island had a bountiful Cranberry Day, I’m looking forward to seeing pictures of the little ones gathering berries in the bogs.

If you have any Aquinnah Town Column suggestions, email Molly Purves, mlpurves@yahoo.com.