‘It’s deeper than just art’

Indigenous people of Martha’s Vineyard denounce cultural appropriation of wampum by non-native craftspeople.

Indigenous people on Martha’s Vineyard are denouncing the cultural appropriation of Wampum by non-native craftspeople after a non-native jeweler referenced Columbus Day in a promotion, and used the culturally significant term to describe her art. — Screenshot

Members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) have denounced the cultural appropriation of wampum by non-native craftspeople.

Island Wampum owner Phoenix Rogers recently changed the name of her company to Island Quahog Jewelry after posting on social media about a “Columbus Day Weekend Giveaway.”

The post ignited a swift response from tribe members on Martha’s Vineyard, who voiced their anger and frustration that such a major element of their culture and history is being appropriated, and used for profit by nonnative people. 

Reached by phone, Rogers said she would have no comment.

Jamie Vanderhoop, a Narragansett tribe member and Aquinnah resident, said she heard about the “Columbus Day Weekend Giveaway” from a native woman in Connecticut who saw the post and commented, saying that it should be referred to as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

When Jamie moved to the Island 12 years ago, she said it was “jarring” for her to learn that nonnative people were creating shell jewelry out of quahogs and calling it wampum. “Our people assume that if you make wampum, you are native, so it was a surprise to me,” she said.

Jamie said wampum is “an essential and proud part of East Coast indigenous culture and history that is deeper than just art,” and the larger indigenous community has seen the post by Rogers as a call to arms. She stressed that wampum is important to many Indigenous nations, and the conversation surrounding appropriation has been ongoing. 

Jamie said she is frustrated about the post, but said Rogers also creates designs that are “very similar” to tribal designs. She said each indigenous artist has their own style of wampum, and Rogers “is basically seen as someone who is producing knockoffs of tribal work.”

“She has stolen designs and styles from local indigenous artisans, and she denies it,” Jamie said. “It’s blatant and bold plagiarism without any fear of consequence.”

But Jamie said that although she is frustrated and angry, she sees this misstep as an opportunity to engage in a larger dialogue between native and nonnative people.

“This is something that the Aquinnah Wampanoag have talked about amongst themselves. We are concerned about the generational trauma of losing our cultural connection with these major parts of who we are as a people,” Jamie said.

If nonnative people can open themselves up to education and understanding surrounding the significance of wampum, Jamie said, this can be used as a learning lesson, and a step toward positive change.

“I think this can be an opportunity. There is a huge difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation,” Jamie said.

Jamie’s husband, Woody, said as a native person, he strives to make his voice heard surrounding these issues whenever possible. He said the voices of indigenous people have been suppressed for centuries, but now is the time to speak out and advocate for change.

“We want to educate people, and not try and shame them. As an Island community, nonnative crafters might want to reassess the use of this term, and try to do that in a constructive way,” Woody said.

Program director at the Aquinnah Cultural Center Linda Coombs said taking something from someone else’s culture, calling it the same name, and using the same material that native people use to make wampum is the epitome of cultural appropriation. 

“Wampum has huge significance in contemporary and historical cultures. Whenever a nonnative person makes something out of a quahog shell and calls it wampum, that is cultural appropriation, and it’s wrong,” Coombs said.

And if it is true that nonnative artists are copying the designs and personal styles of indigenous craftspeople, Coombs said, “that is just rubbing salt in the wound.”

“For a long time, there has been the whole issue of trying to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day because Columbus was responsible for millions of deaths of Indigenous people,” she said. She continued that anyone who uses Columbus Day as a means of profiting, particularly off a significant cultural element of a native nation, “should feel shame.”

Coombs said education is essential when it comes to these matters, but after someone is educated on the significance of wampum and continues to act in a manner that devalues it and the people who created it, “that is on them.”

“I have learned to respect when something is not mine,” Coombs said.

For centuries, Coombs said Native Americans have “purposely been relegated into invisibility,” which is why it’s so important for the Wampanoag people to retain their spiritual, historical, and cultural connection to wampum, without nonnatives appropriating it.

Among a number of other nonnative craftspeople that work with quahog shells, Gwen Nichols has discontinued the use of the word “wampum” in her art, and wrote in a statement that she wishes to have an open dialogue with the Wampanoag community, and make changes in an effort to honor and respect the native people of the Island.

“I hear and understand what the Native Americans are saying. I respect their point of view. In my artwork, I only meant to honor the beauty of quahog shells. In 2020 we are coming to terms with so many realities of history, and therefore I’m willing to make changes in how I present my work,” Nichols wrote. “I’m willing to have further dialogue. One of my earliest memories with my mom in the early ’60s is crafting with shells and seaweed from Vineyard Haven Beach. My intention has only ever been to express my own vision from local natural materials.”