Wampum: Not Museum Artifacts but Original Treaties!

September 21, 2018 | Wendy M

Comments (1)


My Indigenous learning journey was recently accelerated when I stepped into the role of the TD Gallery Curator just before the installation of the current Indigenous-themed exhibit Pathways: Following traces of Indigenous routes across Ontario. As someone with an interest in history, and as a Canadian, I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing about wampum beyond the fact that they are beautiful beaded things.  

Treaty of niagara covenant wampum

The Treaty of Niagara Covenant Chain Wampum Belt of 1764 (PDF), an agreement between the Crown and twenty-four Indigenous Nations, including the Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas, was one of the foundational treaties signed by what is now Canada. This Treaty established the relationship between settlers of the Crown and Indigenous Nations, and still holds relevance today as a fitting symbol for the journey to Reconciliation. Sourced from Anishinabek News

One of the most surprising things that I have learned is that wampum such as the Treaty of Niagara Covenant, or the Two Row and Dish With One Spoon, are agreements, treaties, lessons. Wampum are not decorative items made of trade beads, money, artifacts of unclear use (if any), or belts akin to the ceintures fléchées, the colourful sashes of the Québecois and Métis. 


What do wampum and ceintures fléchées have in common?

I may not have been too far off the mark by likening ceintures fléchées in my mind to wampum. Both impart information and are Indigenous in origin. Some believe that the colourful, traditional 19th century French-Canadian sash and part of the Métis national costume is a French Canadian invention, while others maintain that this type of finger weaving was taught to the residents of New France by Indigenous people. The pattern and colors of the sash tell a story, revealing the culture of the person who created it. A stranger could be identified by their sash. Sash patterns and styles were passed down from mothers to daughters. Now I wonder what other stories there may be in ceintures fléchées.

What is the significance of wampum?

Wampum are living "documents", treaties still in effect between Indigenous nations or Indigenous nations and Europeans and settler governments. Imagine a very accessible, durable treaty that lives with the people and can be replicated, shared and used for teaching, not hidden away in a government archive or legal repository! 

For the Pathways exhibit the Toronto Public Library commissioned copies of the Two Row and Dish with One Spoon Wampum.

2 row wampum
Two Row Wampum, an early 17th C treaty between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch establishing the intention to live separately and peaceably.
Dish with one spoon wampum
Dish With One Spoon Wampum

This Dish with One Spoon Wampum is a treaty between the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee prior to European contact. A historic and possibly original version of this treaty is in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. The Dish With One Spoon is a common metaphor for the responsibilities inherent in sharing land and resources, the same rules used when sharing a meal in a single dish: do not take more than one's share; do not foul the dish; and do not use violence.  This metaphor and treaty are especially relevant today as we consider pollution, overpopulation, resource depletion and other issues.

The Two Row and Dish With One Spoon Wampum are on display at the TD Gallery.

Wampum creation

The Two Row and Dish With One Spoon Wampum were painstakingly created by Haohyoh, Ken Maracle, of the Wampum Shop. Ken uses traditional techniques and materials to create wampum. Each bead is made of purple quahog and white quahog or whelk shells, and takes about 15 minutes to make. The shells are actually drilled underwater to prevent breakage. Check out Ken's work.

Wampum in art

The Two Row and Dish With One Spoon wampum are also featured in the eloquent double-screen video piece at the beginning of the exhibit. The videos, entitled "Beyond Acknowledgement", were created by Independent Documentary Media Creator Natasha Naveau.


Come and learn more by visiting the Pathways exhibit.


Or, participate in the related programming:

Free guided tour by Cree youth artist Megan Feheley

  • Saturday September 22 and 29, 2pm, in the Toronto Reference Library TD Gallery

Screening of the 2016 documentary Colonization Road starring Anishinaabe comedian and activist Ryan McMahon. The screening will be followed by a Question and Answer with a member of the production team. 

  • Monday September 24, 6:30 pm, in the Beeton Hall at Toronto Reference Library