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Studies in American Indian Literatures 19.4 (2007) 77-100

Wampum as Hypertext
An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice
Angela M. Haas

We do not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it.

Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

Chief Seattle of the West Coast Duwamish, 1854

We round the corner of the Many Tribes, Many Trails gallery that maps the U.S. government's forced removal of other indigenous tribes into the Cherokee Removal gallery at the Cherokee Heritage Center Trail of Tears exhibit.1 The wind is howling; it's freezing cold. We walk among the ghosts of our ancestors, some clinging to each other, others with walking sticks, others pulling their coats close. We pull each other close alongside the wampum belt record. Surrounded by the white wampum honor beads that lay the path for the continuance of our culture and language, the purple wampum beads remind us of the survival of some but the genocide of thousands. We weep. As you say, Qwo-Li, "We are not the ones who forget. We remember. . . . Our bodies hold everything we are told to forget."

This essay traces a counterstory to Western claims to the origins of hypertext and multimedia by remembering how American Indian communities have employed wampum belts as hypertextual technologies—as wampum belts have extended human memories of inherited knowledges through interconnected, nonlinear designs and associative storage and retrieval methods—long before the "discovery" of Western hypertext. By forging intellectual trade routes between Tehanetorens, Wallace, Williams, and other wampum historians [End Page 77] with the work of Western hypertext theorists, such as Bush, Nelson, Bolter, and Landow, this essay positions American Indians as the first known skilled multimedia workers and intellectuals in the Americas.2 Thus wampum has the potential to re-vision the intellectual history of technology, hypertext, and multimedia studies, and thereby American Indian studies—and such a re-visioning calls for a responsibility to digital and visual rhetorical sovereignty.

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Figure 1
Raw quahog wampum shells.

To begin, wampum is a small, short, tubular bead, made from the quahog clam shell. The white beads are made from the inner whorl of the shell, and the purple beads come from the dark spot or "eye" on the shell (fig. 1).

Dating back one thousand years, wampum and other material components (e.g., bark fibers, sinew, hemp fibers, string—or other weaving materials) have been used by Woodlands Indians for ceremony and as records of important civil affairs (e.g., alliances, treaties, marriage proposals, ceremonies, wars, etc.) by stringing the wampum beads together on individual strands or weaving them into belts, as pictured in contemporary contexts in figures 2 and 3.3 Thus wampum serves as a sign technology that has been used to record hundreds of years of alliances within tribes, between tribes, and between the tribal governments and colonial government.

According to Tehanetorens, the coastal Indians were the first to make and use wampum, but through trade with other tribes, it traveled [End Page 78]

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Figure 2
Wampum string as displayed by Six Nation youth Don Fadden .

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Figure 3
Wampum belt as displayed by Six Nations youth Roger Jock (Tehanetorens)
[End Page 79]

to the interior and western regions of the continent. Postcontact, wampum was also appropriated by American colonists, who used it as their first form of currency in colonial "America." Further, it was the wampum of the Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Cayugas) that influenced the democratic thought that led to the Constitution of the United States (cf. Tehanetorens; Wallace; Williams).

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Figure 4
Iroquois Chiefs from the Six Nations Reserve reading Wampum belts (ca. 1870). Copyright expired. Credit: National Archives of Canada.

Wampum strings and belts served to engender further diplomatic relations, and their presentation was a gesture that required reciprocity on the part of the recipient. Consequently, accepting...


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