Sacred Symbol: Beauty of Wampum

41˚N Rhode Island’s Ocean and Coastal Magazine
Winter 2015 

by Sarah Schumann | photographs by Acacia Johnson


 

41_winter15_AllenAllen Hazard, a wampum maker and member of the Narragansett Tribe, carries on an age-old tradition of creating objects of beauty and symbolism with quahog shells. Hazard is one of only three artisans in the world who make wampum in the traditional Eastern Native way. Contrary to popular belief, wampum did not attain the status of currency until after the arrival of Europeans on American shores.

Here, Hazard talks about what the quahog shell represented, and continues to represent, to the Narragansett Tribe:

 

Wampum is sacred. That’s the word to use when you’re speaking about wampum with a traditional Eastern Native. Why? Because anything that gave its life so that we could continue ours was deemed special. There’s no other way to put it. Money doesn’t do that.

“IT WAS PROBABLY THE MOST PRECIOUS THING YOU COULD GIVE”

That’s why we give it respect, and the ultimate respect is that once we get the meat out, and see that beauty, there’s no way in the world we’re going to throw that away.

I don’t care what your nationality is, when you see that, you’re going to keep it. You’re going to put it on you table or your countertop. Because it’s beautiful. And we thought we were beautiful by wearing it, and making sure that our sachem had a lot of it. And that was probably the most real aspect of the quahog.

We just couldn’t throw it away.

It was just too beautiful.

We could throw away a scallop, we could throw away a clam or a razor clam, or a mussel, easy… This isn’t the only beautiful shell in the world, obviously. But it’s the one that has made history.

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Handmade wampum jewelry on display at Allen Hazard’s store, The Purple Shell, in Charlestown, R.I