Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America

The Box

The Box | Tavistock Place | Plymouth | Devon PL4 8AX 01752 304774 Email Facebook Twitter

Three years ago, The Box began a creative collaboration with the Wampanoag Nation. They are the People of the First Light, who have lived in the American eastern woodlands for 12,000 years. Their history and culture is long and rich. The ‘Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America’ exhibition will present it to everyone. 

Told by Wampanoag voices throughout, the exhibition explores Wampanoag life in America today, cultural history and the impact of the colonial past, as well creative aspirations for the future.

It’s part of what makes us who we are and I think it’s important for people to know that we are still here and we live in a contemporary way, but we still treasure these parts of our tradition.
Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag Nation

Paula Peters at the British Museum, Nov 2017 

Wampum is sacred and symbolic. It carries the history, the culture and the name of the Wampanoag people. Made from the purple and white shells of the whelk and quahog, wampum beads embody the Wampanoag connection to the sea and to life itself. Wampum belts are tapestries of art and tribal history. 

Wampum beads, and making the new wampum belt, 2020 c/o SmokeSygnals

The exhibition will centre on a newly crafted wampum belt created by Wampanoag artisans today and shown alongside historic wampum material from the British Museum. Together, they show the culture of the Native Americans who met the passengers of the Mayflower and ensured their survival.

The design of the belt was informed by our community – people in Aquinnah and people in Mashpee, and people of the various Wampanoag bands. We were informed by their clan symbols, and our knowledge of our history and our knowledge of our creation story. That’s why there is a white pine in the centre of the belt. It’s believed by our traditional leaders that that is where we have come from.
Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag Nation

Danielle Hill with the new wampum belt, 2020 c/o SmokeSygnals

Understandably, the Wampanoag people have a difficult relationship with Mayflower history and its legacy. Before the ship’s arrival in 1620, they had already been subject to attack from European diseases and capture by English adventurers. While co-existing with the new arrivals for some time, the relationship then became one of conflict and colonisation. In 1676, following the bloodiest war on American soil, the most treasured wampum of the Wampanoag people – Metacom’s belt – was given to the English victors and it’s thought, was sent to England. ‘Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America’ is part of the quest to find it.

We don’t know where it is. We don’t know who has it. But we feel very strongly it is part of our story – it is a document of our history and it is something as important to us as the crown jewels would be to the Queen of England.’
Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag Nation

‘Wampum: Stories and Shells from Native America’ is a local, national and international project. Created on both sides of the Atlantic, the exhibition connects the USA and the UK, Wampanoag artists and English audiences, the past and the present. It also looks to the future and to a new relationship across an ocean. This is an important course to chart 400 years after the arrival of the Mayflower in Native America. 

‘Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America’ is presented by The Box, Plymouth in partnership with SmokeSygnals, Massachusetts, and supported by Arts Council England as part of the Mayflower 400 commemoration. 

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