What is Wampum and Why is it Special to Martha’s Vineyard

Wampum, that beautiful, purpley, white bead, has very significant meaning and the shells it is made from are abundant on Martha’s Vineyard.

The term Wampum comes from a word “wampumpeag”, which in Narraganset, most literally means “white string of beads”.

Wampum beads are made in two colors: white, “Wòmpi”, beads from the whelk and purple-black ,“Súki”, beads from the growth rings of the Quahog shell.

It was originally used by Indigenious Americans, Native Americans and traders as a form of currency. In the year 1637 the Massachusetts General Court officially announced that 6 beads were equal to one penny.

Wampum was also commonly used to pay taxes. But Wampum was certainly used for more than just money. It was very symbolic and often used for engagements, marriages, ceremony and condolence ceremonies. The creamy white colored shell beads of the symbolized internal energies of peace, harmony, and contentment. In fact, the traditional wedding band of the Wampanoag is made of white Wampum.

Sadly, Wampum can no longer be used to pay taxes, but on Martha’s Vineyard, the jewelry created with Wampum by the Wampanoag Tribe is a treasured resource. While Wampum is available across the island, it’s worth the ride to Aquinnah, the home of the Wampanoag and the most beautiful Wampum designs I’ve seen.

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