AskDefine | Define wampum

Dictionary Definition



1 informal terms for money [syn: boodle, bread, cabbage, clams, dinero, dough, gelt, kale, lettuce, lolly, lucre, loot, moolah, pelf, scratch, shekels, simoleons, sugar]
2 small cylindrical beads made from polished shells and fashioned into strings or belts; used by certain Native American peoples as jewelry or currency [syn: peag, wampumpeag]

User Contributed Dictionary



Abbreviated from wampumpeag; falsely analysed as ‘wampum’ + ‘peag’; from ‘wamp’ ("white") + ‘umpe’ ("string") + ‘ag’ (plural suffix), in reference to the string of white shell-beads and not the individual beads.




wampum (uncountable)
  1. Small beads made from polished shells, formerly used as money and jewelry by certain Native American peoples
  2. Money

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

Wampum is a string of white shell beads fashioned from the North Atlantic channeled whelk (Busycotypus canaliculatus) shell, and is traditionally used by Indigenous Americans, First Nations peoples, Native Americans, hobbyists, business people, and traders, who regarded it as a sacred or trade representative of the value of the artist's work. Wampum is also used for engagement, marriage, and betrothal agreements, as well as for ceremony and condolence ceremonies. The white shell beads of the whelk symbolized internal energies of peace, harmony, and contentment. Wampum is often confused with Sewant, which symbolized the outside energies of a system. Wampum beads (white) are made from the channeled whelk shell. Sewant beads (black or dark purple) are made from the Poquahock, commonly known as the quahog, quahaug, or Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam. Wampum is still being used as a valid form of currency in many states.


The term "wampum" is derived from a word—"wampumpeag"—in one of the Eastern Algonquian languages meaning "white strings [of beads]" (c.f. Maliseet: wapapiyik "white-strings [of beads]"; Ojibwe: waabaabiinyag "white-strings [of beads]"; Proto-Algonquian *wa·p-a·py-aki, "white-strings [of beads]"). Traditionally the white beads come from the inner spiral of the whelk, the north atlantic white channeled whelk shell. Sewant or suckauhock is often confused for wampum. Sewant is the black or dark purple shell bead from the quahaug or poquahock clam shell of the western North Atlantic Ocean. Wampum beads are traditionally made by rounding small pieces of the shells of whelks, then piercing them with a hole before stringing them. Suckauhock means the black-purple beads from the quahaug/quahog shell. The terms for the black and white beads, often confused, are wampi (white) and saki (black). In the area of present New York Bay, the clams and whelks used for making wampum are found only along Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay. The Lenape name for Long Island is "Sewanacky", reflecting its connection to the "black" wampum. By the time of the arrival of the Europeans, the Pequots reputedly used their dominance of tribes around this area to gain control of the sources of the beads.
Perhaps because of its origin as a memory aid, loose beads were not considered to be high in value. Rather it is the belts themselves that are wampum. Belts of wampum were not produced until after European contact. A typical large belt of six feet in length might contain 6000 beads or more. More importantly, such a belt would be a great sanctity, because it contained so many memories. Wampum belts were used as a memory aid in Oral tradition, where the wampum was a token representing a memory. Belts were also sometimes used as badges of office or as ceremonial devices of an indigenous culture such as the Iroquois. Wampum is also considered the end product of whelk and quahog, i.e. the belts to show leadership. When Europeans came to the Americas, they realized the importance of wampum to Native people. While the Native people did not use it as money, the New England colonies used it as a medium of exchange. Soon, they were trading with the native peoples of New England and New York using wampum. The New England colonies demonetized wampum in 1663.
With stone tools the process is labor intensive, and the shells were available only to coastal nations. These factors increased its scarcity and consequent value among the European traders. Dutch colonists began to manufacture wampum and eventually the primary source of wampum was that manufactured by colonists, a market the Dutch glutted.
Wampum is part of the Coat of Arms of New Brunswick.

Wampum as transcription

The American William James Sidis wrote in his 1935 history;
"The weaving of wampum belts is a sort of writing by means of belts of colored beads, in which the various designs of beads denoted different ideas according to a definitely accepted system, which could be read by anyone acquainted with wampum language, irrespective of what the spoken language is. Records and treaties are kept in this manner, and individuals could write letters to one another in this way."
Wampum is also used for storytelling. The symbols used told a story in the oral tradition or spoken word. Since there was no written language wampum is a very important means of keeping records and passing down stories to the next generation. Wampum is also durable and so could be carried over a long distance. The Wampum Belt is an important symbol in the polar cult.

Modern references

Musician Tori Amos composed a short piece entitled Wampum Prayer on her Scarlet's Walk album, which is thematically very Native-oriented. The song briefly addresses the Trail of Tears, as well as the importance of prayer to the Aboriginal American peoples.
Mitch Hedberg, the late comedian, makes a reference to wampum in one of his jokes: "This product that was on TV was available for four easy payments of $19.95. I would like a product that was available for three easy payments and one complicated payment. We can’t tell you which payment it is, but one of these payments is going to be hard. The mailman will get shot, the envelope will not seal, the stamp will be in the wrong denomination. The final payment must be made in wampum."

See also

  • Quipu South American strings with knots used as memory aides
  • Shell money
  • Commodity money
  • Fiat money
  • Wampum is also the name of a popular shareware database management system based on dBASE III used on IBM-compatible PCs in the 1980's and 1990's.



  • Oberg, Michael Leroy, Uncas, First of the Mohegans, 2003, ISBN 0801438772
wampum in German: Wampum
wampum in Spanish: Wampum
wampum in French: Wampum
wampum in Polish: Wampum

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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