Far too often, people mistakenly associate wampum with money. Despite being the most sought after trade good that Europeans brought with them into Iroquois territory during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wampum’s value among the Iroquois did not derive from its purchasing power. Instead, wampum’s value came from the many diplomatic alliances and agreements that the Iroquois forged and maintained by exchanging either strings or belts of wampum. Traditionally, the Iroquois had traded with the northeastern Algonquians for the purple and white beads made from the quahog and various whelk species clam shells long before the arrival of Europeans. Yet, as soon as the Europeans realized that the Iroquois valued them so highly, they began manufacturing and trading wampum beads at a rate that far outstripped Algonquian capabilities. Initially, it was the Dutch among the European powers who traded manufactured tools, utensils, or cloth with the Algonquian tribes located along the Atlantic coast for the wampum beads. They then sailed up the Hudson River where they traded the Algonquian’s beads for the Iroquois’ processed beaver furs. The Algonquians were soon bypassed in the intercultural-international trade network as the Dutch learned to manufacture wampum beads with superior tools.
When arranged in various patterns, whether in strings or belts, the Iroquois used the beads of wampum as mnemonic devices linked to specific agreements made between tribes, clans, families, or individuals. During Native councils, strings of wampum would be handed one-by-one from one party to the other as the individual or group’s specific terms for the proposed agreement were voiced. Once all of the first party’s terms had been expressed and the strings of wampum associated with the individual terms were handed over to the second party, it was the second party’s turn to speak and present their terms. The second party would then hold up one received string of wampum at a time and would repeat what the first party had said when they had held the particular string. If the second party agreed to the terms associated with the received strings of wampum, they would keep them as reminders. Following the covering of the council fire, representatives would take the received strings of wampum back to their villages or homes where they would then repeat the terms to their fellow villagers or families while holding them aloft for all to see. It was thereby expected that each individual should memorize and live by these terms. Many times this was not necessary since entire villages would attend the councils in person where they could witness and memorize the individual terms as they were spoken. During the winter months when there was less work to be done, belts and strings of wampum could be taken out and younger generations would be taught the individual string’s or belt’s significance from their elders. In cases where the second party did not agree to a particular term presented by the first party, the second party would return the received string of wampum associated with the term to the first party. This process of exchanging strings of wampum would continue until the council was concluded with the ceremonial covering of the council fire. This process of exchange and voicing of terms would also be followed when negotiations involved Iroquois treaties with the European powers or the United States. Each article of a given treaty was represented by a string of wampum and the treaty was usually represented by a belt of wampum. Signed paper copies of the treaties and their terms were also created and kept by the Euro-American powers.
For major councils, wampum was strung together into belts commemorating either a newly established or reaffirmed bond between the two parties. According to traditional Iroquois arguments, strings and belts of wampum will last forever, just as the articles and treaties associated with them are supposed to. According to the same argument, belts and strings of wampum force Iroquois leaders to commit to memory the agreements that they or those that came before them have made. Conversely, paper documents get filed away where the words that are written upon them are eventually forgotten by future generations or as the paper they are written upon decomposes over time. What made remembering the symbolic meaning of a particular string or belt of wampum easier for the generations of Iroquois was the fact that each of the colors and arrangements of colors on strings or belts carried with them specific meaning. It became essential for Europeans to learn those meanings when attempting to negotiate favorable relations with the Iroquois. It was expected that translators for the European powers would not only understand the Iroquois language, but would also know how to order strings of wampum beads intended to represent the individual European power’s desired terms. Any mistakes might cause confusion or worse yet, insult. The use of wampum by the Iroquois during diplomacy highlights the importance of the “Cultural Broker” since any mistakes in translation or cultural understandings associated with wampum on their part during negotiations might press the Iroquois into the other’s camp (British, French, or American).
Wampum became essential to expanding and maintaining Iroquois influence across the Great Lakes region throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Since it was always being given away by the Iroquois during diplomatic negotiations, as gifts, during weddings, as offerings to their many gods, or being buried with their dead, the Iroquois need for wampum likely took on the appearance of currency to Euro-Americans who could little associate such want with anything other than gold, silver, or anything else that might be associated with riches. The big difference here is that if one is to consider wampum as money, the Iroquois are nothing like their white contemporaries - either then or now - since they gave far more of it away than they ever amassed. So, leaving aside the fact that contemporary Euro-Americans may have falsely associated the Iroquois’ apparently insatiable desire for wampum with their own insatiable desire for riches, it becomes apparent that wampum was far more essential to the Iroquois for the relationships that its dissemination solidified. If wampum possessed purchasing power in the seventeenth and eighteenth century when Euro-Americans were first making their way into the Iroquois homeland, that power lay in its ability to attain good relations between the Iroquois, their Native American neighbors, the European powers who hope to create trade and military alliances with them, as well as the many spirits who influenced the individual Iroquois’ everyday life. As with the Euro-American’s use of currency, when the Iroquois gave away wampum it usually meant that they expected something in return. However, wampum’s relationship to those expectations of something in return are not accurately explained as its ability to purchase those expected returns, but rather in wampum’s ability to symbolically represent what was expected by the Iroquois.