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Onondaga Nation wampum belts traded illegally in 19th century robbing tribe of historic artifacts

Hiawatha-Belt onondaganation dot org.jpg
Onondaganation.org
This symbol is familiar to many as a reference to the Onondaga Nation. Called the Hiawatha Belt, this wampum belt holds historical stories of the Onondagas. Each bead is finely carved to mark an event or piece of history.

Onondaga Nation wampum belts changed hands – possibly illegally – in the 19th century, ignoring traditions of the handling and interpretation of these historic artifacts. Wampum belts are critically important to chronicling and telling the history of nations of the Haudenosaunee.

A legal brief held by the Syracuse University Libraries special collections research center sheds light on concerns the Onondaga Nation had and their efforts to get the wampum belts back. WAER reported earlier on documents that show how treaties and reservation borders were ignored by early settlers, and how historic maps detail how Native American territories shrunk to a fraction of their original sizes through actions tribal leaders never agreed to.

(Listen: part 3 of a series on historic documents discusses wampum belts’ importance and transfers)

A legal brief that is part of the SU collection was part of an attempt by the Onondagas to get back wampum belts. Researcher Dr. Sebastian Modrow placed claims made int eh brief into historical context. He’s assistant professor at the School of Information Studies, formerly the curator of rare books and manuscripts at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center. Modrow found belts had been sold and possibly acquired by private parties, including John Boyd Thatcher, who was Mayor of Albany NY from 1886-1888.

“(The brief has) a list of wampum keepers … through 1881, the last one Harry Webster. (It) goes onto explain that when Harry Webster died, his son, sold and gave away wampum belts. Thomas Webster gave away wampum belts and the argument is that he was not authorized. He was son of a wampum keeper but not a wampum keeper,” says Modrow.

A belt related to Hiawatha and another related to George Washington were named in the brief.

wampum_washington onondaganation dot org.jpg
Onondaganation.org
The George Washington Belt is an example of Haudenosaunee diplomacy with the United States. It represents the Canandaigua Treaty, which is still in effect, meant to create peace between Haudenosaunee and the United States.

What might seem like an artistic artifact is in reality a critically important item in many Native American cultures.

“Our Wampum belts are a way that we record all of our history, all the important events that happened throughout our history,” explains Diane Schenandoah, Oneida Nation faith keeper. “ … many if the belts that you see today that are in belts in New York State collections, you’ll see the dark purples, the whites, that represent certain things and this is also how history is retold. So they’re pretty powerful and meaningful to our people.”

Equally important is the role of wampum keeper. These select members of the different nations had the responsibility to both keep the belts and interpret the hundreds of finely-carved beads that held the history and the stories.

“One single bead would take over 40-50 hours to … shape that one bead. And if you think of some of our belts, the Great Law of Peace belt. The Hiawatha belt, the belt you see as a flag on the Syracuse University campus, is made up of over 2500 beads,” says Neal Powless, an Onondaga. “So if you’re thinking about the work hours that it took our people to make the beads, then to string them together using the sinew of the deer, and to repair, that’s what the wampum keeper’s duty was.”

Subsequently, the Onondagas wanted to make sure none of the belts was held in private hands, suggesting a custodian could be the State University of New York.

Episode 12 of The Land You’re On on wampum belts’ importance and disrespectful handling

This is the final episode of the podcast series The Land You’re On: Acknowledging the Haudenosaunee. In previous episodes we learned about statements that acknowledge history land of native American nations and how they might fall short; we heard the stories of Haudenosaunee students and their experiences fitting in on a college campus; we found out about how matriarchal societies define women’s roles as leaders, and much more. Listen to the entire series here.

The Land You’re On is presented by Access Audio, and the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Libraries. The podcast is a limited edition, twelve-part series that will air on WAER’s website and all major streaming platforms. The series continues to reflect on the complicated history of our land, while also celebrating Haudenosaunee culture and traditions.

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.