Weaving Memories: Wampum Belts and Aboriginal Recordkeeping

The presentation will explore and discuss the validity and legitimacy conferred to wampum belts, a form of recordkeeping and archiving used by Aboriginal peoples in the Northeast of America for more than two centuries. After establishing the historical context of their usages, I will discuss the many implications and challenges of their documentation today, and how digital tools may offer opportunities to better understand them. Wampum belts were offered during formal meetings to support the spoken words and to ensure that terms of past agreements and mutual commitments were remembered. Some of these belts were stored for long periods of time by custodians who publicly repeated their meanings to members of the community, thus transmitting its history to following generations. Given this particular mnemonic function, wampum belts have often been compared with archives, contracts and other official written documents. Establishing a clearer understanding wampum belts today is important, particularly in light of court cases regarding Aboriginal rights and treaties. Since the 1980s, wampum belts have been presented no less than 30 times in Canadian court and before tribunals as evidence to support claims of Aboriginal rights. However, documenting wampum belts today convey many challenges. Documentary records that have survived through the official archives are limited, often biased and incomplete, both because of their provenance and the context of their creation. Comprehensive understandings of wampum belts is further challenged by their dispersal in various museum and personal collections across North America and Europe, thus distancing community oral histories from their material manifestations. Digital projects, with intentions of reconciliation and knowledge exchange, are now emerging to help bridge these distances through “digital repatriation” whereby objects are reconnected with Aboriginal communities.

 

Jonathan Lainey is a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation of Wendake (Quebec, Canada). He studied Anthropology and Native Studies and holds a Master’s Degree in History from Laval University (Quebec). His research interests focus on the social, cultural and political history of Aboriginal peoples of Quebec and Canada, as well as the material culture and its interpretation. Jonathan is currently the archivist responsible for Aboriginal Archives at Library and Archives Canada.