Smithsonian spotlights wampum pearl belts and more

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Paula Peters and Linda Coombs gently unravel the community’s wampum belt they helped create, revealing 3,570 wampum beads that combine to give life to powerful totems like the whale, turtle, white pine and traditional dancers.

The belt, Coombs said, is an amalgamation of art and cultural significance that “helps tell the story of the Wampanoag people.”

“The dancers bring the belt together. You can see at both ends of the belt they are dancing back to the middle, to the tree, which represents that we are going back to our ancestors,” said Coombs, a member of the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head (Aquinna). “That is, the life of our ancestors, the language they had and the knowledge they had. That means we have come full circle.”

The belt isn’t quite finished yet, but Coombs and Peters now in episode three tell the story of its creation, its connection to King Philip, aka Metacom, and its 2020 tour of the UK “Wampanoag Celebration”, a virtual series started by the The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indians.

The nine-part program is available on request on the museum’s website until Monday 28 February.

Shawn Termin, interim director of public programs at the National Museum of the American Indianssaid “Wampanoag Celebration” had been launched on the museum’s website on February 1st. The museum is physically located in Washington, DC and New York City.

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“The series came together in a way that shows the strength of the Wampanoag, who carry on their traditions so strongly today,” she said. “With this exhibition, we wanted indigenous voices to speak for themselves about their own history and culture.”

What does Wampanoag Celebration offer?

Also on the program is Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, who will discuss Wampanoag history; Marlene Lopez demonstrating finger weaving and Darius Coombs talking about Muhsh8n boat building.

Also featured are Tobias Vanderhoop, who touches on traditional storytelling; Jonathan Perry, a craftsman who focuses on traditional copperwork; Berta Welch, contemporary jewelry making expert; and Sherry Pocknett, who is giving a cooking demonstration at her Rhode Island restaurant Sly Fox Den toofeaturing local seafood dishes including quahogs, small necks and lobsters.

The series also includes a screening of “King Philip’s Belt – A History of Wampum”, which was created and produced by Peter’s multimedia company Smoke signals.

As of 2018, Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, and Coombs frequently worked alongside about 100 other Wampanoag tribe members to help weave delicate pieces of deep purple and white wampum onto the beaded belt. Deriving from the smooth and silky underside of a Quahog shell, the wampum was carefully crafted by Indigenous artisans from across New England.

From episode to episode, Wampanoag Celebration gives Native peoples “an opportunity to show the world that the Wampanoag nation and their communities are alive and well and an integral part of modern society,” said Jonathan Perry.

More information: Wampanoag weave their history through the Wampum Belt Project

“I think there are lessons in this series,” he said. “The love and heart that each person shares reflects their spirit and ancestral connections — which surround their art, their teachings, and the belief systems that we as contemporary Indigenous artists hold.”

Coombs said the series could also show that indigenous tribal nations “didn’t go away.”

“We’re still here, and indeed we’re still a functioning indigenous tribal nation in this area. We have a council-style tribal government, but we also still have a traditional system with a chief, the medicine man and clan mothers,” she said. “We didn’t go away.”

Also Perry does not lose the importance of the visibility of the trunks of the eastern forests.

“This is a good step for the museum to recognize and represent a nation of Northeastern Aboriginal peoples — indigenous entities that are often glaringly missing,” Perry said. “Ideally, their exhibitions, their online presence and their activities will be more represented from now on.”

How the project united Wampanoag bands

For Peters, it was the series’ ability to bring together the many Wampanoag bands that made her proud to be a part of the production. Like the Wampum Belt, which also included deerskin brain tans from the Nipmuc Nation’s Andre Strong Bear Heart Gaines, the series featured contributions from all the Wampanoag bands including Mashpee, Herring Pond, Assonet, Gay Head (Aquinnah) and Namasket- Bands of Wampanoag.

“I loved that they wanted to teach the wampum belt story because this story was so much about bringing our community together, and that effort to include everyone spanned every episode,” said Peters. “Having the Wampanoag themselves cared for by NMAI in this way is really nice. It was an uplifting experience.”

Termin said the series was originally conceived prior to the COVID-19 pandemic as an on-site exhibition created in response “Mayflower 400”, a commemoration of the Mayflower sailing from England to America, made in the UK.

“Mayflower 400,” which launched in 2020, examined the experiences of those affected by the arrival of the Mayflower and touched on truths centered around the colonization of the tribal nations of the Eastern Woodlands, Termin said.

But the museum, she said, wanted to go beyond what “Mayflower 400” offered to show Wampanoag people “telling their own stories in their own way.” The in-person event was canceled when the pandemic hit.

COVID-19: history repeats itself

After making the decision to proceed with a virtual event, Termin began working with local historians. Along with the museum’s media staff, she traveled to the subjects’ homes or studios to record stories and artistic demonstrations.

When the video series came together, Perry said it was hard to “overlook the irony” of how an event originally intended to celebrate Native American survival during 17th-century pandemics, including outbreaks of smallpox and measles, was due to a pandemic somehow faltered.

“Perhaps the lesson for people is to stop and think about the impact and outcome of diseases that have been brought here and diseases that are rampant across the country,” Perry said. “Because it wasn’t really until the disease swept the landscape here (in the 17th century) that people thought about colonizing this region.”

Before these 17th-century pandemics, Perry said most foreigners were “quite scared” of coming to America from Europe because of the dense native population.

“Suddenly these colonization efforts took over. Before that, the beaches and bays were teeming with indigenous people who fished and fished for clams. They (settlers) speak of being surrounded by canoes, many miles out to sea. There are records of huge ocean canoes sailing past them that were larger than their own ships with larger numbers of men,” Perry said.

“Fast forward, and here we are in 2020, 2021 and 2022, and we’re still dealing with disease – a pandemic that has transformed how we engage, how we look at our communities, how we do business and how we travel.” he said.

More: Revival, teaching the Wampanoag language

Termin said there is a lot to learn from the series.

“Our country has always been inhabited by indigenous peoples who have remained committed to their culture. They’re still here and they have a lot to say,” she said. “I understand that some stories might not always be told from the right perspective, but this is a way to change that.”

Termin said, “Wampanoag people are much more than a Thanksgiving story.”

The series can be found below https://nmai.brand.live/c/wampanoag-celebration.

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