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Patterns and Plot Holes

A critique of Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy

The exhibition Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy has been on display at Montreal’s McCord Stewart Museum since October 20, 2023, and will remain on display until March 10, 2024. It brings together more than 40 wampum belts from public and private collections in Quebec, wider Canada, and Europe. These belts were created from wampum: shell beads that were exchanged between Indigenous nations, and between Indigenous nations and Europeans, from the early seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century. The exhibition also features a substantial collection of medals, weapons, ornaments, and other “cultural belongings” as well as photographs and art installations.

Upon entering the exhibit, attendees will learn that Wampum was developed in collaboration with the Musée du quai Branly and that it was displayed in Paris and then New York before making its way to Montreal. The McCord website celebrates the “exceptional international collaboration” that went into this exhibit, but attentive visitors may find greater cause for scrutiny than for celebration. For Wampum to be developed and first displayed in Paris, an ocean away from the lands on which these belts were created, raises certain ethical questions. How effective was the collaboration between the curators based in France and the Indigenous experts – on whose voices this exhibit clearly and correctly depends – based in Canada and the United States? Why should (non-Indigenous) Parisians and tourists have been the first to view this exhibit? By whom was this exhibit intended to be seen? Was it designed to satisfy or benefit a particular audience?

These questions followed me through the exhibit, but I found no answers in either the objects on display or the captions beneath them. Neither did I discover what would happen to the wampum and other “cultural belongings” after the exhibit closed. One can reasonably assume that the 13 wampum from the McCord collection will be returned to the archives from which they were pulled, but the museum’s website also raises the possibility of repatriation: an unnamed author notes that the wampum belt presented by the Kanehsatà:ke community to Pope Gregory XVI “has not been repatriated since 1831.” The museum does not make it clear as to whether the belt is being repatriated to Canada, to Quebec, or to the Kanehsatà:ke. Further, the assumption that repatriation can consist in simply transferring the wampum from one private collection to another, or from one museum to another, neglects the Indigenous views of repatriation expressed in the Wampum exhibit itself. In a video projected at the exit of the exhibit, Jean-Philippe Thivierge of the Huron-Wendat Nation remarks: “Wampum have never belonged to a single individual. They’re communal objects. So, who should take care of them if they’re repatriated?” For the wampum to disappear into drawers after March 10, 2024, inaccessible to the (Indigenous) public until enough time has elapsed that they might once more be displayed for profit, would be a shameful fate.

McCord’s vagueness on the fate of the wampum belts is perhaps less embarrassing than its vagueness on how, exactly, so many of them ended up in private European collections after their production largely ceased in the nineteenth century. Undoubtedly, many of the belts on display were given freely to Europeans in their negotiations with Indigenous nations or even created by Europeans to give to Indigenous nations. At least one exhibit label, however, notes that Indigenous peoples sold wampum to collectors: “To deal with their problems” – by which is meant the problems that settlers created for Indigenous peoples – “some people sold their objects, including wampum.” This is not untrue, but it is not the whole truth. No discussion of the transfer of “cultural belongings” from Indigenous peoples to Europeans and settlers should fail to mention that many such belongings were banned, notably under the Canadian government’s Potlatch Ban. Wampum might have been immune from bans enforced for the purpose of encouraging (or coercing) the assimilation of Indigenous peoples, but they are not the only objects on display in this exhibit. It is possible that any number of the Indigenous-made objects in the collections of the McCord Stewart Museum, especially those whose origins are unknown, were confiscated by settler authorities. Failing to acknowledge the violent nature of the dispossession of Indigenous-made objects is nothing short of irresponsible.

Wampum is not without its merits, however. The curators have, I think, done an excellent job at tracing the history of wampum and at extending this history into the present. They acknowledge changes in the production and use of wampum in the period between the early seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. Moving from one room of the exhibit to the next, for instance, the attendee learns that the initial political and diplomatic purpose of wampum gradually gave way to a religious purpose as many Indigenous peoples adopted (or were forced to adopt) Christianity. McCord’s detailed, as-chronological-as-possible presentation of the history of wampum aids in the attendee’s understanding of a tradition that was constantly evolving to address new challenges. All of this helps to prepare the attendee for the second-to-last room of the exhibit, which features a series of artworks by contemporary Indigenous artists that either use wampum beads or that replicate or resemble wampum belts. My favourite of these artworks was Teharihulen Michel Savard’s Reciprocity. This mixed media sculpture shows a copy of the 1876 Indian Act punctured by a bullet wound out of which spills blood and wampum beads. It is a chilling piece that speaks to the failure of Canadian diplomacy – and provides a bit of respite from Wampum’s whitewashed labels.

Another point of success, in my view, is the “Keys to interpreting wampum belts” guide. Readers will learn that a square symbol on a wampum belt represents “a nation and its territory or a palisaded village” and that an axe is a symbol of war, among other things. Immediately, this guide reminded me of one I saw at the exhibit The Secret Codes: African Nova Scotian Quilts, presented at the Dalhousie Art Gallery this past summer. The Secret Codes guide was intended to help attendees decode messages on quilts whose designs borrowed from the motifs of Underground Railroad “secret code” quilts. As the Wampum guide does for wampum, it both affirmed the utility of “secret code” quilts – which might otherwise have been appreciated only for their aesthetic value – and allowed for a more engaging, interactive experience.

In summary, McCord’s Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy exhibit suffers from a lack of context regarding the collaboration that went into the exhibit, the fate of the wampum and other objects on display, and the means by which the wampum and other objects were acquired. The exhibit itself might be beyond the point of alteration, but McCord would do well to address these ethical concerns on its website. At the same time, future attendees can look forward to a thoughtful presentation of the history of wampum belts and their continued relevance, complete with a helpful guide to these fascinating and multifaceted objects.


Author’s note: I visited the Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy exhibit and wrote this review in November 2023. Since my visit, the McCord Stewart Museum has updated its Wampum webpage with a thorough Q&A section that explains, among other things, how the wampum belts were acquired and where they will go after the exhibit closes. This Q&A section is helpful, but it certainly does not answer all of the questions I had while viewing this exhibit, and it should not discourage attendees from continuing to ask questions about wampum and other Indigenous-made objects on display at museums.