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Wampum Native American belt returned to St. Regis Mohawk Reservation

After more than twenty years of campaigning, a belt has been returned from a museum in Albany to the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.

Watertown Daily Times [1]

Wampum belt returned to reservation museum
CEREMONY HELD: Mohawks say 300-year-old ‘wolf belt’ symbolizes tribe’s history

HOGANSBURG — A 300-year-old piece of history returned to the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation on Friday, after more than a century in a museum in Albany.

In a ceremony steeped in Mohawk traditions, about 100 people came out to install the belt made of purple and white wampum beads in the tribe’s museum. Speeches in Mohawk, native singers and a traditional lunch of corn soup and fry bread ushered the 2-foot-long belt into a long glass case in a specially designed room in the small museum.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Salli M.K. Benedict, the museum’s former director. “The wampum belt, to me, is the community’s charter. It tells a whole story about our land, our territory, our bond with the land.”

The tribe has been working since the early 1980s to get the belt back from the New York State Museum. It was returned to the tribe before there was a safe place to store it. The belt had been kept in a vault at a branch of the Bank of Montreal on Cornwall Island until the special room was completed.

About 100 people lined up to pass the wampum belt from hand to hand a quarter of a mile from the banks of the Raquette River to the Akwesasne Museum on Route 37. The belt had traveled via an old, 12-person canoe from Cornwall Island.

The belt is made of shell beads, known as wampum. Four figures in purple are surrounded by a field of white beads. In the center, it features two human figures holding hands, which is a common image in Mohawk designs. Two canine figures are on either end of the belt, possibly guarding the humans in the center.

Though there is some debate about what kind of animal is on the belt, it is called the wolf belt.

“Those wampums represent our laws and our culture. They are how our laws are passed down,” tribal historian Arnold L. Printup said. “Because this wampum belt comes from the 1700s, the reasons it was created aren’t so clear. It was made to bring peace and prosperity to the seven nations and cooperation with the Europeans.”

The belt was created sometime between 1760 and 1780, according to the tribe, and serves as a reminder of the trials the Mohawks went through dealing with the colonizing powers. It also may serve as a way to strengthen the community in light of ongoing disputes, according to keynote speaker Jake A. Swamp, a former St. Regis sub-chief and founder of the Peace Tree Society.

“The wolves are at the doors of the houses and they protect the people inside. We can chase things away, we can let things in, but it’s our choice,” Ms. Benedict said. “I like to look at the symbolism of it.”

The belt will be kept under tight guard; it has three different security systems, as well as being in a room with climate and light controls. People likely will have to call the museum in advance to ensure they will be able to get in to see it, according to Debbie L. Cook-Jacobs, a member of the museum’s advisory board.

A replica of the belt, made by a Mohawk man who has been studying wampum work for about 20 years, will be brought around the community to schools and other events.

“Back in our history, these wampums were taken away from the community, either through sale or, a lot of times, there’s questionable actions — I don’t want to say ‘stolen’ — where these left the community and ended up in museums, where our people didn’t have access to them,” Mr. Printup said. “Our people are once again raising up our heads and looking back at where we’re coming from. We’re still here.”