Pattern & Communication: Wampum Belts

Grade 6:  Designing Their Own Wampum Belts

Iroquois Wampum Belt


The teacher asked me to do an art project that would connect with the class’s work on Canadian indigenous cultures.  It had to be a relatively simple and quick lesson, as the end of the school year was quickly approaching and school work was piling up.

Wampum belts were made by the Iroquois, and highly prized.  They were used to sanction council meetings, confirm treaties,  communicate events, or signify tribal outlooks and records.  Wampum beads were made from the whelk Purple and the quahog clam shell.  Different symbols and colours were signifiers, and repetitions and variations of pattern often suggest timelines.

We looked at some different examples of wampum belts from history, and discussed the importance of symbols to communicate.  Each student was given a long narrow piece of graph paper and a small sample square of the same.  The latter allowed them to experiment with different shapes as they began to think about their own wampum belt.   What symbols could communicate something about themselves, their family, or local history/events?  The squares of the graph paper would replicate the shape of the beads of a real wampum.

Pencil crayons were made available, and I encouraged them to use them neatly, pressing down to get good colour.  For some, this was not their personality – but I still think the more successful ones employed good, solid colour.  The finished lengths of paper were laminated for durability and brightness of colour, with an idea to add strings at the ends to suggest the warp of a woven piece.  This was never realized, as the year came to a close and there was no time for any more.

In review, this could be a project that resulted in an actual weaving, with a smaller class and more time.  I might just try it.

Spring 2012 / St. Michael School

PS.  Walking in our town some months later, my daughter noticed some flags overhead.  “Look, Mommy.  Those are the symbols from the wampum belts we looked at!”  YESSSS.

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2 Responses to Pattern & Communication: Wampum Belts

  1. Kawennakon says:

    Hey, I took that picture of the wampum belt. I was creating an extended series of pics and took a pic of each symbol to represent each nation. I needed a pic for my powerpoint presentation so I laid a piece of leather on the table put the belt on top. Now I find it everywhere. I’m famous 🙂

    • Art Education says:

      I must thank you for your photo – it is a good, clear image that assisted me in conveying the project to my students, and reporting on it in this post. I do hope that you are pleased with the use of your image! I am currently engaged in getting a class of grade 7/8’s to produce their own images in the form of weaving on cardboard looms I have made (and remade twice), but using pony beads only. We have all learned to begin to appreciate the work that is involved … I may not take it that far with a whole class again. How does it feel to be famous? Cheers,
      Jodie Godwin

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