Grade 6: Designing Their Own Wampum Belts
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.