At the McCord Stewart Museum in Montreal, glass cases house precious wampum belts in a new exhibit that may be the biggest of its kind in the world.
“It’s very emotional to think of the past history that these belts represent,” said Hilda Nicholas, director of the Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Language and Cultural Center. Alongside Kanesatake historian Linda Cree, Nicholas coordinated with the exhibit’s curator, Huron-Wendat historian Jonathan Lainey.
The exhibit, Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy opens today, Friday, October 20. A handful of the 40 wampum belts originate from Kanesatake, including the 18th-century Two-Dog Wampum Belt, which outlines Kanesatake’s sovereignty and territorial rights.
“I think these belts represent agreements, and they should be respected in today’s world,” said Nicholas.
Another wampum belt on display was sent from Kanesatake to the Vatican two centuries ago. It is on loan from the Vatican after more than a year of talks.
The effect of seeing so much cultural history in one place is remarkable, said Nicholas, who attended a preview over the weekend. “It’s a very wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “It was amazing to be that close to our ancestors, to see all the belts that our ancestors made.” She encourages Kanehsata’kehró:non to view the exhibition for themselves.
The display not only gives Kanehsata’kehró:non the chance to view the wampum belts, but it has also reinvigorated calls to repatriate them back to Kanesatake, something Nicholas wants to see take place.
Lainey supports the repatriation of the Two-Dog Wampum Belt.
“Why is it here and not in Kanesatake? That’s a good question,” he said, adding that he has already received an informal repatriation request. He believes the McCord Stewart Museum is in a place where it would consider repatriating the item, as it has with some other artifacts rightfully belonging to Indigenous communities.
“Eventually, we need to put the action behind the words,” he said.
One of the obstacles in repatriating the belt, he said, is ensuring it is released to the right organization in a way all parties agree on, whether it be transferred to the cultural centre, band council, or Longhouse.
Many of the wampum belts in the McCord Stewart Museum’s collection were sold to it more than a century ago by Kanehsata’kehró:non David Swan, according to Lainey, including the Two-Dog Wampum Belt in 1919. Most are of unknown provenance, and one reason for this is that Swan acquired a number of belts from different regions and sold them to McCord without necessarily including the full context. The meanings are also obscured in many cases.
“For a hundred years, no one repeated it, and no one explained them,” said Lainey.
“We know the keepers of the belts in those days, they could speak for hours on each belt because they knew the oral tradition attached to it.”
The Two-Dog Wampum Belt is invaluable not only because it is highly complex and one of the biggest in the world – two metres long and 27 rows – but because it is well documented. “This makes it a very important belt,” said Lainey. “But of course, the belt is more important for the people of Kanesatake. For them, it’s a fundamental wampum.”
He suggested the sales were not valid in the first place.
“At some point, some individuals thought because they held it, they could sell it. It’s something we can question today. Was it a legitimate sale? Probably not if it was a collective property item,” Lainey said.
Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) chief Denise David, who also met with Lainey about the exhibit alongside MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille, believes the community should have a museum of its own, like Kahnawake is currently pursuing.
“I think on Council that’s one thing we all agree upon,” David said.
She feels the MCK can play a role in repatriating the wampum belts in partnership with the Longhouse. As an MCK chief, she also believes the government must take heed of what is outlined in the wampum belts.
“I think these belts are going to wake up our people, wake up the governments. They have to realize they can’t keep pushing us aside. These belts were made for a reason – it’s our history that’s written in them,” she said.
Like Nicholas, David was deeply moved by seeing the exhibition. “Yes, I’m putting a lot of hope in the belts, but the energy I felt coming off of them was amazing. What can I say? I was so proud of Hilda and Linda,” she said.
“I hope the energy it brings will clear whatever is hovering over our community dividing us and clear a path to future generations,” she said.
“We’re losing our future right now. We have to come together.”
Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy runs until March 10, 2024, although some wampum belts will be removed by the end of the year.
Admission to the McCord Stewart Museum is free for Onkwehón:we.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.