Wampum Belt exhibit in Montreal museum spans 4 centuries

‘These wampums are very often the witness of past alliances,’ says curator.

More than 40 wampum belts from public and private institutions in Quebec, Canada and Europe are now on display at a museum in Montreal to shed light on the powerful cultural and political symbolism of these significant objects.

Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy is a new exhibit at the McCord Stewart Museum with a history that spans more than four centuries.

Jonathan Lainey, who hails from the Huron-Wendat Nation and curated the exhibit, said these “belts of truth” convey messages that were meant to be preserved.

“These wampums are very often the witness of past alliances and agreements and treaties, so to say that, to me, is basically saying that these belts are at the foundations of Canada that we know today,” Lainey said.

Wampum belts were made from shell beads and exchanged between Indigenous nations, including European nations during diplomatic meetings.

The exhibit aims to make wampum belts visible and accessible to all, according to Lainey.

The collection features objects from the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, which co-developed the exhibit.

Emmanuel Kasarhérou, president of Musée du quai Branly, said research shows that some belts given to Europeans ended up in cabinets of curiosity and private museums overseas since the 17th century.

“It’s important for us – Musée du quai Branly – to go back to the communities of origin, and the McCord has been doing important work with communities of origin for a very long time, and this was also an opportunity to try and draw new words around these wampums,” Kasarhérou said.

A wampum belt presented by the Mohawk community of Kanesatake to Pope Gregory XVI is also on display. It has been held by the Vatican since 1831.

Hilda Nicholas is the director of the Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Language and Cultural Center in Kanesatake, a Mohawk community west of Montreal.

She said seeing the exhibit was both awesome and emotional.

“Because you think back throughout the history of all of the things that have happened to our people and here we have in front of us these beautiful belts made by women,” Nicholas recounted.

She explained that Lainey approached the community to collaborate in the exhibit and she ended up recording the collection’s story in Kanien’kéha (the Mohawk language).

A picture of chief Sosé Swan from Kanesatake wearing the Two Dog wampum belt is also prominently displayed on a poster that adorns the museum’s facade.

“So proud! And I still have goose pimples because it’s so exciting and we are so proud that chief Sosé Onasakenrat – Joseph Swan – was a chief. He was a very brilliant man,” Nicholas said.

The exhibition will be on display until March 2024.

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