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Montreal museum brings together unprecedented collection of historical wampum belts

October 20, 2023

‘I felt a connection to our ancestors,’ said Hilda Nicholas

A man stands in an exhibition space
Jonathan Lainey is the curator of Indigenous cultures at the McCord Stewart Museum in Montreal and a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: Hundreds of years after being given to European nations by Indigenous peoples from across the northeast, a collection of wampum belts have returned to Canada for the first time.

Forty wampum belts dating back to the 17th century that are currently held in public and private institutions across Europe, Quebec, and Ontario are part of a new exhibition, Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy, at Montreal’s McCord Stewart Museum.

It’s a historic moment for Jonathan Lainey, curator of Indigenous cultures at McCord and a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation. “We believe that by having all of them here … in one big room, is an amazing and once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said.

Wampum are tubular beads made from white and purple quahog shells. In addition to being used ornamentally or ceremonially, wampum were also woven into belts as mnemonic devices in history, traditions, laws, and diplomacy between nations.

4 historical wampum belts displayed in a glass case.
Over 40 wampum belts are a part of the exhibition, which runs until March 2024 at the McCord Stewart Museum in Montreal. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

The exhibition, which is co-developed by the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, features several objects that were held in France, the Vatican, and and institutions across Canada. Thirteen belts come from McCord’s own collection.

“These objects have been in collection in France for 400 years, for some of them, and they lost part of their history,” said Emmanuel Kasarhérou, president of the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. “That’s why it was a very important collaboration with McCord and the Seneca Cultural Center … for the people to be able to see them for real but also to reconnect with their own history.”

However, little is known about many of the belts.

A man stands in the middle of an exhibition space.
Emmanuel Kasarhérou is the president of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“It’s unfortunate because these belts had a lot to say,” said Lainey. “When the keepers of those belts presented them publicly, they could speak about them for hours… But now the only thing we have is sometimes the name of the collector.”

Making belts accessible

The Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac held its own wampum exhibition last year, and collaborated with Indigenous curators like Lainey and Michael Galban, curator of the Seneca Art and Culture Center in Victor, N.Y.

Galban said an important part of the collaboration meant ensuring the belts be accessible to the nations who made them, which is why they were brought to the Seneca Art and Culture Center earlier this year.

Shells sitting in a glass case
Wampum belts are made of shells – like these – that are turned into beads and woven together. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“These belts… they are begging to be read,” said Galban.  “These objects want to be understood. They want to be spoken to. They want to be active again. We wanted to make sure that not only were we welcoming the objects, but the descendants of the people who really created them, where they came from.”

Lainey said making the belts accessible was also important for the McCord. On Oct. 14, the museum welcomed representatives from several nations and communities from Canada and the United States to reconnect to the wampum belts before they went into display cases.

“When we say we want to decolonize our practices, Indigenize, or be an ally to Indigenous peoples, I think this event was a way to walk the talk,” he said.

Connecting to ancestors

The event was an emotional experience for Hilda Nicholas, who is from the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kanesatake, northwest of Montreal. “It’s a proud moment. I felt a connection to our ancestors,” said Nicholas, director of Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Language and Cultural Center and president of Kontinónhstats ne Kanien’kéha, Kanesatake’s Mohawk language custodian association.

“It made me think [about] what it took them to make the wampum belts. We were told that these wampum belts were made by women. I felt like I could picture these women hard at work.”

A wampum belt in a glass case.
The Two Dog wampum belt has been held by the McCord Stewart Museum for over 100 years. It originates from Kanesatake, a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community northwest of Montreal. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

One belt presented by Christians in Kanesatake to Pope Gregory XVI has been held by the Vatican since 1831, and this marks the first time it has returned to its home territory. Another, the Two Dog wampum belt, has been held by the McCord Stuart Museum for over 100 years.

A photo of chief Sosé Onasakenrat of Kanesatake wearing the Two Dog belt is included in the exhibition; his brother David Swan sold the belt, among others, to the museum’s founder David Ross McCord in 1919.

Nicholas hopes they will one day return to her community. “It’s in good hands right now, but we also would like to be able to have a heritage centre built so we can bring back the belts that belong to Kanesatake,” she said.

Beads of Diplomacy opens Oct. 20 at the McCord Stewart Museum and runs until until March 10, 2024.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer, Journalist

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.