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(wäm`pəm) [New England Algonquian,=white string of beads], beads or disks made by Native Americans from the shells of mollusks found on the eastern coast or along the larger rivers of North America, used as a medium of exchange and in jewelry. Considered sacred, it was also used in a variety of rituals. In general, wampum beads were cylindrical. They were highly prized by the Native Americans, particularly by those of the Eastern Woodlands and Plains cultural areas. On the Pacific coast, shell ornaments (especially gorgets) were also used, but wampum was principally important in trade in what is now the NE United States. Wampum was passed by trade to inland tribes. Used as a currency or shell moneyshell money,
medium of exchange consisting of shells, the most widely distributed type of ancient currency. Shells are particularly useful as money because they may be strung in long strips of proportionate value or they may be used to provide a single unit value in exchange.
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, there were two varieties—the white, which is the only sort properly called wampum, and the more valuable purple, which went by a variety of names. Wampum was used for the ornamentation of such things as necklaces and collars. Wampum belts were of particular ceremonial importance because they were typically exchanged when a treaty of peace was signed. Frequently the belts had pictograph designs on them. Wampum was also used by white fur traders in their trade with the Native Americans in the early part of the 17th cent.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a variety of so-called picture writing.

Wampum was widespread among the Indian tribes of North America (the Iroquois, Hurons, and so forth). It consists of shells or beads strung on cords. The cords were woven into a band that was usually worn as a belt. The different colored shells had a symbolic meaning: red meant war; black, threat or hostility; and white, peace, good luck, or prosperity. Colored shells were combined with symbolic designs. For example, a red ax against a black background announced a declaration of war, and crossed dark hands on a white background meant a peace treaty. Wampum is often found with an abstract design—a geometrical decoration that also has symbolic meaning. Wampum was used for the transmission of messages from tribe to tribe, ornamentation, and sometimes currency.


Diringer, D. Alfavit [Istoriia pis’mennosti]. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from English.)
Istrin, V. Razvitie pis’ma. Moscow, 1961.
Friedrich, J. Geschichte der Schrift. Heidelberg, 1966.
Jensen, H. Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. Berlin, 1958.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(formerly) money used by North American Indians, made of cylindrical shells strung or woven together, esp white shells rather than the more valuable black or purple ones
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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La Longe (1981), Peage (1982), Le sang du guetteur (1985), and La face et le lointain (1986) demonstrate a distinctive and ever-modulated tone, and more recently, Eloge de la rupture (1991) provides an original and insightful recit of great breadth and delicacy.