How to Tell a People’s History in 6,500 Beads

Syracuse sits at the center of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the Onondaga Reservation Nation and possesses a vibrant history and culture that informed this area and the creation of our nation.

Words by Kaitlyn Frey

The Bill of Rights. The Bible. The Magna Carta. The Torah. The Quran. When most cultures seek to document values, missions, and laws, those entrusted to record it reach for a writing instrument and a piece of dry parchment. But not all. One chose to tell their people’s history with a belt made entirely of tiny sea shells. Yep, that’s right. Their entire history on one panel of fabric and beads.

The Haudenosaunee people, also called the Iroquois Confederacy by French missionaries, originally formed in what would become Onondaga County more than 2,000 years ago. In fact, Syracuse sits at the center of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the Onondaga Reservation Nation. The indigenous people of Syracuse made their mark on the area in tangible ways that continue to inform the area’s identity. Lacrosse. You can thank the Haudenosaunee for that (and SU’s top-notch lacrosse team). Oren Lyons Hall down on Euclid. That was named after the Native American faithkeeper who attended SU and graduated as an All-American on the undefeated lacrosse team his senior year. Hiawatha Boulevard down by Destiny USA. That’s named after their most famous wampum belt (which also became the Haudenosaunee flag). The founding fathers even took inspiration and ideas from the Haudenosaunee people when they established our democratic nation.

Before European settlers placed a buckled boot in Western lands, five nations spread throughout the New York State area — the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The groups united under an umbrella of peace, unity, and democracy embodied in The Great Law of Peace. But rather than recording those ideas on documents, the Haudenosaunee preferred a stunning method: wampum belts. In 1989, the original wampum belts returned home from the State Museum in Albany. The belts used to stand on display in Upstate New York until 1899 when they were acquired by the state. Each wampum typically features purple and white quahog shells found along the Atlantic Ocean. The shells (which are quite expensive to purchase today), are a half inch long and as wide as a pencil in diameter. To create the belts, the Haudenosaunee people worked together to string the beads on deer sinews or fiber threads. “There are 6,574 beads alone on the Hiawatha belt,” says Regina Jones, an Onondagan native and assistant director of the native studies program at Syracuse University. “It would take one person 40 hours just to make two beads. It was a like a full-time job today. Our people are incredibly dedicated.”

The Haudenosaunee passed down the wampum belts for generations and continue to share the stories embedded in them. Hugh Burnam, a doctoral student in cultural foundations of education, says telling the wampum belt stories can take as long as ten days, and are typically done by chiefs during Haudenosaunee ceremonies. The belts pass around from chief to chief in the longhouse, so the natives can reflect and remember the importance of their past.

We believe as long as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, as long as the grasses grow green, and as long as the waters flow downhill, these wampum are forever,” Burnam says. “These are the agreements between us and the settlers.” The agreement was intended to last until the rivers stopped flowing and the grass died.

Under a previous chancellor, the university sought to make good on its own promise. “Former Chancellor Nancy Cantor started the Haudenosaunee Promise Scholarship at SU, which gives natives the opportunity to study here. She wanted to have a closer relationship with the Onondagan natives, whose land Syracuse University sits on,” Jones says. “I hope SU students can be more aware of who the indigenous people of this land are and our values.”

While complex and intricate, the meaning of each wampum belt centers around Haudenosaunee values. “Life can be simple when you follow our principles and values,” Jones says. “We always give thanksgiving for everything the creator gave us in the natural world. We only take what we need and use what we take. And always think of future generations, not yourself.”