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Exhibit celebrates wampum belts, a sacred link to Native peoples’ pasts

LEWISTON – A small glass case in the Lewiston Public Library cradles centuries of history in the form of striking creamy white and deep purple beaded wampum belts.

The stories behind these sacred belts will be told at a free special event planned for 6 p.m. Monday at the library, 305 S. Eighth St.

The “Wampum Teaching Project,” as it is known, belongs to an organization called Neto Hatinakwe Onkwehowe, which translates from the Cayuga language to “Here lives the people.” Neto is a Native American-managed, nonprofit arts and cultural organization. Among its many projects, Neto proposes to make a complete set of replica wampum belts based on the original belts of the Six Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.

Named for the short, tubular shell beads called “wampum,” these belts are sacred to the indigenous people, as they are a record of their agreements made with non-Native nations. Samples of the replica belts created by two Neto artists, Roland Mt. Pleasant, of the Tuscarora Reservation in Lewiston, and Tekawanakwe Isaacs, a Mohawk who lives in Buffalo, are on display at the library through the end of the month.

Allan R. Jamieson, a Cayuga who serves as Neto’s executive director, maintains a small office in the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center at 1201 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls, where he recently explained his organization’s ongoing project. Neto also has offices at 85 West Ave. in Buffalo.

“The artists had to make their own looms to make these belts,” Jamieson explained, producing a small, grooved wooden loom and a small metal loom as examples. “They are craftspeople, who have done a lot of beadwork on looms.”

The replica beads themselves are also handmade, of a clay compound, he added. They have been created by other craftspeople.

“The original belts were made with quahog (round clam) shells,” he said, mimicking the hues of creamy white and majestic purple taken from the shells’ smooth interiors.

Only around 40 to 50 of the original Six Nation wampum belts survive, having been slowly returned to their original Native owners, Jamieson noted, through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which became law in 1990. Some belts have been returned to the Onondaga Reservation near Syracuse while others have been returned to the Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ont. When the Iroquois were dispersed, Natives who showed allegiance to England went to Canada while the others stayed in America, Jamieson explained.

“These were desperate times for our people and a lot of our belts ended up in museums and in the hands of collectors,” Jamieson said.

Today’s artisans are working mostly from photos of the original belts, which are now closely guarded, he said.

Neto’s artists have finished 25 wampum belts over the past five years and hope to complete 60. They painstakingly produce about four to five a year.

“And, we are not just making Six Nations belts, but are doing other ones, too, like the William Penn Belt, from Delaware, to show that other indigenous people had agreements with the government, too,” Jamieson said.

Wampum belts were a way to depict the story behind the agreements made between indigenous people and the government, in a way Natives – who largely did not understand written English – could comprehend and preserve.

“This is how our history was handed down,” Jamieson said. “The treaties were words on paper none of us could understand. These wampum belts were made so that we could explain to future generations the meaning behind these treaties.”

The “Two Row” wampum belt, for example, which is on display this month in the Lewiston Library, “is an agreement between the indigenous people and the Europeans that we would never interfere with each other’s governments or ways of life,” Jamieson said.

“The symbolism is that they would travel the same river, the indigenous people by canoe and the Europeans by ship, side by side, but not interfering,” he explained.

The 400-year-old Two Row Wampum Treaty was commemorated in 2013 with a historic paddle down the Hudson River from Albany to Manhattan and was the topic of a short film, “Two Row Paddle,” which Jamieson said he will show at the library event.

He also has been asked to display some re-created wampum belts in the cafe area of the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center in March.

“We are going to have exhibits of these belts at community events and try and explain the meaning of the belts and the stories behind them,” Jamieson said.

“And, we are also going to try to invite some elders to share their stories here at the NAAC.”

Jamieson explained that Native lessons are traditionally passed down to younger generations through stories.

“We consider our elders to be scholars and they share their stories and others are appointed to remember what they are saying, word for word,” he said.

Neto also is striving to teach the art of wampum belt weaving to apprentices, to carry on the tradition, Jamieson said.

Neto has many other community outreach projects, including workshops for youths on everything from soapstone carving to wood-burning, as well as presentations.

“All of our activities are open to everyone,” he said, adding that the organization’s funding is primarily through grants and individual donations.

Looking ahead, Jamieson, who has served as the 25-year-old organization’s director for two decades, added, “I’d like to put together a film festival in conjunction with the NAAC because they have a nice auditorium for this. I’d also like to have a photography project, working with Native youths.”

To learn more, visit: www.netobuffalo.org or follow Neto on Facebook.