06 July 2010

Wampum for PrintZero

PrintZero Studios is an ever-evolving print studio and print-promoting organization created in 2003 by Brian Lane and Jeremy Cody. Every year since PrintZero's inception the two have organized a print exchange, and I decided to finally participate this year. One of the factors in my decision was that the required size of the print increased from 5" x 7" to 7" x 10" (17.8 cm x 25.4 cm). Perhaps because of my increasing farsightedness or maybe because they feel tight and fussy to make, I dislike making small prints.

I decided to go ahead and make a small print I had considered for the Pilgrim series, a print about the native American beads called wampum. The word wampum comes from the language of the Narragansett, a tribe that still lives on a small portion of their ancestral land, land that we now called Rhode Island in the United States. The word means "white shell beads." Wampum beads are made in two colors: white from the Whelk shell and deep purple from the Quahog shell (pictured here).

Used by many of the Eastern Woodlands tribes, wampum beads were considered sacred, some say because of the connection of shell with water and its life-giving properties. Wampum beads were woven into belts which were created to commemorate treaties or historical events, as a memory aid in retaining stories from oral traditions, and for exchange in personal social transactions such as marriages. Wampum was traded, exchanged and often worn as a badge of office or ceremonial device. The woven belts often contained pictograms, so in this sense and in its role as a story-telling device it could be thought of as a form of writing.

The settler colonists saw wampum a bit differently. They recognized the importance and value of wampum but they interpreted it as a kind of money (one web site I looked at speculated that this is the origin of the slang term "shelling out money") and they began using it as such. In the 17th century, wampum could be used as legal tender for many things, such as paying taxes or tuition at Harvard, and it was often used as partial payment for land purchase from the native peoples. Shortly after their arrival, the colonists opened mills to produce their own wampum more economically. Eventually these mills became the primary source of wampum in colonial America, glutting the market with devalued beads.

With all this in mind, I decided to design a "wampum belt" for my print that would address the grave misunderstandings between the settlers and the native peoples about wampum itself and about land and land ownership. According to William Cronin's excellent book, Changes In the Land,  Native peoples viewed land as common to all (much as we today view water and air), and when they "sold" land to the settlers they believed that they were selling various rights to the land (the right to farm, the right to fish), not the land itself. The colonists, of course, viewed land as subject to private ownership and it was this basic misunderstanding that so often led to the loss of tribal lands in exchange for a few so-called "beads and trinkets."

I had less than a week to do this print start to finish in time for the PrintZero deadline, so I decided to keep it to three colors. Of course, by the time I was finished it had evolved into four colors. I spent the first three days carving. Here's a closeup my favorite block of the four:



Debra James Percival said...

Annie your woodblock carving is absolutely gorgeous!

Ellen Shipley said...

I love this block. I'm a weaver and it speaks to me. Can't wait to see what it turns into.

Anita Thomhave Simonsen said...

Annie I read your text with all my senses and it is a horrible thing to think of....many similarities to other places in the world where land was taken from native people.....I love the subject of your woodblock print and the story behind it was so interesting...

Annie B said...

Thank you. Ellen, I briefly considered actually making some beads, maybe from Fimo or even papier mache, and weaving them, but the idea overwhelmed me.