New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Passamaquoddy Wampum Records

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From the blog at

Wampum could be a decorative item, such as beadwork. If such an item was used for ceremonial purposes then it might have significance going beyond decoration. Wampum has also been described as currency, but I’m not sure that that is a good description. Maybe it would be better to call it a trade item having decorative value. The wampum discussed in this blog post is something else altogether, and that is as a medium for recording history, legends and laws. “Talking sticks” would be wampum of that kind, though it could also take forms other than sticks.

The following paper about wampum was written by John Dyneley Prince and was presented to the American Philosophical Society on December 3, 1897. It discusses wampum in general, and also offers translations of several important documents that were recorded in that way. These Passamaquoddy Wampum Records are also significant to the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people. Spelling is as found.

Wampum Sticks

Wampum Sticks, or Talking Sticks,

from ‘Native American Extensions’ on Pinterest


The Passamaquoddy Wampum Records

The Passamaquoddy Indians of Maine, who, together with the Penobscots, now occupy Oldtown on the Penobscot River as their headquarters, are members of the great Algonkin family which was in former times the dominant native race from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. The language still in use among the Passamaquoddies is a northern dialect of the Algonkin stock, very closely allied to the idiom of the Etchemins or Maliseets of New Brunswick and to that of the Abenakis or St. Francis Indians of Quebec, and less closely, although nearly, related to the language of the Micmacs of Nova Scotia.

The Passamaquoddies, Penobscots, Maliseets, Abenakis and Micmacs call themselves by the common name Wabanaki or “children of the dawn-country,” which was in earlier days the generic name of the entire Algonkin family. These five tribes seem to have been members of a federation both with one another and with the Iroquoian Six Nations, and the Passamaquoddies have preserved the traditions regarding both of these unions in their Wampum Records, the text and translation of which are given in the present article.

The records of an Indian tribe were in nearly all cases orally transmitted by elderly men whose memories had been especially trained for the purpose from their early youth. It was customary for these keepers of the tribal history from time to time to instruct younger members of the clan in the annals of their people. The records thus transmitted in the case of the Passamaquoddies were kept in the memory of the historians by means of a mnemonic system of wampum shells arranged on strings in such a manner that certain combinations suggested certain sentences or ideas to the narrator or “reader,” who, of course, already knew his heart and was merely aided by the association in his mind of the arrangement of the wampum beads with incidents or sentences in the tale, song or ceremony which he was rendering. This explains such expressions as “marriage wampum” or “burial wampum,” which are common among the Passamaquoddies and simply mean combinations of wampum which suggested to the initiated interpreter the ritual of the tribal marriage and burial ceremonies.

This custom of preserving records by means of a mnemonic system was peculiar to all the tribes of the Algonkin race as well as to the Iroquoian clans. Brinton refers to the record or tally sticks of the Crees and Chipeways as the “rude beginning of a system of mnemonic aids.” It seems to have been customary in early times to burn a mark or rude figure on a stick suggestive of a sentence or idea. Brinton adds: “In later days, instead of burning the marks upon the stick, they were painted, the colors as well as the figures having certain conventional meanings. The sticks are described as about six inches in length, slender, although varying in shape, and tied up in bundles.” Among the more cultured tribes the sticks were eventually replaced by wooden tablets, on which the symbols were engraved with a sharp instrument, such as a flint or knife. The Passamaquoddies appear never to have advanced beyond the use of wampum strings as mnemonic aids.

I obtained the Wampum Records at Bar Harbor, Me., in 1887, from a Passamaquoddy Indian, Mr. Louis Mitchell, who was at that time Indian member of the Maine Legislature. The MSS. which he sent me contained both the Indian text and a translation into Indian-English, which I have rearranged in an idiom I trust somewhat more intelligible to the general reader. Owing to the fact that the Indian text in Mitchell’s MSS is written syllabically, without any attempt at a division into words, much less into sentences or paragraphs, the difficulty of editing the same with even approximate correctness has been very great. I have followed almost exactly Mr. Mitchell’s extremely variable orthography, although tempted in many cases to depart from it, as he has written what is evidently the same sound sometimes in as many as three different ways. Thus, he was clearly unable to distinguish between j and ch, a, u and e, or oo and u, and he uses k-c, kw-qu, b-p, etc., apparently indiscriminately. I plead guilty in advance, therefore, to any errors which may occur in the original text, trusting that the interesting character and historial value of the records themselves will justify their publication in the state in which I offer them.

The Wampum Records in English

Many bloody fights had been fought, many men, women and children had been tortured by constant and cruel wars until some of the wise men among the Indians began to think that something must be done, and that whatever was to be done should be done quickly. They accordingly sent messengers to all parts of the country, some going to the South, others to the East, and others to the West and Northwest. Some even went as far as the Wabanaki. It was many months before the messengers reached the farthest tribes. When they arrived at each nation, they notified the people that the great Indian nations of the Iroquois, Mohawks and others had sent them to announce the tidings of a great Lagootwagon or general council for a treaty of peace. Every Indian who heard the news rejoiced, because they were all tired of the never-ending wars. Every tribe, therefore, sent two or more of their cleverest men as representatives to the great council.

When all the delegates were assembled they began to deliberate concerning what was best to do, as they all seemed tired of their evil lives. The leading Chief then spoke as follows: “As we look back upon our blood-stained trail, we see that many wrongs have been done by all of our people. Our gory tomahawks, clubs, bows and arrows must undoubtedly be buried for ever.” It was decided, therefore, by all concerned to make a general Lagootwagon or treaty of peace, and a day was appointed when they should begin the rites.

For seven days, from morning till night, a strict silence was observed, during which each representative deliberated on the speech he should make and tried to discover the best means for checking the war. This was called the “Wigwam of Silence.”

After this, they held another wigwam called m’sittakw-wen tle-westoo, or “Wigwam of Oratory.” The ceremonies then began. Each representative recited the history of his nation, telling all the cruelties, tortures and hardships they had suffered during their wars and stating that the time had now come to think of and take pity on their women and children, their lame and old, all of whom had suffered equally with the strongest and bravest warriors. When all the speeches had been delivered, it was decided to erect an extensive fence and within it to build a large wigwam. In this wigwam, they were to make a big fire and, having made a switch or whip, to place “their father” as a guard over the wigwam with the whip in his hand. If any of his children did wrong he was to punish them with the whip. Every child of his within the enclosure must therefore obey his orders implicitly. His duty also was to keep replenishing the fire in the wigwam so that it should not go out. This is the origin of the Wampum laws.

The fence typified a treaty of peace for all the Indian nations who took part in the council, fourteen in number, of which there are many tribes. All these were to go within the fence and dwell there, and if any should do wrong they would be liable to punishment with the whip at the hands of “their father.” The wigwam within the fence represented a universal house for all the tribes, in which they might live in peace, without disputes and quarrels, like members of one family. The big fire (ktchi squt) in the wigwam denoted the warmth of the brotherly love engendered in the Indians by their treaty. The father ruling the wigwam was the Great Chief who lived at Caughnawaga. The whip in his hand was the type of the Wampum laws, disobedience to which was punishable by consent of all the tribes mentioned in the treaty.

After this, they proceeded to make lesser laws, all of which were to be recorded by means of wampum, in order that they could be read to the Indians from time to time. Every feast, every ceremony, therefore, has its own ritual in the wampum; such as the burial and mourning rites after the death of a chief, the installation of a chief, marriage, etc. There were also salutation and visiting wampum.

Ceremonies Customary at the Death of a Chief

When the chief of a tribe died, his flag-pole was cut down and burnt, and his war-like appurtenances, bows and arrows, tomahawk and flag, were buried with him. The Indians mourned for him one year, after which the Pwutwusimwuk or leading men were summoned by the tribe to elect a new chief. The members of one tribe alone could not elect their own chief; according to the common laws of the allied nations, he had to be chosen by a general wigwam. Accordingly, after the council of the leading men had assembled, four or six canoes were dispatched to the Micmac, Penobscot and Maliseet tribes if a Passamaquoddy chief had died. These canoes bore each a little flag in the bow as a sign that the mission on which the messengers came was important. On the arrival of the messengers at their destination, the chief of the tribe to which they came called all his people, children, women and men, to meet the approaching boats. The herald springing to land first sang his salutation song (n’skawewintuagunul), walking back and forth before the ranks of the other tribe. When he had finished his chant the other Indians sang their welcoming song in reply.

As soon as the singing was over they marched to some imwewigwam or meeting house to pray together. The visiting Indians were then taken to a special wigwam allotted to their use over which a flag was set. Here they were greeted informally by the members of the tribe with hand-shaking, etc. The evening of the first day was spent in entertaining the visitors.

On the next day the messengers sent to the chief desiring to see all the tribe assembled in a gwandowanek or dance-hall. When the tribe had congregated there, the strangers were sent for, who, producing their strings of wampum to be read according to the law of the big wigwam, announced the death of the chief of their tribe, “their eldest boy” (ktchi w’skinosismowal), and asked that the tribe should aid them to elect a new chief. The chief of the stranger tribe then arose and formally announced to his people the desire of the envoys, stating his willingness to go to aid them, his fatherless brothers, in choosing a new father. The messengers, arising once more, thanked the chief for his kindness and appointed a day to return to their own people.

The ceremony known as kelhoochun then took place. The chief notified his men that his brothers were ready to go, but that they should not be allowed to go so soon. The small wampum string called kellhoweyi or prolongation of the stay was produced at this point, which read that the whole tribe, men, women and children, were glad to see their brothers with them and begged them to remain a day or two longer; that “our mothers” (kigwusin), e.g., all the tribal women, would keep their paddles yet a little while. This meant that the messengers were not to be allowed to depart so soon.

Here followed the ceremony called N’skahudin. A great hunt was ordered by the chief and the game brought to the meeting-hall and cooked there. The noochila-kalwet or herald went about the village crying wikw-poosaitin, which was intelligible to all. Men, women and children immediately came to the hall with their birch bark dishes and sat about the game in a circle, while four or five men with long-handled dishes distributed the food, of which every person had a share. This feast was called kelhootwi-wikw-poosaltiu. When it was over the Indians dispersed, but returned later to the hall when the messengers sang again their salutation songs in honor of their forefathers, in reply to which the chief of the tribe sang his song of greeting.

When the singing was over the chief seated himself in the midst of the hall with a small drum in one hand and a stick in the other. To the accompaniment of his drum he sang his k’tumasooi-n’tawagunul or dance songs, which was the signal for a general dance, followed by another feast.

The envoys again appointed a day to return, but were deterred in the same manner. As these feasts often lasted three weeks or a month, a dance being held every night, it was frequently a long time before they could go back to their own tribe, because the chief would detain them whenever they wished to return. Such was the custom.

The Ceremony of Installation

When they reached home, however, and the embassies from the other Wabanaki tribes had also returned, the people of the bereaved tribe were summoned to assemble before the messengers, who informed them of the success of their mission. When the delegates from the other tribes, who had been appointed to elect the chief, had arrived and the salutation and welcome ceremonies had been performed, an assembly was called to elect the chief.

This took place about the second day after the arrival of the other Wabanaki representatives. A suitable person, a member of the bereaved tribe, was chosen by acclamation for the office of chief. If there was no objection to him a new flag-pole was made and prepared for raising, and a chief from one of the kindred tribes put a medal of wampum on the chief-elect who was always clothed in new garments. The installing chief then addressed the people, telling them that another “eldest boy” had been chosen, to whom they owed implicit obedience. Turning to the new chief, he informed him that he must act in accordance with the wishes of his people. The main duties of a chief were to act as arbiter in all matters of dispute, and to act as commander-in-chief in case of war, being ready to sacrifice himself for the people’s good if need were.

After this ceremony they marched to the hall, where another dance took place, the new chief singing and beating the drum. A wife of one of the other chiefs then placed a new deer-skin or bearskin on the shoulders of the new chief as a symbol of his authority, after which the dance continued the whole night.

The officers of the new chief (geptins) were still to be chosen. These were seven in number and were appointed in the same manner and with the same ceremonies as the chief. Their duties, which were much more severe, were told them by the installing chief. The flag-pole, which was the symbol of the chief, was first raised. The geptins stood around it, each with a brush in his hand, with which they were instructed to brush off any particle of dust that might come upon it. This signified that it was their duty to defend and guard their chief and that they should be obliged to spill their blood for him, in case of need and in defense of the tribe. All the women and children and disabled persons in the tribe were under the care of the geptins. The chief himself was not allowed to go into battle, but was expected to stay with his people and to give orders in time of danger.

After the tribal officers had been appointed, the greatest festivities were carried on; during the day they had canoe races, foot races and ball-playing, and during the night, feasting and dancing. The Indians would bet on the various sports, hanging the prizes for each game on a pole. It was understood that the winner of the game was entitled to all the valuables hung on this pole. The festivities often lasted an entire month.

The Marriage Ceremony, the Ancient Rite.

It was the duty of the young Indian man who wished to marry to inform his parents of his desire, stating the name of the maiden. The young man’s father then notified all the relatives and friends of the family that his son wished to marry such and such a girl. If the friends and relations were willing, the son was permitted to offer his suit. The father of the youth prepared a clean skin of the bear, beaver or deer, which he presented to his son. Provided with this, the suitor went to the wigwam of his prospective bride’s father and placed the hide at the back of the wigwam or nowteh. The girl’s father then notified his relations and friends, and if there was no objection, he ordered his daughter to seat herself on the skin, as a sign that the young man’s suit was acceptable. The usual wedding ceremonies were then held, viz., a public feast, followed by dancing and singing, which always lasted at least a week.

The Marriage Ceremony in Later Days

After the adoption of the wampum laws the marriage ceremony was much more complicated.

When the young man had informed his parents of his desire to marry and the father had secured the consent of the relations and friends, an Indian was appointed to be the Keloolwett or marriage herald, who, taking the string of wampum called the kelolwawei, went to the wigwam of the girl’s father, generally accompanied by as many witnesses as cared to attend. The herald read the marriage wampum in the presence of the girl and her father, formally stating that such and such a suitor sought his daughter’s hand in marriage. The herald, accompanied by his party, then returned to the young man’s wigwam to await the reply. After the girl’s father had notified his relatives and friends and they had given their consent, the wedding was permitted to go on.

The usual ceremonies then followed. The young man first presented the bride-elect with a new dress. She, after putting it on, went to her suitor’s wigwam with her female friends, where she and her company formally saluted him by shaking hands. This was called wulisakowdowagon or salutation. She then returned to her father’s house, where she seated herself with her following of old women and girls. The groom then assembled a company of his friends, old and young men, and went with them to the bride’s wigwam to salute her in the same manner. When these salutations were over a great feast was prepared by the bride, enough for all the people, men, women and children. The bridegroom also prepared a similar feast. Both of these dinners were cooked in the open air and when the food was ready they cried out k’waltewall “your dishes.” Everyone understood this, which was the signal for the merry-makers to approach and fall to.

The marriage ceremonies, however, were not over yet. The wedding party arrayed themselves in their best attire and formed two processions, that of the bride entering the assembly wigwam first. In later times it was customary to fire a gun at this point as a signal that the bride was in the hall, whereupon the groom’s procession entered the hall in the same manner, when a second gun was fired. The geptins of the tribe and one of the friends of the bride then conducted the girl to the bridegroom to dance with him. At midnight after the dancing a supper was served, to which the bride and groom went together and where she ate with him for the first time. The couple were then addressed by an aged man (no-nmikokemit) on the duties of marriage.

Finally, a number of old women accompanied the newly made wife to her husband’s wigwam, carrying with them her bed-clothes. This final ceremony was called natboonan, taking or carrying the bed.


Written by johnwood1946

May 4, 2016 at 9:19 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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