Mayflower exhibition explores fascinating story of Native American Wampanoag nation

Feb 10, 2020

An ambitious new touring exhibition has been announced as part of the Mayflower 400 commemorations.

'Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America' aims to unite contemporary indigenous artists in the USA with historic museum collections in the UK, and puts the Native American Wampanoag nation’s story front and centre.

The Wampanoag Nation has inhabited present-day Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island, where the Mayflower passengers famously arrived in 1620, for more than 12,000 years. Yet for almost 400 years, the impact of the Mayflower’s arrival on the Wampanoag Nation has been widely marginalised in the telling of Mayflower history.

Told by Wampanoag voices throughout, this new exhibition will tour four locations across the UK, uniting contemporary indigenous artists and educators in the USA with museums and historic collections in the UK.

It features the first artistic commission from the UK to acknowledge our cultural connection to the Wampanoag Native American nation - a new wampum belt.

Linda Coombs and Paula Peters

Wampum belts are of cultural, sacred and symbolic significance to the Wampanoag nation. Through wampum belts, the Wampanoag share stories of their communities and culture.

The newly-crafted wampum belt has been created by more than 100 artisans from the Wampanoag nation and consists of 5,000 handcrafted beads. It will tour with historic wampum belts from the British Museum collection. On completion of the tour, the new wampum belt will be returned to the Wampanoag Nation.

It is hoped that through this touring exhibition, a lost Native American treasure may be uncovered – the wampum belt of the Wampanoag chief, Metacom. It has not been seen since it was sent to England in 1677 following the bloody King Philip’s War and has been the subject of an intensive international search that began in late 1970 and continues to this day.

'Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America' will explore the history, art and culture of the Native Americans who met the passengers of the Mayflower on their arrival in modern-day Massachusetts in 1620 and ensured their survival.

The Wampum Belt

Wampanoag artists will share their story and set out their creative aspirations for the future through images, ideas and wampum – the sacred shells of Native America.

The exhibition is a headline event of Mayflower 400, a year-long four-nation programme to commemorate and explore the 400 year anniversary of the journey and impact of one of history’s most famous ships.

Marking a step-change from previous commemorations and in recognition that their involvement is critical in understanding the history and legacy of the Mayflower, collaborative projects with the Wampanoag and wider Native American nations are central to the Mayflower 400 programme.

Paula Peters holding the Wampum Belt

Paula Peters, of Native American creative agency SmokeSygnals and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation, said: "The Mayflower story cannot honestly be told without including the Wampanoag nation and the devastating impact of colonisation on indigenous people.

"We are grateful to have been invited to contribute our historical and cultural knowledge to the Mayflower 400 commemoration unencumbered by centuries of marginalisation and uncensored by contemporary event planners

"The people who are participating in the making of the new wampum belt are sharing the story in the age-old oral tradition of the Wampanoag.

"The White Pine in the centre of the belt tells our creation story - that we came from her roots more than 12,000 years ago to become the people of the dawn. This belt will preserve our stories for many generations of Wampanoag to come."

Wampum Beads

Jo Loosemore, co-curator of Wampum: Stories and Shells from Native America, added: "400 years ago, England took its culture to Native America. Now, 400 years on, Native America is bringing its culture here.

"Wampum has always been used in diplomacy, so it seems appropriate that it will connect our cultures in 2020. We are honoured to be able to welcome the Wampanoag people and the wampum that is so special to them into English museums this year.

"It is a privilege to work alongside contemporary artists and educators from the Wampanoag Nation. We have a lot to learn from them - and their generosity gives us that opportunity."

Paula Peters works on the Wampum Belt

Wampum, translated literally as bead, is sacred and symbolic. It carries the history, the culture and the name of the Wampanoag people. Wampum belts are a tapestry of art and tribal history. Made from the purple and white shells of the whelk and quahog, wampum beads embody the Wampanoag connection to the sea and to life itself. Each shell bead is imbued with memory and meaning by the maker.

Mirroring the route of the Mayflower’s passengers, 'Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America' can be seen at The Collection, Lincoln, from 4 April to 17 May; the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, from 23 May to 5 July; and SeaCity Museum, Southampton, from 11 July to 31 August. The tour will culminate at The Box, Plymouth, from 5 September to 24 October.

The exhibition is presented by The Box, Plymouth (UK) in partnership with cultural development agency SmokeSygnals, Massachusetts, and supported by Arts Council England as part of the Mayflower 400 commemorations. The tour partners are The British Museum, The Collection Lincoln, Guildhall Art Gallery London and SeaCity Southampton.

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