The recently commissioned Two Row wampum belt, with the tools used to...

The recently commissioned Two Row wampum belt, with the tools used to make it, that has been put on display at the New-York Historical Society. Credit: Wampum Magic/Lydia Chavez

Before European colonists arrived on North American shores, the wampum belt of Long Island’s Unkechaug Indian Nation was esteemed among the nations for its quality. Now, a recently commissioned wampum belt, which holds spiritual, political and cultural significance, will become a permanent part of the New-York Historical Society.

Made with quahog clam shells by artist Lydia Chavez, the long white-and-purple belt was put on display in the North Gallery on the fourth floor of the society's museum in Manhattan on Monday. Chavez is of Unkechaug/Blood descent.

Curators hope that the historical society’s commission to create the belt and yearslong partnership with the artist will show the importance of indigenous history in the region and combat misconceptions about the significance of the belt.

There is a misconception among some people that wampum belts were used solely for monetary exchange.

“Wampum is misunderstood and very significant,” said Debra Schmidt Bach, curator of decorative arts and special exhibitions at the historical society. “It became a medium of exchange after Europeans arrived, but it really was used as a sacred material that could be used from a range of different kinds of agreements, from appointing chiefs and clan mothers to wedding ceremonies or namings or burials.”

Each wampum belt or string is unique, the museum said, and can convey a complex message to “be fulfilled through the physical act of giving and accepting it.”

The Two Row wampum belt on display replicates one that was presented by the Unkechaug Indian Nation of Long Island to British governors during the 1670s, the museum said.

With its purple and white stripes, the Two Row design represents two cultures living and working in close proximity but not imposing on one another, the museum said.

Harry Wallace, who served as chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation for more than two decades, told museum officials that the belt is said to represent two canoes traveling in the same river side by side but with one never touching the other. He added it is an ancient understanding that existed before the arrival of the Europeans.

While the different patterns of a wampum belt, which is usually draped over the shoulder, can be read, the colors of the beads can also be an indicator of where the shells come from.

Museum officials also note that the belt is a product of the waters of New York.

“The indigenous nations that lived in and around our city really laid the groundwork, literally, for what we call New York Harbor today,” Bach said.

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