350 years of searching: Wampanoag still looking for historic wampum belt

The wampum belt was taken as a spoil of war after the death of Wampanoag leader Metacom, also known as King Philip. Its whereabouts remain a mystery.
Paula Peters, member of the Mashpee Wampanoag nation, has been searching for signs of Metacom's missing wampum belt for decades. (submitted/ Smoke Sygnals)

The celebrations surrounding the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing in Massachusetts, brought with them a challenge for Paula Peters.

"For so long, the story of the Wampanoag has been really romanticized, and the true story of how the Wampanoag were treated is marginalized," she said. "So this 400th anniversary has become an opportunity to elevate and balance that story."

Peters is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag nation, and was asked to help reframe the Mayflower's story from an Indigenous perspective. 

Some of the history she is using to build that awareness, is the ongoing search for a particular heirloom that has great value to the Wampanoag people — Metacom's wampum belt.

Metacom, also known as King Philip, was the namesake of King Philip's War (1675-1678). It was a battle that pitted Indigenous nations in the New England region against colonists and their allies. 

After Metacom's death, the belt was taken back to Europe as a spoil of war. With no record of where it went, the belt's whereabouts remain unknown. 

Peters said Metacom's belt was likely passed down to him from his father and leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy, Ousamequin.

"This type of belt, which was a community belt, it would have been something that people in the community contributed to generation after generation," Peters explained.

Wampum belts were used by many Indigenous nations to share stories of important events, or to keep records. The belts are woven together with small purple and white beads made from quahog shells.

"It was like a historic document to us, a living document, and it told our story for generations," Peters said. "It would be like the crown jewels to the queen."

Co-curator Jo Loosemore examines a recently created wampum belt made by members of the Wampanoag Native America people, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage. (Alastair Grant/AP)

As part of Peters' search for Metacom's wampum belt, she teamed up with the British Arts Council to craft a new wampum belt made by members of the Wampanoag nation, that would be exhibited in galleries in England.

"We brought the belt out into powwows and socials, and even went into people's homes, and had people come and do private weaving sessions with it to put it together," Peters said. 

"One of the reasons why it was so important to us to create this belt is because I've been in the U.K. and I had been actively looking for what had happened to Metacom's belt."

Peters said one thing that has made the search difficult, is that many people in the United Kingdom have no clue what a wampum belt is.

"The project in itself was a community project for us as tribal people, but it also serves to educate the people of England and Europe as to what we are looking for, which I think is a huge step in the right direction."

Paula Peters said the white pine design in the wampum belt represents part of the Wampanoag creation story, and also includes clan symbols. (submitted/ Smoke Sygnals)

Peters said that despite COVID-19 restrictions, more than 6000 people viewed the new wampum belt when it was being displayed in Southampton, England. Once the belt is done making its appearances in British galleries, it will return to the Wampanoag and live in its home territory.

Peters said she remains hopeful that Metacom's lost wampum belt will ultimately make its way home too. 

"We still hold out hope that someone will see that, understand the value of what we are looking for and help us to find it."