Long Before WWJD Bracelets

Randall Stephens

The Boston Globe reports on an exhibition of some wonderful artifacts from the distant past. Two 17th-century Indian belts shed light on the complex interrelationship of native faith and Catholicism. These wampum belts are on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Chartres and displayed at the fabulous Shelburne Museum. (My wife and I made a trip up to Vermont to the Shelburne a few years back. What a fantastic outdoor, interactive museum. I don't know where else one can see 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and 20th- century homes, a shaker-style barn, a Methodist church from the 1840s, a lighthouse, a luxury train circa. 1890, a massive early-20th century steamboat all in one place?)

"Who Knew? Wampum Belts of Faith"
Michael Paulson, Boston Globe, July 18, 2009

Two 17th century beaded wampum belts made by Native Americans in New England for French Jesuit missionaries as expressions of Catholic faith have been shipped from a cathedral in France to a museum in Vermont where they are now on display. Alexis Berthier, the spokeswoman for the Consulate General of France in Boston said the belts were given to the missionaries "as a sign of friendship" and that "they also signaled the conversion of some of these Native American people."

The belts, on display at the Shelburne from July 2-31, are on view "In honor of the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial." This exhibition:

celebrates the shared history between the indigenous peoples of the region and French and English cultures. The exhibit features two masterpieces of Native American art and culture from the Treasury of Chartres Cathedral in France on view for the first time in the United States.

The two belts on view at Shelburne were made in the 17th century. The Huron belt was made in 1678 and the Abenaki belt was made in 1691 or earlier. Noting the conversion to Catholicism by some of the native peoples, the belts were given to the French Jesuit order. The belts were taken to France and placed in the Cathedral Treasury of Chartres in acknowledgment of their importance. The wampum belts are among the most important works from the cathedral treasury.


Linford Fisher said…
Thanks for this, Randall. This is extremely fascinating for all the reasons you point out. More than "prove" the conversion of the Huron or Abenaki (as the Globe article hinted), it strikes me that, reading the wampum belts through native lenses, the belts are also highly symbolic in political terms as well, since wampum belts were often the currency of treaties and alliances. It is tempting to read a two-fold attempt at forging alliances in this case--the first with the French, and the second with the Virgin Mary. All very interesting, nonetheless.

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