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New project revisits wampum belts through a contemporary lens

Rohsennase holds a wampum belt. He’s recently been commissioned to do a project for the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, N.Y. (Submitted by Rohsennase - image credit)
Rohsennase holds a wampum belt. He’s recently been commissioned to do a project for the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, N.Y. (Submitted by Rohsennase - image credit)

An Akwesasne artist making contemporary wampum belts says he thinks of strands of purple and white wampum beads as Morse code.

The tubular beads made from quahog shells were used ornamentally or ceremonially, and also woven into belts as mnemonic devices recording history, traditions, laws, and diplomacy.

Rohsennase, who is Kanien'kehá:ka, Bear Clan from Akwesasne, which straddles the Ontario, Quebec and New York state borders, said their tactile and simple patterns communicate important messages or invitations to other nations, or console someone in grief.

He's been commissioned for a project called Ahsén:na (Name) Kawén:na (Word) Orén:na (Song), by the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, N.Y., about 100 kilometres east of Buffalo, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts.

"Using some historic belts as a point of reference, I'm producing contemporary belts that tell stories or speak to experiences that I personally hold when I think about what is my responsibility to the land and to our people," Rohsennase said.

"I hope that these pieces will inspire conversation and curiosity about what getting land back looks like for us as people."

Rohsennase with Hiawatha Belt.
Rohsennase with Hiawatha Belt.

Rohsennase holds a Hiawatha Belt, national belt of the Haudenosaunee. (Submitted by Rohsennase)

The project features six contemporary and traditional kaión:ni or wampum belts, which Rohsennase said are meant to be handled and investigated as living documents because they contain the most precious words, values and experiences of Haudenosaunee people.

Rohsennase initially thought recreating a wampum belt would be easy feat but realized it wasn't.

That's what he appreciates about their designs.

"If you zoom out, it's so elegant in its simplicity," he said.

"Our most powerful designs are just so simple on one look but then on another look, they're really, really complex."

Beth Bojarski, senior director of programs at Genesee Country Village and Museum, said Rohsennsase's project dovetails with all three of the facility's elements — a historical village, a nature centre and an art gallery — "beautifully."

Genesee Country Village and Museum is an historic village with 68 historic buildings that were built in the 1800s recreated into a village, a nature centre and an art gallery.
Genesee Country Village and Museum is an historic village with 68 historic buildings that were built in the 1800s recreated into a village, a nature centre and an art gallery.

Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, N.Y., is a living history museum of 68 buildings from the 1800s, with a nature centre and an art gallery. (Loyd C. Heath/Genesee Country Village and Museum)

She said over the last few years the centre has shared stories from the past — the ones they're proud of and the ones they're not very proud of — and connected those to what's happening today and the museum's ongoing work.

Rohsennase's first presentation will be March 23 during the museum's Maple Festival to talk about the Indigenous relationship to the land, specifically maple trees.

"In the larger project that we have as communities, which is to reclaim ourselves, reclaim our relationships, reclaim our responsibilities, a lot of us are focusing on land back as a way to redress what was taken from us," he said.

Rohsennase said stewardship of the land as a collective is necessary.

"We have to protect what is left," he said.