In exhibition in Brown, artist Wampanoag draws inspiration from tradition to celebrate Indigenous rights

PROVIDENCE, RI [Brown University] – An exhibit at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University makes compelling links between Indigenous art, Indigenous traditions and a 2007 United Nations resolution on the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world.

“The Beads that Bought Manhattan: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” is presented and open to the public in the Cohen Gallery at the Granoff Center until Sunday, October 24. It is presented by the Brown Arts Institute in collaboration with the Amerindian and Native Studies Initiative.

The focal point of the exhibit is a belt made of deer skin, artificial tendon and wampum – cylindrical beads made from clam shells – which symbolizes and celebrates the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ( UNDRIP), adopted in 2007.

The creator of the belt, Hartman Deetz, said that making wampum is more than an art form. It is also a symbol of its identity and its ancestral history.

“I was about 8 or 9 years old when my grandfather first took me digging clams,” Deetz said. “It was part of my summers, part of my cultural heritage, picking clams along the same shores my ancestors had for thousands of years. Today, decades later, another part of my cultural heritage has come from the hard-shell clam: the art of wampum.

Deetz, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe based in southeast Massachusetts, said his ancestors once used wampum as currency, trading intricate shell jewelry, clothing and accessories with neighboring tribes and European settlers. They often created belts made of wampum, sinew, and deerskin to symbolize intertribal pacts to keep the peace or share stewardship of the land.

When the United Nations adopted UNDRIP in 2007, Deetz felt compelled to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. Her wampum belt – which in the center features 46 beads to represent the 46 articles of the UNDRIP – frames the declaration as a modern “treaty” between nations.

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