Native Americans used to trade handmade beads, which were called wampum. Though the word wampum means "white shell beads", traditionally they were either white or purplish-black. The white beads were made from the long spiral located inside the Atlantic Whelk shell, which is a type of ocean snail. The purple shells were made from the Quahog shell, which is a type of thick-shelled clam.
Wampum beads are long and cylindrical, measuring about one-quarter inch long and one-eighth of an inch in diameter. It wasn't until Europeans came on the scene that Native Americans began making belts from these beads. Here is how Native Americans made wampum beads.
First, they would use a rock to break a large shell into pieces. Then they would use a thick, bead-sized clamshell to drill a hole through the shell. Water was used to keep the shell cool so that it would not cause too much friction, in turn causing the shell to heat and break. This was always the first step, so that they would not be faced with disappointment after they finished the process of polishing the shell only to have it break during the drilling process.
To drill the hole, they would make a vise out of the end of a willow branch. Then the clamshell was positioned in the split part and a cord tied around the branch would secure it. The drill contained a sliver of flint.
When this was done, they would polish the bead and round it by rubbing it against rough stones, then rubbing it against progressively finer stones. The beads were then often strung on the inner bark of the elm tree, which was twisted together to form wampum string or wampum belts. The result was a beautiful piece of wampum.
In present day, many people use modern-day tools to make wampum beads. Even so, it is a very delicate task. The shells must still be drilled underwater so that they will not break during the drilling process. It takes about fifteen minutes to create one bead, which is then sanded and polished.
Though Quahog clams are endangered, some people raise them on farms so that they can use them for beads. Nonetheless, only one or two truly purple beads can be made from each shell. Some artisans use non-Quahog materials to cut costs.
Making wampum beads is a beautiful and rich way to preserve Native American traditions.