Chowanoke History – Wampum
By Duvonya Chavis
Wampum, which is manufactured from seashells, was used at one time as currency in eastern United States. Surprisingly it was used as cash in the Dutch colonies in Pennsylvania and New York. However, few people know that wampum was also used to pay tuition at Harvard for a period of time. Europeans recognized the value of wampum and its value as money to Indians and they too used it to buy and sell goods. Some tribes manufactured wampum as a business and others manufactured it so they could trade for European goods. In 1744, one governor remarked that the traders had cheated the Indians out of their furs and “their wampum, which is their money.” Indians also extended credit when they engaged in market trading and they in turn bought goods on credit from Europeans. Some Indians even lent money and goods and charged interest on these products. These activities demonstrate that tribes understood and were very familiar with business principles, even to the point that Europeans recognized and remarked that they were astute in their business practices.Along with engaging in business activities, many Indians engaged in wealth accumulation. Further, they did not hide their wealth and some tribes demonstrated their wealth by participating in the potlatch. The potlatch was a social and often competitive gifting of enormous amounts of goods to other families, tribes, or clans. This generally required a lot of work to create, just to be able to give it away. However, the Europeans did not understand potlatching and tried to outlaw the practice because they thought it caused poverty to the family hosting the social event. This practice however, was no different from any other act of benevolence we see today when we donate to charities.
Duvonya, a Chowanoke Indian descendant, is President of Roanoke-Chowan Native American Association, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help American Indians in Northeastern NC and Southeastern VA. She currently sits on the council of the Chowanoke Tribe.
In partnership with another Chowanoke descendant, she is currently developing Chowanoke Reservation for tribal descendants to gather and hold cultural events.