In exhibition at Brown, Wampanoag artist draws on tradition to celebrate Indigenous rights

On view at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, a belt made of quahog clam shells, deerskin and artificial sinew symbolizes and celebrates a United Nations resolution asserting the rights of Indigenous peoples worldwide.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — An exhibition at Brown University’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts draws compelling connections between Native artistry, Indigenous traditions and a 2007 United Nations resolution on global Indigenous peoples’ rights.

The Beads that Bought Manhattan: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” is on view and open to the public in the Granoff Center’s Cohen Gallery through Sunday, Oct. 24. It is presented by the Brown Arts Institute in collaboration with the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative.

The exhibition’s focal point is a belt made of deerskin, artificial sinew and wampum — cylindrical beads made from quahog clam shells — that symbolizes and celebrates the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted in 2007.

One of the belt’s creators, Hartman Deetz, said making wampum is more than an art form. It’s also a symbol of his identity and ancestral history. 

“I was about 8 or 9 years old when my grandfather first took me out to dig clams,” Deetz said. “This was a part of my summers, a part of my cultural heritage, gathering clams along the same banks as my ancestors had for thousands of years. Now, decades later, another part of my cultural heritage has come from the hard-shell quahog clam: the art of wampum.”

Deetz, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe based in Southeastern Massachusetts, said his ancestors once used wampum as a form of currency, trading intricate shell jewelry, clothing and accessories with nearby tribes and European settlers. They would often create belts made of wampum, sinew and deerskin to symbolize inter-tribal pacts to maintain peace or share stewardship of the land.

Deetz has followed in his ancestors’ footsteps by creating a wampum belt that features 46 beads to represent UNDRIP’s 46 articles, framing the declaration as a modern-day “treaty” between nations. He created the belt alongside several Indigenous apprentices in the Northeast and Michelle Cook, an Indigenous human rights lawyer and member of the Diné tribe.

Cook and Deetz also worked together to create informational panels for the exhibition that provide background on UNDRIP, wampum and Deetz himself.

Cook said Deetz’s wampum belt helps draw attention to Indigenous peoples’ ongoing fight for equal rights in the U.S. and abroad.

“Indigenous peoples in the U.S. are still unable to say no to development and extraction projects that occur within the traditional and ancestral territories they use and occupy,” Cook said. “We need to pressure decision-makers and financial institutions to make real their human rights rhetoric and protect the human rights and cultural survival of Indigenous peoples.”

The exhibition is free, open to the public and on view through Sunday, Oct. 24, at the Granoff Center’s Cohen Gallery at 154 Angell St in Providence. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 8 p.m. The gallery will be closed on Monday, Oct. 11, in observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Deetz and Cook will lead a free public conversation on the exhibition on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 6 p.m. in the Granoff Center’s Martinos Auditorium. A reception in the Cohen Gallery will follow.

“The Beads that Bought Manhattan” marks one of several Brown-hosted fall events and programs focused on Indigenous peoples.

  • On Wednesday, Oct. 13, Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative, School of Public Health and Warren Alpert Medical School will host a discussion on mental health in Native American communities.
  • On Thursday, Oct. 14, the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology will screen “The Search for Anasazi,” a satirical film on archaeologist-Native relationships, and host a discussion with the producers.
  • The John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage will hold a virtual conversation on teaching K-12 students about Native American culture and history on Tuesday, Oct. 19.
  • On Thursday, Oct. 21, “Native Providence” author Patricia Rubertone will share key insights from her book chronicling the stories of Native people who have stayed in, left and returned to Providence.
  • And on Tuesday, Nov. 5, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society will present a conversation on Indigenous approaches to narrating climate change with environmental justice scholar Kyle Whyte.

Since 2016 — following demonstrations a year earlier by Native Americans at Brown and a subsequent vote by the Brown faculty to modify the academic calendar — the University has formally recognized the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.