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Native American Artifacts


While Edward Hicks’ naïve style painting Penn’s Treaty with the Indians at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a treasure, it doesn’t make us feel that “we were there.” But a wampum belt displayed nearby screams: “My maker might have been in your backyard hundreds of years ago!”

Like many, I’ve drooled over Navajo blankets, Hopi Kachina dolls, and Pueblo pottery. And like many Easterners, I’ve been interested in the Eastern Woodland Native Americans, but rarely thought about their artifacts, for obvious reasons. For one, the local Delaware Indians, who may have lived as far northeast as my native Katonah, N.Y., were pushed west early.

In 1610, a large bay on the Atlantic coast was named in honor of Sir Thomas West, Third Lord de la Warr. Later, English colonists used the word Delaware for the bay, the river, and the native peoples who lived there. Native Americans called themselves Lenni Lenape, or the “true people.”

Infectious diseases, conflict with Europeans and Susquehannock Indians, and over hunting of beaver forced the Lenape to the Ohio River Valley and elsewhere during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1860s most remaining Lenape were sent to the Oklahoma Territory.

Hicks” painting features a peace pipe and a bolt of red cloth, but not the wampum belt the Lenape tribe gave to Penn to celebrate the treaty.

The wampum, or belt-like strips, were woven with beads made of seashells. The wampum were used in storytelling and to show a tribe’s history through the symbolic patterns woven in them. They were also used as gifts, as marriage contracts, and to show agreements between two groups of people.

After the European people came to America, wampum were sometimes used as treaty gifts—to show agreements between the Europeans and the Indians. It was only then that they were sometimes used as money.

Of course, the Dutch and English soon converted wampum into money: “6 white beads to the penny,” writes Jerry Martien in Shell Game.

Collecting wampum now is not cheap. According to Ramona Morris, past president of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association and dealer in Native American artifacts for over 30 years, “They’re far too scarce. Many of them ended up in museums or went back to the tribes.”

And many went back to England, including Penn’s wampum belt—acquired with the Penn family estate in Portland, England; sold at auction in 1916; and now in the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. While Penn’s belt made it home, the British Museum retains many Native American treasures.

In the US, the tribes own many antique artifacts. The 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), restricted hunting on federal or state land, protected human remains and grave items, and later required federal institutions and institutions receiving federal funding to return “funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony” to the tribes.

After the Brits, the museums, and the tribes, there aren’t many Eastern Woodlands artifacts left. And because the romance with Native Americans extends beyond England to Europe as well, competition for early iconic objects is fierce. If not wampum belts, what can collectors buy?

There are many possibilities, including chipped tools and weapons, baskets, some beadwork, pipes, and masks. Masks will cost thousands, but are decorative and evocative of Lenni Lenape culture. “The Delaware masks were similar to the Iroquois,” writes Karna Bjorklund in The Indians of Northeastern America, “but were worn at a Corn Harvest Dance,” and at the Big House Ceremony. A c1800 mask for the important Lenape spirit “Meesing” is on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Morris says pipes are “fairly easy to find. The more figural, ornate, the more you’re going to have to pay.” Dealers often sell fragments of ornate pipes for thousands of dollars, if the bowl is an “effigy pipe” with a carved bird, fish, or mammal (including human), most often used in ceremonies, according to Petra Press in Native American Art. Go to the American Museum of Natural History’s Anthropology Division website to see examples.

An eBay collector warns online of cheap but beautiful effigy pipes with supposed museum provenance, concluding that they are recently carved in Asia. Morris says, “There are fakers everywhere.” Are tribal fakes prevalent? “Yes,” Morris says, “because there are so many people who are hobbyists, using authentic materials and authentic techniques.”

If you are interested in purchasing an object, she says, “It helps to have provenance. It might not be back to the original maker or owner, but the past 15 or 20 years.”

Early beaded items used shell beads. After contact, Europeans traded beads. “The early glass trade-beads were usually medium to large in size, largely made in the old glass-manufacturing towns of Italy,” writes Lars Hothem in Indian Artifacts. Like most Eastern beadwork, the lovely purses, moccasins, bandolier bags, and other beaded items made by the Lenape tend to be floral in design.

Condition is vital in collecting tribal art, so deals are there if you’re willing to accept missing beads or parts, according to Hothem.

For Eastern tribal baskets, collectors might look north to the Passamaquoddy or south to the Cherokee. However, local antique baskets are authentic and relatively inexpensive artifacts, as long as you think they’re beautiful. Collector Dr. Gregory Shaaf writes, “Baskets found on the open market often date c1880-1930.”

Really on a budget? Stick to arrowheads and knives, but work with a reputable dealer, as anyone can carve stone. Or find your own! Due to the “Carter clause” (Jimmy collected arrowheads), arrowheads on the surface of public land can be taken.