“I don’t think there’s a Narragansett out there who doesn’t do something with their hands,” says Allen Hazard, a tall, soft-spoken man in a white Stetson adorned with a lone feather. He is standing in his Charlestown shop The Purple Shell, holding the quahog shell that has played an important role in the history of his people, the Narragansett tribe indigenous to Rhode Island. Allen is one of the most productive wampum artisans today, crafting the distinctive shell jewelry in a small workshop on the side of his shop.
Allen began making wampum jewelry for himself when he was a child. He watched his aunt and mother create intricate beaded jewelry and sell it from a small room in his aunt’s house and dreamed of someday having his own shop. Working under his uncle as a tile layer, Allen became familiar with tile cutting tools such as the wet saw. When he realized he could create stunning wampum jewelry using them, his production took off.
The doors of The Purple Shell have been open for four years now, featuring not only Allen’s work, but crafts and artwork by around 20 local artists, many of them members of the Narragansett tribe. “We have an ocean theme here and represent Native American eastern style. Most people are more familiar with the look of Western Natives – buffaloes and the prairie.”
Although Allen uses modern tools to craft jewelry, he remains true to the intent of his ancestors’ reverence for the quahog. “A huge misconception today is that wampum was Indian money,” he explains. “This could not be farther from the truth.”
The True Meaning of Wampum
When the Narragansett people searched the shores of the Bay looking for quahogs, they were not looking for riches but for food. “Central to our belief system is that everything in nature is sacred. We saw the quahog as giving its life for us to be able to live,” says Allen. The best way to honor that sacrifice was to use and treasure every aspect of the clam. Since the shells were so beautiful, the Narragansett could give no greater respect to the clam than to adorn their own bodies with it.
When wampum was given from one person to another, it was not to purchase something but to offer their highest form of gratitude and respect. “The person receiving the jewelry understood how much went into its creation,” adds Allen. It was not just the beauty of the jewelry they were seeing, it was the history behind the jewelry, the precision needed to break it into the right size, the hours spent rubbing its edges along a rock crease to smooth it, and ultimately, the sacrifice of the quahog clam for the life of their people.
Hazard’s dedication to upholding the tradition of his heritage is infectious. The Purple Shell also features the beadwork jewelry of his two nieces, Danielle Nelle and Shana Brown. Due largely to their uncle’s encouragement, the cousins developed their passion for beadwork as adults and found it to be a path back into the rich traditions of Native culture. “The beadwork really started out as a hobby,” says Shana, “but it has become so much more. You get drawn into it. It’s opened a lot of doors.”
Shana makes jewelry by hand stitching, stringing each bead on one at a time, while Danielle works off of a loom. “A few years ago, I found a loom in the attic my mom got me when I was little,” she says. “It still had some beadwork on it!” As she began to play around with it again, Danielle realized how much she enjoyed working with beads. Today, she and Shana work separately but often collaborate, making matching pieces to sell together as sets. “We like to work off of each other. I do mostly earrings,” says Shana, “and Danielle will do a bracelet or necklace to match.” Often, they are asked to create jewelry with symbolic colors or symbols, such as the turtle that represents the Narragansett tribe.
For Danielle and Shana, making beadwork has become a way to connect with their heritage. “Growing up, I knew I was Narragansett, but it wasn’t something I thought a lot about,” says Shana. With the encouragement of their family, jewelry making put them in touch with their tribe as people began to seek out their work. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a Native American crafter,” says Shana, laughing. “Now we’re vending at pow wows and shows.” Danielle agrees, “It’s amazing to be part of something that’s been around for so long. And even our little part means something in the big picture.”
The Purple Shell also features the work of Dawn Spears, another member of the Narragansett tribe. She has been making art for as long as she can remember, from weaving as a little girl to the sculpture, textile art and painting she does now. Her canvases depict abstract forms inspired by the colors of the sunrise and sunset and Native symbols. There are patterns found on Native baskets and animal tracks that wander through the shapes. Although she creates many different forms of art, she always returns to doll making. It was her mother who first showed her how to twist dried cornhusks into human forms like their ancestors before them.
“Corn husk dolls are found across all tribes,” she explains. “We’re all people who use corn.” Similar to the use of the quahog shell after eating the clam, Native people did not let anything go to waste. “You’ll see me in the grocery store next to the fresh corn stand digging through the husks,” Dawn laughs. “It’s a perfect example of Native culture. We don’t waste. We’re the original recyclers.”
When she begins a doll, she often doesn’t know what it will look like, what clothes she will create for it to wear, and what scene it might depict. Some of her dolls display traditional clothing and tools and some take a more contemporary twist. “When you make the dolls, you put a lot of energy into it, so it’s like part of you,” she says. “Some are really hard to let go of. Some have to be given to someone rather than sold.”
Dawn is also committed to sharing the art forms of her people with others. She has two apprentices in doll making and stresses their educational value. “We’re working on doing a series of dolls to put in shadowboxes depicting scenes from Native life.”
In 2014, Dawn founded the Northeast Native Arts Alliance (NNAA) to better meet the needs of Native artists in the region. In partnership with the Indigenous Fine Art Market and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, the NNAA will be hosting an art show May 21-22 at the Pequot Museum in Connecticut. It will kick off with an opening festival on May 20, followed by a juried fine art show. There will be music, live painting, and a chance for indigenous artists to display their work. For Dawn, “The partnering of all these organizations together will make for an amazing time.”
The Purple Shell
5219 Old Post Road, Charlestown