When my kids were coming up, my late husband, Charlie Witham, and I settled in on Martha’s Vineyard, and for a while we lived in a tepee. When you sleep with your head near a whispering fire and look out the smoke hole into the Milky Way, you develop deep appreciation and respect for the folks who dreamed the thing up. So we began studying Native American culture and art. In the museums we were drawn to the old glass cases holding the wampum.
These beautiful tubular beads bear dark purple and ivory swirls and are made from the mighty quahog, a hard-shell clam that happens to grow in the saltwater pond right outside our door. We read up on the beads and learned that not only are they gorgeous — warm and strong — but they are sacred. The Native people would arrange wampum in patterns that acted as mnemonic devices, triggering the oral history of their communities. They strung the beads into belts and strands and used them to document important events. No significant gathering was conducted without wampum. In a way, you could say they held the soul of the people.
We started working with the material by collecting ocean-tumbled bits off the beach. We got very familiar with how to work the shell. First and foremost, you have to go very slowly, to keep the material from splitting. We adapted the traditional techniques to modern tools, such as using a heavy hand drill and a one-sixteenth-inch drill bit, and learned to make inlay designs using wampum, stones and other sorts of shells. People began asking us for them, and bead making became a cottage industry for us. The gratifying thing about music and about these beads is that they both are forms of storytelling and communication.
Now that my two daughters are grown, I am singing, songwriting and touring again, but I am grateful that when I get home, my bead tools and shells are waiting for me. The work continues right where I left off.
—As told to J. V. Houlihan Jr.