Story and photos by Makayla Sloan
This year’s National Native Media Conference features over two dozen Native vendors selling handmade items such as jewelry and other traditional regalia. One artist among them is Dan Simonds (Mashantucket Pequot), an Indigenous wampum jewelry maker.
Simonds, born and raised in Norwich, Connecticut, is a lifelong artist. He has spent the last 10 years learning and perfecting his skill in carving and shaping wampum shell to make jewelry.
Wampum comes from quahog, the shell of the Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam. Simonds said that the clam serves as a food source in the region and its shell becomes wampum. Wampum has been made into jewelry and belts for hundreds of years and served as a form of currency for 250 years after colonialism. The shell, made up of white and purple colors, was often worn as a status symbol with the purple beads being more valuable.
Simonds began learning wampum carving from Allen Hazard (Narragansett) who visited Simonds’ tribal gatherings where he would make and sell his wampum artwork. There he began to teach Simonds the skill.
Today Simonds carries on the tradition of wampum carving and has made the skill his career. He owns a jewelry business called Wampum Wear and is based out of Bozeman, Montana, where he lives with his two children and wife Vanessa Simonds (Crow), an associate professor at Montana State University. Vanessa Simonds is a speaker for the Increasing Youth Engagement in Participatory Research panel at the Native American Nutrition Conference.
Simonds now spends two to three days a week creating his artwork. On the average day he can make 30 pairs of earrings and about 100 pairs in a week.
Simonds states that he visits conferences like the National Native Media Conference two to three times a month and can make over $2,000 in a weekend. Simonds believes young people should pursue a career that are passionate about because the money isn’t only in becoming a doctor or a lawyer, you can make money doing what you love if you put in the effort.