Wampanoag vow to fight non-Native use of "wampum"


MASHPEE, Mass. - Wampum. It is a word that has rolled off the tongues of Algonquin Indians for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Hewn from purple and white hunks of quahog shell, wampum is used traditionally as ornamentation and jewelry. Historically, woven into belts, it communicated the spoken word and strands of beads became the official currency of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1600s.

But today the people who belong to the language which gave us the word cannot even utter "wampum" and "jewelry" at once without infringing on the trademark of a non-Native woman from Yarmouth, Mass. In 1986, Janet Rounsville trademarked the term in the name of her company, Yankee Crafters, Inc., claiming "first use in commerce." But Rounsville never staked a public claim on the word until this March when she forced a local newspaper to run a correction because the term was used without referencing her trademark.

The story about wampum jewelry featured three local crafts people, two American Indian, one non-Native, but not Rounsville who was irate that she was not mentioned.

On Tuesday March 21 the Cape Cod Times ran a correction headline, "Wampum Jewelry is a Yankee Crafters trademark."

That sparked the ire of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

"Our language supersedes any claim she has on the word," said Mashpee Chairman Glenn Marshall who put tribal attorney Judith Shapiro on the case immediately.

"I have been contacted by the tribe which is concerned with preserving this very important cultural resource," said Shapiro of Hobbs, Straus, Dean and Walker in Washington, D.C. Shapiro said while she is still investigating the tribe's options, she has been in contact with an attorney who specializes in trademark issues who advised her the tribe can apply to cancel the trademark.

At the very least, she said, the tribe should continue to use the term liberally.

"A language is the heart of a culture and in Mashpee it is an active, live tradition which cannot be taken away," Shapiro said.

Rounsville is one of several local craftspeople, Native and non-Native, who use the quahog shell to make jewelry. She insists she is entitled to the trademark exclusively and said, "If the tribe wants the word back, they can buy it from me."

It is just that kind of "arrogance" that infuriates tribal member Jessie "Little Doe" Fermino who is co-director of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project shared with the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe (of Gay Head) across Nantucket Sound on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

"I am angry beyond what the English language can express," said Fermino who added that people have been exploiting Indian ways for hundreds of years. But to appropriate a term like wampum jewelry "is to say that we as a people do not have a right to our own language. Some things just can't be bought.

"The way I see it, she owes us some wampum."

Aquinnah Wampanoag Donald Widdiss agrees. Widdiss says he will continue to call himself a wampum jewelry maker despite Rounsville's trademark.

"It is a generic term referring to Native American art and tradition," said Widdiss who thinks the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) made a mistake. "Its like trying to trademark cream cheese."

Widdiss said he has no problem with non-Native people making wampum jewelry, as long as they make no attempt to claim it is Native art. He said Rounsville's trademark, "is a deliberate attempt to appropriate part of our culture."

Every year more than 85,000 trademarks are registered. USPTO attorney-advisor Eleanor Meltzer said only about 1 percent are challenged, but the tribe certainly has a right to dispute Rounsville's claim.

She said it is not unusual that the tribe was not aware of Rounsville's application for the trademark in 1985. It was "published for opposition" on Dec. 24, 1985, in a the USPTO Gazette, a publication which is perused by law firms and search agencies.

"Admittedly, relatively few individuals see it," Meltzer said.

She said the agency is no stranger to Indian issues as they pertain to trademarks and patents. Last year the battle to strip the Washington Redskins football team of their trademark was won on April 2, however the team has appealed the ruling of a Washington, D.C., District Court to cancel the registration because it is a disparaging remark.

Meltzer said 1998 the USPTO established a commission to conduct a study of ways to protect Native American symbols as a result of complaints by Pueblo people that the Zuni symbol was being exploited.

As a result, a data base of Native American insignias has been established.

"The practical effect is that everyone will be aware of Indigenous insignias, and if it looks like someone is filing a trademark that is trying to play off an association with a tribe, it can be rejected," she said.

"Trying to pass her work off as Native," that is exactly what Rounsville is trying to do with wampum jewelry said Marshall, and he won't let her get away with it. He said the tribe will fight to restore honor to the word.