“Wampum as Hypertext” – Haas

“Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Mulimedia Theory and Practice” by Angela M. Hass

Article Citation: Hass, Angela M. “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19.4 (2007;2008;): 77-100.

Abstract (from source): “This essay traces a counterstory to Western claims to the origins of hypertext and multimedia by remembering how American Indian communities have employed wampum belts as hyper textual technologies—as wampum belts have extended human memories of inherited knowledges through interconnected, nonlinear designs and associative storage and retrieval methods—long before the ‘discovery’ of Western hypertext. By forging intellectual trade routes between Tehanetorens, Wallace, Williams, and other wampum historians with the work of Western hypertext theorists, such as Bush, Nelson, Bolter, and Landow, this essay positions American Indians as the first known skilled multimedia workers and intellectuals in the Americas” (77-8).

Keywords: Wampum, hypertextuality, American Indian, Memex, Xanadu, networks

Further Reading:

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The computer, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.


Key Quotes:

“Wampum strings and belts served to engender further diplomatic relations, and their presentation was a gesture that required reciprocity on the part of the recipient. Consequently, accepting a gift of wampum meant that the recipient accepted its implied message and responsibility…a wampum is a living rhetoric that communicates a mutual relationship between two or more parties, despite the failure of one of those parties to live up to that promise” (80).

“Wampum embodies memory, as it extends human memories of inherited knowledges via interconnected, nonlinear designs with associative message storage and retrieval methods. And it is this complex rhetorical functioning that first engaged my thoughts on how Indians have always been hypertextual” (80-1).

“The Memex was described in [Dr. Vannevar] Bush’s 1945 Atlantic Monthly articles as an instrument designed to extend human memory by allowing us to associatively store and retrieve memories through nonlinear trails, or a webbed network, of interconnected scientific knowledge and data” (81).

“[Ted Nelson’s] dream of the Xandu ‘Docuverse’ has been partially fulfilled vis-a-vis the World Wide Web, despite the fact that the Web does not currently make all published information available nor do we currently have a system for ensuring hypertext copyright holders are paid whenever their intellectual property is used” (82).

“Given the preceding origin story, I posit that the ‘history’ of hypertext is a Western frontier story, a narrative that most often begins with the exploration of the land of Xanadu and the Memex and eventually leads to the trailblazing of the World Wide Web” (82).

“This essay demonstrates how wampum is an example of a pre-Memex, pre-Xanadu, and pre-Internet American Indian technology that was not only imagined but became a reality and that not only works like hypertext but in fact extends those capabilities beyond the current capacity of interconnected hypertexts we see on the ‘World Wide’ Web” (83).

“[based on treaty belt] the two rows symbolize two paths or two vessels, and though the two parties will travel together side by side, they will do so in their own boat. ‘Neither of us will make compulsory laws or interfere in the internal affairs of the other. Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel’ (74). Such everyday practices of digital coding result in culturally saturated visual rhetorics that signify meaning to those who revisit wampum treaties–not to mention the visual mnemonics associated with the subsequent rereading of wampum belts” (85).

“A wampum hypertext constructs an architectural mnemonic system of knowledge making and memory recollection through bead placement, proximity, balance, and color. Like colors are employed in Western visual design to signify certain moods or readers, the color usage of wampum reminds its ‘reader’ how to organize and read the story woven into the material rhetoric” (86).

“In order to memorize the belt and its story, the trained individual would impress in the mind the visual representation of the belt and subsequently forge mnemonic associations between the visual representation of the belt and the accompanying story” (89)

Further Questions:

  • The hypertextual maps (83) show the connections between the different nodes as outlined by Memex, Xanadu, and wampum models. Are these good representations? Wouldn’t the wampum–since it is culturally situation–be better served by a more ecological model? If it is being referenced to as a system without an end or a center with multiple layers of meaning at each node, would ecological models help to show the impacts and connectivity of this mode of communication?

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