Memory Devices: Munsee Shell Strings


A Lukasa memory board – a handheld mnemonic device

I’ve been digging into Dr. Lynne Kelly’s The Memory Code and my mind is running free with the possibilities of application here in Sokwakik. A completely different way of  experiencing the land, a relationship in, with, and of place. Here’s an article outlining her work. I am now seeing examples of this nearly everywhere I turn (or walk or read or converse).

Here’s a prime example, from an article in the New York Times in 1986, drawing on the work of Robert Grumet and others, and focusing on the Munsee in New Amsterdam, at what became today’s Brooklyn.

“Among the striking finds in the newly translated journal is the first account of how local Indians, without writing, passed the contents of treaties and contracts down through the generations. During negotiations, an Indian held a different shell in his hand as each article was discussed. When an agreement was concluded, the specific meaning of each marker was recounted.

”As they can neither read nor write, they are gifted with a powerful memory,” Danckaerts said. ”After the conclusion of the matter, all the children who have the ability to understand and remember it are called together, and then they are told by their fathers, sachems or chiefs how they entered into such a contract with these parties.”

The children ”are commanded to remember this treaty and to plant each article in particular to their memory,” Danckaerts continue. The shells were bound together on a string, put in a bag and hung in the house of the chief.

The young were warned they must preserve this memory ”faithfully so that they may not become treaty breakers, which is an abomination” to the Indians, Danckaerts observed.”

Striking indeed.