SUNY Retiree Service Corps - Connecting with our retirees through service.
Richard David Hamell

Richard David Hamell - Personal Retirement Story

head shot of Richard D. Hamell (MCC)

My decision to retire from Monroe Community College after a career of 39 years with the Department of Geosciences did not close the door on opportunities to continue to teach. Rather than instructing college students on topics of geology and paleontology, I turned my attention to presenting programs on these and other meaningful subjects to local libraries, elementary school children, museum visitors, as well as nature, cultural and historic centers in New York State.

This particular subject of personal interest concerns the history and reproduction of wampum belts originally created by the First Nation, particularly the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). This interest has its base in the period of my youth working on farms where I would find stone artifacts as well as wampum and glass trade beads from the 17th century.

In my early adulthood I participated in archaeological excavations with the Rochester Museum of Science. Through this association I came to know a respected authority (Charles F. Wray) on the history of the indigenous people of New York State. Inspired by his mentorship and his teachings, I choose to acquire formal training in geology and archaeology by entering college in 1969. My pursuit began with enrollment in Monroe Community College, where I received an AAS degree with a concentration in Geology (1971); followed by a BS degree in geology from SUNY Brockport in 1973. After seven years enrolled as a part-time graduate student at the University of Rochester, I was awarded a Master’s degree in Geology (1982).

My academic career began with employment with MCC during my freshman year (1969) when I was hired as a geo-technician. This position carried over to part-time employment while doing my undergraduate degree at Brockport and into full-time in 1974, along with a position as an adjunct geology instructor. By the turn of the 21st century, I joined the Geosciences Department as a full-time faculty member. In the spring of 2008, after 39 years of employment at MCC, I retired to pursue my interest in the history and creation of reproduction wampum belts.

The term wampum is a Narragansett word meaning shiny white shell. The indigenous peoples viewed wampum possessing spiritual significance. It was the northeastern colonies, including the Dutch, French and British, who used it as a ‘currency’ along with trade goods to acquire furs from the First Nations. 
The original white shell wampum was derived from the inner core (columella) of the whelk shells found along the northeastern Atlantic Coast. Beads of purple wampum were extracted from the outer edge of the quahog (clam). The cut sections of the columella and clam shell were drilled and polished into short cylindrical beads. The wampum beads were then woven on a warp of leather or natural fiber on a loom.

The finished belt design was of varying lengths combining white and purple beads or as a monochrome belt. These patterns incorporated either a single image, such as a pipe, or multiple geometric figures or symbols for the purpose of recording the words spoken at events such as a treaty, a condolence ceremony or perhaps, a declaration of war. The messages conveyed on these belt-like shell documents were honored as legal documents or laws imbued with spiritual significance. 

One such belt involved the formation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. This belt, known as the Hiawatha Belt, consolidated the original five nations: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk. Another important treaty belt was created for what was to be the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 to signify an agreement of peaceful coexistence between the thirteen states and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy which would include, by this time, the Tuscarora. The six-foot belt's design of approximately 10,000 beads displays thirteen human figures representing the thirteen states. In the center of these figures is the Haudenosaunee Longhouse. Flanking the ends of the Longhouse are the Keepers of the Western (Seneca) and Eastern (Mohawk) doors. The Canandaigua Treaty is the longest standing treaty between the Six Nations and the United States and is renewed in a ceremony every year held on November 11th in Canandaigua, New York.

 I began making reproduction wampum belts with acrylic clay wampum beads in 2000 starting with the Hiawatha belt. Through considerable research and the vital assistance from authorities, I have completed 115 reproduction wampum belts, probably the largest collection of its kind. This collection is available for the use by the Native communities in their programs across the United States and abroad. To share this knowledge I created the website, Photographs of my wampum belts have appeared in several publications: Iroquois: People of the Longhouse; Journal of Ethnohistory; Strong Stories -Two Row Wampum; and other educational material.
Yearly, I exhibited the belts at Haudenosaunee events, historic sites, museums, cultural centers, schools and for community programs. Along with the display of belts and their history I perform demonstrations of the methods used to create shell beads and the wampum belt loom.

Special events to which I have been invited include: Fort Niagara Reenactments (see photo below), Canandaigua Treaty Day, The World’s Lacrosse Championship (Onondaga Territory south of Syracuse), the National Battlefield at Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania, and Pow Wows.

When I am not at the loom creating a new belt I serve as a docent at the Seneca Art and Cultural Center at Ganondagan and as a member of the board. Also, I am an active participant in Ganondagan’s White Corn Project.

Retirement makes it possible to volunteer as   groundskeeper at our local cemetery. My retirement agenda also includes a weekly golf outing with colleagues and a monthly luncheon known as the R.O.M.E.O.s (Retired Old Men Eating Out).

Retiring and leaving one’s place of employment opens many doors of opportunity to continue learning and to pursue lifelong interests. I am grateful to be able to contribute what I have learned as I believe the greatest gift we can give is to share new learning experiences with others.

Retirees Service Corps