A long-lost piece of Native American history missing for more than three centuries could be found in Britain this year.
Metacom was chief of the Wampanoag tribe in the region of North America now known as New England. Hostile to the English colonists invading his people’s land, Metacom was killed in a conflict called ‘King Philip’s War’ (so called after the chief’s anglicised name) in 1676.
After his death, sacred tribal treasures were turned over to the English as spoils of war. One such treasure was a beautiful woven belt decorated with pictures of animals and flowers that had belonged to Metacom.
“It was very finely decorated and unusually wide and long,” David Stirrup, Professor of American Literature and Indigenous Studies at the University of Kent, told Daily Star Online.
“The belt would have conferred real significance on the bearer because of its size, which indicates personal wealth and importance.”
Belts were often worn by Native American leaders, with illustrations frequently left unfinished so that future generations could continue the story. Metacom’s was likely decorated with purple and white quahog shells.
A number of treasures, including the belt, were sent back to England for King James II. But the man trusted to deliver the goods vanished in Essex and was never seen again – and the belt disappeared along with him.
Over the last 350 years, Metacom’s missing belt has become the stuff of legends. The 1970s saw a new international search mission for the treasure, but it was never found.
However there’s renewed interest and energy in finding it this year with commemorations for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower settler ship.
A similar Wampanoag belt will be exhibited in a touring show , which it’s hoped will inspire Brits to try and locate Metacom’s original.
Professor Stirrup says he’s an “eternal optimist” and believes there’s a good chance the belt will be found, probably in a “very old house” somewhere in Essex.
“There’s a vast quantity of things hidden in people’s attics,” he said.
“Luck, rather than systematic searching, will find it.”
Even though the belt might just be “rotten strings” by now, he says finding it would be hugely meaningful for modern Wampanoag people.
“Finding it would be significant because it would finally prove it’s not a myth. It’s important to be able to piece together fragments of the narrative, and for modern Wampanoag to be able to see and analyse the etchings on the belt, which aren’t just decorative designs.”
Professor Stirrup, who’s studied Native American history for 25 years, says British attitudes towards the violence of the past – including the colonisation of the ‘New World’ – are slowly changing.
“I’ve seen an increasing level of curiosity of aspects of colonial history we don’t learn at school.”
If the belt were recovered and returned to the tribe in America, Professor Stirrup says it would be “of huge significance to indigenous people worldwide”.
“It doesn’t at all make up for the violence of the past, but it does go some way to acknowledging it.”