Shell Game, a unique and revealing investigation into the nature of money and human exchange, intertwines two stories. One starts in Manhattan in 1627 with the transactions by which North America was "bought" by Europe. Martien shows how a gift relationship based on beads was replaced by monetary relations based on credit, and how ancient ways of bookeeping, exemplified by the Iroquois wampum exchange, were replaced by a social contract based on scarcity and deficit.
Interspersed with his historical account, Martien tells a parallel story set in the present in which he attempts to negotiate a book advance, visit the wampum keeper at Onondaga, and unravel a personal tangle of love and habit in his life. Martien's search becomes a journey of remembrance and acknowledgment and an apology and condolence for cultural and monetary misappropriation. It becomes a pilgrimage in search of restitution and recovery that many readers will want to join.
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