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ishpukatunvêech -- terw-term -- xo’ji-mił-ky'o:xe:t -- naa-gha'sr-detlh-yu'
by Stephanie Lumsden (Hoopa Valley Tribe)
The Native peoples of Northwest California have maintained complex systems of economics, cosmology, law, language and other social customs since time began. A great material example of this essential truth is the significance and history of the dentalia shell. The dentalia shell, or xo’ji-mił-ky'o:xe:t in the Hupa language, appears in nearly every aspect of traditional Northwest California Indian life. It is clearly significant to the traditional economy of these peoples, since one of its names literally means “true money,” and it was traded far beyond the coast where it is harvested. Dentalia shells also appear in the origin stories and ceremonies of the Northwest California Indian people, indicating its spiritual relevance to their lives as well.
Traditionally, if an Indian person transgressed the law, insulted a family, or simply wished to marry, dentalia shells would be an essential part of the settlement price. In this way, dentalia shells are also essential to the practice of law in Native Northwest California. The importance of dentalia shells can also be measured by their languages. In the Hupa language, the dentalia shell has several names depending on how it functions in a number of circumstances. In the contemporary moment, speaking about xo’ji-mił-ky'o:xe:t in the Hupa language bolsters revitalization efforts which are sorely needed for the survival of Indigenous languages. Finally, the significance and beauty of dentalia shells are not lost on contemporary Native people as evidenced by the plethora of Native artists and jewelry makers who use it, and the people who continue to buy and wear it. The history and value of dentalia shells to these California Indian peoples illustrate its story and give it meaning.
Dentalia shells were an essential element of the traditional economy in Northwestern California and were a primary currency. In fact the most common Hupa names for detalia are xo'ji-nahdiyaw which translates to “true money” and xo’ji-mił-ky'o:xe:t which means “with it they buy things.” In Pliny Earle Goddard’s book, Life and Culture of the Hupa, he describes how the dentalia shells were measured and accorded value.
“The individual shells are measured and their value determined by the creases on the left hand. The longest known shells were about two and a half inches long. One of them would reach from the crease of the last joint of the little finger to the crease on the palm opposite the knuckle joint of the same finger. […] This money was strung on strings which reached from the thumb nail to the point of the shoulder” (Goddard 1903).
Dentalia shells that were long enough to be considered money could be used as partial payment for coveted items such as Redwood dugout canoes, baskets, or obsidian. Many Indian men from Northwestern California had tattoos of the five different lengths of dentalia shells to ensure that they would not be cheated out of a fair price for any item (Goddard 1903). The valuable dentalia shells were kept in an individual’s elkhorn purse or xo'ji-kinch'e' for safekeeping.
While it is clear that dentalia shells were exceptionally valuable to the Indians of Northwestern California, it should also be mentioned that these shells were highly valued among Native peoples across the country as well. As Jack Forbes notes in his book, Native Americans of California and Nevada, the many cultures of California Indians influenced and were influenced by surrounding tribes vis-à-vis trading long before the arrival of settlers (1982). Professor Forbes, among other Native Studies scholars, asserts that Native peoples employed extensive trade routes and maintained economic relationships with one another. The evidence for these trade routes is impossible to ignore and of particular interest is the presence of dentalia shell capes, necklaces, and earrings among Plains Indian peoples who live thousands of miles from the ocean where dentalia is harvested.
The value of dentalia shells insofar as traditional economies are concerned is easy to ascertain, but understanding the spiritual value of dentalia shells requires the insights and stories of Native peoples. One story that features dentalia most prominently is the story of Abalone Woman and Dentalium Man told by Lyn Risling in News From Native California Vol. 27 No. 4 Summer 2014. In this version of the Yurok and Wiyot story, Dentalium Man and Abalone Woman live on the coast in traditional Yurok/Wiyot territory far apart from one another. Every night Abalone Woman would look up at the sky and see the beautiful light from Dentalium Man and she fell in love with him. He also looked to the sky and saw all the iridescent colors of Abalone Woman and fell in love with her. So Abalone Woman traveled to Dentalium Man to marry him, but he didn’t believe it was truly her, so she left. As she was leaving, Dentalium Man realized that she was the woman he had fallen in love with after all, so he chased after her and she continued to run. When Dentalium Man reached Abalone Woman he stabbed her in the back with his flint knife, and she went into the ocean and transformed into the abalone that is worn by the Native peoples now.
This story teaches many lessons, the most important being that the mistreatment of women is unacceptable. Dentalium Man ignored, mistreated, and brutalized Abalone Woman, so he lost her forever. This story, despite the poor behavior of Dentalium Man, does not diminish the importance of dentalia shells. In fact, this story illustrates that dentalia shells are more than material objects, they are spirited and have a history of their own outside of the human beings that use them. This fact is also made clear by the presence of dentalia shells in ceremonies. For example, in the woman’s coming of age ceremony, xoq'it-ch'iswa:l in the Hupa language, necklaces of dentalia shells are frequently worn by all who participate. The dentalia shells help the ceremony by singing and dancing along with the people who wear them. Also, at the end of the ceremony, the young woman or kinahłdung is asked if she sees the big bird in the east (Anderson 2008), this is in reference to tit'aw-łiq'a:w, a mythical bird who scatters dentalia shells from its wings. If the girl answers that she does see the bird it is supposed to grant her good fortune and wealth (Anderson 2008).
Dentalia shells are also used to decorate basket caps for ceremonies such as the Brush Dance (Bibby 1996). As Anthropologist Brian Bibby states in his book The Fine Art of California Indian Basketry,
“The caps – often lavishly ornamented with the rarest and most valuable gifts of nature such as woodpecker scalps and dentalia shells – enhance the stunning display of the ceremonial dances, during which some two dozen girls might parade into the rectangular, semisubterranean dance pit, interlock arms with male dancers, and gracefully bob up and down on the balls of their feet in rhythm with the singing” (1996).
When a woman’s cap is decorated with mida'ch, or incised dentalia shells, her cap gains value and is noticed for its exceptional beauty. The onlookers at a ceremony are able to enjoy the beauty of the decorated caps most of all because they look down into the dance pit and have full view of the tops of the caps.
The economic, spiritual, and linguistic value of dentalia shells to the Native peoples of Northwestern California is clear, but there are also other reasons that dentalia shells are essential to their cultures. Dentalia shells are also an important element to the practice of law for these Native peoples. Traditionally, the primary means of settling a dispute between two parties was an agreement to pay a settlement price mediated by a judge (Nelson 1978). After a price was agreed upon, it would be paid and the dispute was resolved – strings of dentalia shells were often a part of the settlement price, along with other treasured regalia pieces (Risling 2014). However, payment of dentalia shells were not solely punitive, strings of dentalia shells were also commonly a part of a bride price that a man would pay to a woman’s family for the privilege of marrying her. The more skilled a woman was at basket weaving, cooking, gambling etc. the higher her bride price would be.
Finally, it is important to emphasize that dentalia is still relevant to the lives of contemporary California Indian peoples. Of course, the history of dentalia and its ceremonial and linguistic value make it an essential piece of Native life, but it is also still coveted for its beauty. Dentalia shells are used by most Northwestern California Native artists and jewelry makers and are still worn by Native men and women alike. Dentalium is a material that lends itself very well to artistic innovation and contemporary fashion sense. Perhaps the flexibility of dentalia shell can be credited to its spirit and desire to be worn and shown off. Whatever the reason, the relationship between California Indian peoples and dentalia has remained strong and it is difficult to imagine one without the other.
Every dentalia has a story. Click a pic to read more!