Dentalium is everywhere and yet, as a Trade Bead researcher and jewelry designer at Walker Goldsmiths, it’s been my experience to find that so few people even know what it is. Dentalium is a seashell harvested on the Pacific coast of western Washington and southern British Columbia in waters averaging 60 feet deep, it rarely washed up on shore and had to be deliberately removed from the sea floor with a broom-type tool. It was traded everywhere. The standard was 6 foot strings strung end to end in a manner that they didn’t fit inside each other as the standard unit of trade. Journals of early fur traders and ships logs mention fathoms of Dentalium – 6 feet long used as a standard for trading. I’ve blogged about the tools used to recover the shells from the sea floor on this site.
Found from the Arctic to Mexico and from the west coast of North America to the Mississippi River, Dentalium was and still is used for adornment by people of those areas. Historically it was used in every kind of jewelry and clothing decoration; it was THE thing! Peoples of the Northwest Pacific Coast would trade Dentalium into the Great Plains, Great Basin, Central Canada, Northern Plateau and Alaska for other items including many foods, decorative materials, dyes, hides, macaw feathers which came from Central America, turquoise from the American Southwest, as well as many other items. The most astounding thing to me is the incredible trade network, even prehistoric, that traded the Dentalium Shell all over the world.
Many of us have heard of wampum, even children, probably because of the historical part it played in our American history. But Dentalium is just as influential and I think the tradition is older and more historical and traded world wide than wampum. Natives from a tribe thousands of miles away from the harvest beds would use strings of Dentalium as money. Highest quality shells would be about 2.25″ long, and a dozen would typically be strung together, and a 27.5″ string of dentalia was the price of a redwood dugout canoe to some California tribes. Certain men, who became known as “Indian bankers,” tattooed marks on their arms with which to measure the length of the shells. (1) Among northern California tribes, such as the Yurok, Karuk, and Hupa, and Chumash, dentalium shells were stored in elk-antler purses or treasure baskets.Owen and I saw one of these sweet little Dentalium “purses” in a museum at Cannon Beach, OR that was very beautiful and functional. These purses are a pretty standard artifact for the coast and plateau tribes. They are a large chunk Elk antler decorated with carvings, hollowed out and plugged on both ends with a slit in the side for inserting and saving dentalium for future use.
I’ve found that the The Modoc Indians on the high Sierras traded and intermarried with the Klamath and the Hupa and that gave them access to the sea and the coastal trade routes with the Wishram, Siletz, Chinook and the Chumash to the south who all desired these shells harvested by the Nuu-chah-nult natives on the NW of Vancouver Is, Canada. My point here is that everywhere Walker Goldsmiths has searched, Dentalium is the most prolific trade bead item I’ve seen. Necklace TBA60A, made with Dentalium Shell, Padre, Ivory and Abalone beads.
Cost; $250. Made by Janet Walker
(1) Dubin, 436,437