Beach in Southern California where Indians freely fished
and gathered shells before the advent of the European
Pomo girl wearing her shell beads
While hardly any area in North America lacks some quantity of prehistoric Indian shell beads, California is definitely the best source for these beads. Some clamshell beads, notably the larger-sized discs, were used as money in central California. No record survives of their fixed value. The best known of this shell ‘money’ is a curving tubular shell known as dentalium.
It was found mostly in the Pacific Northwest and made its way through the trade routes southward, out onto the Great Plains. Because its tube is hollow, it became the first bead strung by aboriginal people.
Its use was purely ornamental in the areas it was traded into and eventually came to be used as true money in Northwestern California. Beyond the size of two to three inches in length, these shells are rare. It became customary to measure the value of these beads in length, the longer became the most valuable.
Hupa woman wearing her pearl, clam shell and abalone beads
The Yurok, Hupa, Kaxok and Wyot tribes engaged heavily in the exchange of these beads, often tattooing a set of marks on their wrists to measure dentalia. The individual length and the length of the strings developed a very precise worth related to the trade or purchase of canoes, bows, slaves, woodpecker scalps, and deerskins. This shell money was stored in purses made by digging out the interior of sections of deer and elk antlers.
Sierra Miwok necklace of shell, glass trade beads and found objects
Most beads that were worked were made into discs or tubes, but the found object or imaginative natural shape always intrigued the creative mind and were often incorporated in their natural form with merely a hole drilled for stringing purposes. California Indians were masters of ‘found bead art’ and everything from teeth, foot bones, hollow bird bones, ivory, fruit pits, fossils and pearls will turn up on necklaces and ritual objects.
The most common of the Indian shell beads of the Pacific Coast was a shell called olivella. In its natural state it has a lustrous, slightly iridescent dove-grey color. The old beads excavated have lost this outer coating and have a chalky-white surface. These beads are found in abundance in Indian graves of central California.
Pomo wampum beads
The simplest way of preparing this shell for use was to grind off the tip. The shell could then be strung lengthwise as a bead. As this form evolved, the cup or tip was cut off and a hole drilled through, creating a more sophisticated bead. Further artistic development shaped this fragment into a rectangle with a drilled hole that created the appearance of a sequin. In addition to their use as in necklaces, they were also fastened to objects as ornamentation or, as seen in Pomo basketry, used to create a border or dangle freely with abalone pendants.
Pomo basket with feathers, clam shell, and dangling abalone ornaments
The Canalino and Gabrielino Indians of Southern California used these shells extensively in their costuming. Pelecypod (bi-valves), olive shell, clam and columella were also used. These ornaments do not have the cut-out or engraved decoration characteristic of Eastern shell ornament. The shapes are often irregular and suggest that they followed the natural form of the broken shell as it washes ashore. Highly imaginative shapes occur as these shells break on the rocks and are continually polished by the push and pull of the tide. This is the most common type of ornamental shell.
Such shell fragments were favored by the California Indians for pendants
The most easily definable of the man-carved ornaments is one resembling a banjo with its keys exaggerated. There has been much theorizing among anthropologists as to what this rather involved form symbolically represents, but there remains still no absolutely supportable thesis in this area. Another shape of shell ornament is that of the bowl of a spoon, having a short neck culminating at the base with incurving, crescent-like horns or stylized patterns of cut-out work. Spoon-shaped shell ornaments almost always have a hole drilled in what would appear to be the tip of the spoon. This puzzled the non-Indian anthropologists who kept relating to the shape as a spoon which would place the tip down, but for Indians this obviously was not the case, because of their position on the bodies as excavated. The pendant was worn ‘spoon’ tip up. The most common position of these ornaments was in pairs, one on either side of the head where ears would have been. They appear to have been fastened to a leather headband or possibly a hat that could have decomposed while the shells remained. Many pieces of large size lay on the chest, indicating their use in necklace and as gorgets. They were also found on the back of the head and are speculated to have been used in the company of ear-flaps.
Pomo ear sticks of wood, abalone and glass trade beads
Pomo feather basket with abalone embellishments
Shell ornaments in California extend in size from the tiny bits of shell favored by the Canalino Indians of the Santa Barbara coast to a full-sized abalone shell (with only the crescent-like rim removed and just slightly reduced by ornamentation) predominant in the Pacific Northwest where the normal size of these shells runs from seven to eight and a half inches in length and six and a half inches in width. All parts of the shell were used, even the thick rim was developed into a curving sword-like pendant. The very simple forms of abalone were occasionally ornamented with engraved designs, the most basic being a ‘pie crust’ motif cut into the edges of a disc, oval, square or rectangle shape. Sets of dots created by drilling all or part of the way into the edge were also used to create a varied outline on shells.
One of the most unique Pomo forms of beadwork that evolved after contact with the Spanish Jesuits was the chastity necklace. A length of dark wood trade cloth was made into a choker necklace about an inch and a half wide. It tied in the back with silk ribbons and the necklace was often decorated with buttons. From the center a long line of shell beads, from which dangled a hand-cut abalone cross, hung to the maiden’s crotch which established her virginity. Only two or three of this rare and esoteric item are known to still exist in private collections.
Next post: Wampum Beads and Belts in the Eastern United States...about Dec. 1