Two Nuuskilii women

If you look at the previous post about spooky stories, one of the links goes to a post about the scary Nuuskilii women, which are translated into English as ‘giant women’ or ‘pitch dress ogresses’.  In Frachtenberg’s work with Jim Buchanan, he translated nuuskilii as ‘giantesses’ or ‘the big women’, and he included 3 stories of them in his book “Coos Texts” (see sidebar).

Frachtenberg got alternate versions in English only that he jotted down in his notebooks.  The story below is a story of the “giant women” that comes from Frachtenberg’s notebook:


There live two Nouskilli women. But people think there is only one, because they see only one. The people live in a little village. Every evening the people’s children go playing on the beach. One time the children see a big woman coming. They get scared. The big woman changed herself into a young girl. She says, “I will play with you, children.” She does so and then picks out a girl children of the richest people. She caught a girl, just in a basket and said, “I will take you home.” She ran with her to her home. The other children get scared, but see how they women took the boy. They do not know, however, which way she went.

In the same way she stole the boy, every boy of a certain rich family. Only the youngest boy remains and in the house of his father. The youngest boy is sorry about his sister. He begins to dream about her. He dreams that his brother told him where to find the door to the house of the Big Woman. The door is amongst arrowsticks [ocean spray] and [sword ferns]. He told him in dreams: If you come here, pull the top of arrowsticks hard, and the door will open. The boy believed in his dreams and he went there. His folks do not know it. He gets there, looks around, sees the brush of arrow limb and bricks, he pulls hard; finally he raises the door and look down. He sees his brother there and asks for his sister. He is told that she is living yet, but in bad health. He cannot go down and his brother [said], “What is the big woman doing?” Answer: “There are two of two of them, both are sleeping at present. I always make lots of noise, but they keep on sleeping together alongside the fire. When they sleep their heads are joined together. They sleep all day, never wake up in daytime. Only at night they travel and father quohogs (clams). Sometimes they bring home lots of them. They cook them. The fat, good, clams they eat themselves, those that have no meat, and are filled with sand, they give to us saying, ‘that they are good to eat.’”

He also told them that women had taken out the girl’s heart and hung it on her ear. Then the youngest brother went home to tell his father about it. He went. His father says: “Let’s pick up some pitchwood. They gathered pitchwood. The boy said: “The house is very deep, I couldn’t go down there.” They took a ladder along, in order to go down on it. They got there. The boy again pulls at the door, opens it. The whole crowd goes down and they see the two Big Women sleeping alongside the fire, their heads almost joined together sound asleep. They have long hair. They first took out the boy and girl, and all the money and property belonging to the two women, arrowstick, arrowbow. They then fill the house with pitch. The women are still sleeping soundly. They used to rob graveyards and this way get lots of money. The crowd ties the hair of the Two Women together. They set fire to the house and to the dresses of the Women,and leave the house and shut the door. They put heavy logs on the door, so that the Women shouldn’t be able to open it. Then they listen from above. They hear the women wake up. One says, :”What’s the matter with you, why do you frighten me, let my hair go.”

They finally get their hair loose and jump at the door. They scream. They almost lift the door. They jump five times at the door – in vain. One says: “What’s the matter with our door? I can’t lift the door when I jump.”

They finally give it up. Fire singes them and they burn. The first Woman burns and her heart comes out and gets through the door. But the people on the outside club the heart with a piece of board and kill it. Same way with the other Woman’s heart. Then people say, “After this you will be nobody. Last people will see you. You will be harmless.”

The little girl whose heart hung in her ear died (?). Her people cut off the string that hung down and as soon as this is done-the girl dropped dead.

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The annual Halloween-inspired post of strange stories

Halloween is coming, and the time of year when many love to hear stories of the uncanny, odd and unusual, bafflingly strange or downright scary tales.  So I am posting my annual compilation of tales and events of the odd, strange, unusual, or scary.

Here is the story of the “Willanch Monster” I just wrote about a year ago.

The “giant people” were not particularly hostile or dangerous, but they certainly are unusual. Today’s giant people seem to be bigfoot, a figure of much legend and still searched for by some hopeful seekers.

The ‘wild beings’, stories of those who had somehow lost their humanity.

This one is a bit of history. There was a woman known as Minnehaha, and she disappeared. How she disappeared, no one knows. Some speculated that when she became lost, she became one of the ‘wild beings’

The notorious ogresses, recounted in many northwestern stories as fearsome women who steal children and men.

A legend that was told by Annie Peterson, of a young man who went very, very wrong after an unfortunate encounter with a snail shell.

The strange story of people turned to stone at Fossil Point.

And finally, a story from Euchre Creek country about two foolish, arrogant brothers and an angry octopus.

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Milhau’s Lower Umpqua wordlist, 1856

AAS -Umpqua Res. Portrait

Above: Image of man at Fort Umpqua, 1850s

In my previous post I wrote about Dr. John Milhau’s wordlist of Hanis that he made in the autumn of 1856 while stationed at Fort Umpqua. He also made a word list of Alsea (alas I don’t have a copy of that) and of Lower Umpqua.

Milhau’s Lower Umpqua wordlist is more straightforward – he only recorded one speaker rather than two. And, unfortunately, as with his Hanis speaker he didn’t identify who his Lower Umpqua informant was either. So far I haven’t seen any surprises in his Lower Umpqua list – many of his words appear in later ethnographers’ records. One thing I can tell is that Milhau’s speaker spoke the Lower Umpqua rather than the Siuslaw dialect. While Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw are classified as a single language, there were a few dialectal variations between them. Sometimes they had different words for things, and sometimes where Siuslaw has an l, Lower Umpqua has an n:

head hau-wá-ka xwáaka qamílis Milhau’s word seems to be much more similar to the Lower Umpqua form than the Siuslaw one.
face kong´-ge-ne qanni qalni n/l
bone tsná-we tsnawi tslawi n/l
dog tkoi-yús k’wiiyuus sqaxch This appears to be related to the Alsea tsqax
tree tsa-et-sí hlqaituu, ts’asii hlqaituu, ts’asii Milhau’s form seems closer to ts’asii, which is the word for spruce. In Siuslaw, there is not a word for ‘tree’, instead hlqaituu (douglas fir) or ts’asii (spruce) is used instead.

There is a lot of unanalyzed Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua language in Harrington, so hopefully after working through that, we’ll have a better understanding of Milhau’s list and the Siuslaw language generally.

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Puzzles in the First Coosan Wordlist, 1856

In autumn of 1856, physician John J. Milhau was stationed at Fort Umpqua. At the time he was a young man of 28, and had been raised and educated in New York City. He wrote down word lists of what he thought were two dialects of Coos, one list of Lower Umpqua, and Alsea. For the Coosan and Siuslaw/Umpqua languages this was the first time, so far as we know, that they were written down.

Unfortunately, Dr. Milhau did not name his two Coos informants, nor his Lower Umpqua one. Dr. Anthony Grant wrote about Milhau’s Coos wordlist, and gives a good background on it.  It isn’t even entirely clear which villages the two Coos speakers came from. In Milhau’s correspondence, there are multiple sheets with wordlists – one only has words from a dialect he he labeled “An A Sitch” (certainly Hanisich, the village at Empire), the other “Coos Bay 2”. Then he made a compilation with both dialects listed in two columns; the left column labelled ‘Coos Bay”, the right column is unlabelled. To make things more confusing, he changed how he wrote down some of the words between these lists (for instance changing things he wrote initially with kw- as qu-; and in English orthography qu- almost always stands for the kw- sound) and the unlabelled column appears to be what he initially labelled the An A Sitch wordlist.  Perhaps the weirdest (to me) aspect of Milhau’s orthography is his wide use of /r/ – for a language that does not have /r/. Dr. Grant speculated Milhau came from the eastern US, and grew up with a “form of English which lacked word-final or preconsonantal /r/…” Which was indeed true for Milhau. In spite of these orthographic quirks, I can recognize most of the words. There are a few interesting puzzles and quirks, however.

One thing I noticed is that there was some sort of communication problem between himself and his informants. That isn’t surprising – in 1856 few to none of the Coos Bay and Lower Umpqua people could speak English (the one possible exception might have been people from Ts’alila who traded a lot with the HBC Fort Umpqua) and Milhau obviously could not speak Hanis (or Milluk, Siuslaw/Umpqua or Alsea). Milhau had appeared to learn at least a few words of Chinook wawa – and so he either interviewed his informants in Chinook wawa, or he had an interpreter who spoke it. Either way, there seemed to be the occasional misunderstanding. For instance, for ‘ocean’ he wrote down mit-sis and mit-slis, which look like the word mits’lis, salt. (Ocean is baldiimis). Another one is that for ‘sky’ he wrote kyse and tackt-nitz. Kyse is probably qais, a Hanis word that can mean (depending on context) sky or universe. Tackt-nitz may be taqnis, cloud. Apparently this informant misunderstood what Milhau was asking and gave him the word for cloud instead of sky. Another funny one is ‘turtle’ – Milhau recorded pō-ti-ke and ne-kun. ‘Turtle’ was later recorded for both Hanis and Siuslaw/Umpqua as nikan – recognizable in ne-kun. Dr. Grant thought pō-ti-ke might be bátki, bobcat. It is possible, though odd that the one informant thought Milhau was asking about bobcat when he meant turtle. Out of curiousity – assuming Chinook wawa was the medium of communication – I looked up ‘bobcat’ and ‘turtle’ in my handy dandy dictionary of the language from Grand Ronde. Turtle is iɫaqwa (ihlaqwa) and bobcat is lumulo-pus (wild-cat), shawash pus (Indian cat) or yutskat upuch (short tail). How one could confuse turtle and bobcat, I don’t know…but it could have happened. For ‘pine’ he got tsup-oock (which does resemble Hanis tsipkw, shore pine) and po-who-ya which…looks to me like the word baxwiya, which is kinnikinnick. I am thinking Dr. Milhau either needed a better command of Chinook himself, or a better interpreter. Although I do not mean to be too hard on him – all in all, he did pretty well for someone not trained in linguistics, trying to communicate with people he did not appear to share a common language with (I know how hard that is – once in southern Italy at a party, I was trying to talk to people who only spoke Italian, and the closest I could get was using my very primitive Spanish. It was quite funny, really, and needless to say conversation was limited-but at least there was wine and good food).

At the end of his compilation under the “Coos Bay” column he wrote “Anna-sitch” (Hanisich) for “Coos Bay Indians” and the more enigmatic Te-serch-may-ah-klit-tah under the unlabelled column. The final two syllables are probably his rendering of tl’ta, which means ground, earth or place in both Hanis and Milluk. Perusing the vocabulary, Milhau seemed to interpret the phoneme tl’ as a ‘klick’ sort of sound, and wrote it out as klik, kek, and so forth. It occurs to me, after staring at the rest of it for awhile, it may be tiseich me u tl’ta, meaning “Tiseich person’s place”. There was a village, usually called Ntise’ich or Ntisech but sometimes Tisech, that was a short distance north of Hanisich. It would be rather funny if his two speakers came from these two villages that were so close to each other.

So why do linguists think Milhau somehow missed Milluk entirely, but instead may have gotten 2 slightly different varieties of Hanis? Because while both Coos languages share many nouns, there are a few where they differ quite sharply – words like black bear, face, fire and head:

bear shur-mitl, shi-mitl shximhl pelel
head hwurlu, ki´-lu-sit xwuuluuxw, xwiluuxw sel
face a a, a-a e hel
Fire chu-etl, chu-etz chwehl hemelt’

Milhau’s words seem to be similar to Hanis words, rather than Milluk (the one oddity here is ki-lu-sit from his “Coos Bay” list, which I have not been able to identifiy).

So, Milhau’s wordlist is drawn from two Hanis speakers. And, is appears in a few cases as mentioned above, like getting ‘salt’ for ‘ocean’, there was a little confusion among speaker as to what words Mihau was looking for.

For the most part, other words on the list point to minor differences in pronunciation between the two speakers. There are, however, a few oddities in there that I can not tell are due to different words in different dialects, or misunderstandings I haven’t been able to puzzle out. For instance:

Blood kah-eye (or ka-ai) wer-tin (or wu-tin) Witin, or wi’in and similar forms is all that was recorded for ‘blood’ in later recordings. I have not been able to identify ‘kah-eye’.
Island Kle-var-litz (or kli-var-litz) Itz-kles (or itz-clāce) Tlpalos is consistently given for island in Hanis, dla’a in Milluk. Both of these words are opaque to me.

There is one phonological change Milhau noted that jumped out at me – subtle, and only there with two examples, but because it reminded me of something from the different dialects of Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua it jumped out at me. In the word for ‘wood, stick, tree’, nik’in, Milhau notes that it does have n- in the “Coos Bay” dialect but l- in the unlabelled column. For some Siuslaw words, they used l where Lower Umpqua used n. Some examples are the word for bone (tslawi versus tsnawi) or face (qalni versus qanni). Here’s what I was looking at from Milhau’s list:

tree Tsup-oock nūck-quin On the left, probably tsipkw, shore pine. On the right, nik’in (wood, tree, log, stick) or nuuk’wiin (forest)
Wood Tke-yah lich-ken The word on the left might be k’iiyas, small stick. The word on the right looks like nik’in where the first n is replaced with an l.
100 Ich-high-nick-ken ich-high-lick-ken 100 is literally ‘one stick’, yixai nik’in; and on the right yixai lik’in with that curious l substitution.
1000 Klop-kon-nen-nick-ken klop-kon-ner-lick-ken 1000 is literally ‘ten sticks’ – tlopqanii nik’in, and on the right tlopqanii lik’in, again with the l substitution.

This is the only instance I’ve noticed a switch from n to l in a Hanis word – nik’in (wood, stick, log, tree) was in subsequent sources always recorded with a word initial n (and this word was recorded from many different speakers by many ethnographers). I remember Jim Buchanan once said that all the people from Winchester Bay were bilingual Siuslaw and Hanis speakers – wouldn’t it be funny if Milhau’s second informant was actually from Winchester Bay? Or perhaps had a parent from there (or otherwise spent a lot of time there growing up) and thus had this interesting quirk of speech? Or was there indeed at one time a dialect of Hanis where lik’in was the usual word for wood, etc? And that dialect was soon lost in the collapse of the tribal population and speech community? I suppose at this remove we will never really know, but it is kind of interesting and frustrating, as we know that while a lot of vocabulary and stories were recorded, so many were not, and it leaves us with unanswerable questions.

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Hanis Coos recordings from 1941 at Smithsonian

John Peabody Harrington was an eccentric yet talented linguist whose decades of work recorded numerous indigenous languages – including Hanis, Siuslaw-Lower Umpqua and some Milluk in 1942. Other Oregon languages he worked on in the 1930s and 40s include several dialects of Athabaskan (Klatskanie, Upper Coquille, Galice Creek, Upper Umpqua, Chetco and lower Rogue River), Takelma, Tillamook and Alsea. In 1941, Harrington sent his young assistant Jack Marr ahead to make sound recordings of some native speakers on what was then state-of-the-art recording equipment, aluminum discs. He made some recordings of Louey Fuller in Tillamook, John Albert in Alsea, and Frank Drew in Hanis Coos (and possibly some Siuslaw, but I have yet to go through all of the recordings to determine that. Dad wrote about Jack Marr’s adventures in recording on page 293 of his book (see here). Marr was given a list of word prompts to ask his informants. In his Coos work, he did ask Frank Drew many words. The recordings are all here online at the Smithsonian. The first 8 recordings are all songs. After that they include recordings of short speeches and individual words. Unfortunately the sound quality is generally not good. It can be hard at times to understand both the English prompts and the native words. Hopefully the recordings can be manipulated with software to see if they can be made any clearer. Still, it is interesting to listen to these recordings (as sometimes they are comprehensible). So take a listen if you are curious! The links here are all to the Coos recordings. If you do other searches you will find Galice Creek, Tillamook (under the heading “Siletz”) and Alsea recordings.

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Tattooing of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw

Tattooing was a traditional art in many Native American communities, and in recent years many tribes have been reviving these customs.

I’ll focus primarily on Coos Bay, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw (CLUS) tattoos in this post, along with what information I could find on tattooing among our nearest neighbors; how they were similar or contrasted with our own tamahlis/nishchama’muu (‘customs’ in the Coos and Siuslawan languages, respectively)

Tattoos are called xam in both Coos languages (and is also supposed to refer to moles, the brown ‘freckles’ on skin, and were said to be tattoos made by birds when people slept outdoors), and pishchii’i in Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua. Among the CLUS, Alsea and Tillamook people tattoos were created mainly using some sort of needle and a thread coated in charcoal. The charcoal was often made from willow. According to Annie’s niece Lottie Evanoff, willow made the only tattoo ‘ink’ that would not fade. Needles were anything sharp – Annie described it as a ‘thorn’, but sharpened bone needles were used by some people (like the Kalapuyans). When black glass bottles were introduced, tattooing tools were made from these too.

So far as I have been able to find, all people in western Oregon had a line tattooed on their upper arm to measure strings of dentalium (as mentioned in my previous post). In Melville Jacobs’ interview with Annie Peterson in 1933, he noted that she had that mark on her left arm and drew a rough picture of it:

Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.01.44

Annie said it had been made so early in her life she did not even recall getting that tattoo. On her right arm she had two rows of dots:

Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.11.30

Jim Buchanan said there used to be several measuring lines to denote different values. In a 1909 interview he said a string going to the elbow was worth $20, higher on the arm $200 and to the shoulder, $1200.

Apparently these lines of dots were common on the arms of CLUS women at least. Both men and women had these arm tattoos. But for men of the CLUS tribes, that was usually the only tattoos they had.

At their puberty ceremony (which was similar among the CLUS and Alsea), young women received rows of dots near their wrists. According to Coos and Alsea informants, this was done to symbolize that a young woman was ready to cook on her own and have hands strong enough for all her tasks. Annie Peterson said of this part of the ceremony:

The 10th day the men folks and the same mot’edon [shaman] comes, but no women folks except the immediate women relatives who do the cooking for this feast. The mot’edon this time brings out the girl from her compartment, takes her out to the fire, he calls for the tattoo woman [this is woman’s work when a girl is tattooed], who is paid by the girl’s folks for this; the mot’edon gives the girl newly made split wood fire tongs betl’ [Hanis & Milluk] which he has made for this occasion; She stirs around in the charcoal now with the tongs, and henceforth can do her own cooking: that is what this symbolizes. But before she can stir the fire, she is tattoed by this woman [Hanis] naxmáha huuu’mis, the tattooing woman, Milluk naxáama’a huumis.

Xamt ii’la, she is marked first.

She mashes up charcoal, tso’ye, puts it in a little dish a ki’nak’ Empire clam shell, mixes it with elk tallow, hechilyeu dzu’wetl [Hanis], kitsdi dzuutl [Milluk].

Then she takes a threaded needle (sinew thong in a long thin type of thorn that has its end bored for a needle)-the thread is all black from the charcoal paint, and puts it through in stitches about ¼ inch.

Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.07.34

Leona Ludson, Alsea, said their ceremony was similar – at the end of the first five days, an old woman put tattoo lines (as rows of dots) on the backs of the young woman’s hands “to see if they going to be tough.”

Melville Jacobs wrote of Annie Peterson’s wrist tattoos that she had “11 dots on her first back row of dots. Each month another row of black marks is put on the back of the hand, and row after row is thus made. First one month one hand, the other hand the next month, and so on, until the backs of the girl’s hands are fairly covered with black dots.” Annie’s niece Lottie Evanoff also had these tattoos. When she worked with JP Harrington in 1942, he noted “the Coos tribe had one band transverse tattoo on each hand-back. [Lottie] has these.” It is interesting he noted Lottie had one band, whereas Annie had three. Lottie was about a decade younger than Annie – for whatever reason, the “tattoo woman” was around for or hired for only one row of dots for Lottie, while Annie apparently got 3 rows on each hand.

Annie said that when still a teenager (near or not long after the puberty ceremony) that many women went in for lower leg tattoos, again made by an older woman who knew how to make tattoos. The designs were inspired by nature. Fern was symbolized by a vertical line for the stem, butterfly designs, trees with butterflies, and flowers. Unfortunately Jacobs did not make any sketches of these designs.

Annie did not say much about women’s facial tattoos (and unfortunately no one else mentioned them) but some women also went in for facial tattoos. Jacobs made a rough sketch and said they consisted of “various lines of dots, five to eight or ten dots in a line, dots spaced about a quarter of an inch apart in the line, tattooed on the cheeks and forehead, but probably not very many dots on any one face.”

Screenshot 2016-08-15 13.40.25

Melville Jacobs asked both Annie Peterson and Frank Drew if any CLUS men had facial tattoos. Neither could recall any who did. So it seems CLUS men only had the arm tattoos for measuring strings of dentalium.

Annie said she recalled two Indian men with facial tattoos. One was a Lower Coquille man named Candy Johnson, who had 3 parallel vertical lines on his chin. This sounds similar to the chin tattoos common among Athabaskan-speaking and other tribes of southwestern Oregon that women in those tribes earned in their puberty ceremonies. Why Johnson had these tattoos, Annie did not seem to know. The second man was an Alsea man who had a single vertical line on his chin. His Coos nickname was ‘with chin’ (Hanis nts’mehe, Milluk nts’ome) meaning ‘marked chin’.

However, apparently some Alsea men had special tattoos on the inside of their arms, denoting an individual’s spirit power. Among the Tillamook people, women doctors who had Wild Woman* as a spirit power had special tattoos on their breast (some men doctors also had Wild Woman as a spirit power, but they did not tattoo themselves).  When a person was going to get tattooed, both the artist and recipient were supposed to avoid sexual intercourse for 5 days, otherwise the tattoos would become infected and they would fade.  If the tattoos became infected anyway, they were treated with a salve made from boiled fat and pitch.

Women of the southwestern Oregon Athabaskan speaking tribes (Upper Coquille, Tututni, Chetco), Takelma, southern Kalapuya,  and northwestern California all shared a custom of tattooing 3 parallel lines on young women’s chins at the time of their puberty ceremony.  Unfortunately due to my limited library, I don’t have much information on this practice.  One woman, Lucy Metcalf, who lived on the Siletz reservation said the tattoos were to make girls look good.  Among the Shasta people of northern California and the Bear Creek watershed in southern Oregon, girls who did not receive facial tattoos were thought unattractive and mocked with names like ‘leather face’.

Lottie Evanoff says her Rogue River friend Ione Baker told her that Rogue River Indians made tattoos using ‘needles’ made from black glass bottles (and before that, likely obsidian or other sharp objects were used) and again, willow charcoal was the ‘ink’.  She said “When doing the work, a handkerchief is tied over the mouth of the person being tattooed on the chin so the person won’t get cold”.

In Hanis, women with tattooed chins (and perhaps facial tattoos generally) were called nts’mehe’me (literally with-chin-person).  According to Siuslaw-speaker Clay Barrett, they were called kwá’tsahiich, which literally meant ‘painted person’ rather than ‘tattooed person’.

There is a renewed interest in traditional tattoos, along with revivals of puberty ceremonies.  I think we will begin to see more and more tribal women proudly wearing traditional tattoos, in honor of their ancestors and tradition.

*To learn more about Wild Woman, she appears in many stories told by Clara Pearson (a gifted Tillamook storyteller) recorded in “Nehalem Tillamook Tales”, edited by Melville Jacobs.


Drucker, Phillip. 1933. Ethnographic Field Notes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1909. Coos Fieldnotes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Holt, Catharine.  1946. Anthropological Records 3:4: Shasta Ethnography.  University of California Press, Berkeley CA.

Jacobs, Elizabeth. 2003. The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography, edited by William Seaburg. OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.

Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.

Juntunen, Judy Rycraft, May D. Dasch, Ann Bennett Rogers.  2005. The World of the Kalapuya: A Native People of Western Oregon. Benton County Historical Society and Museum. Philomath OR.

Youst, Lionel and William Seaburg.  2002.  Coquelle Thompson: Athabaskan Witness, A Cultural Biography. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK.

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beaded bag w dentalia

Beaded buckskin bag with dentalium, collected at Coos Bay by Agnes Sengstacken and donated 90 years ago to UC Berkeley.  The beaded design is based on the traditional basketry pattern ‘lightning’.

Dentalium are white, tusk shaped shells that have been valued as money and beads for millenia among Native people. The usual dentalium people preferred in Oregon was a species known as Dentalium pretiosum. They are a kind of snail, living in sandy or muddy substrates in water from 6 to 500 feet deep, from Alaska to Southern California. Most of the shells our people got came in trade that had been harvested offshore of Vancouver Island. There is a second, smaller species with a ridged surface, D. neohexagonum found in deep water from Monterey, California south to Baja. Southern California Indians wore these in necklaces.

Last month my friends David Robertson (linguist) and David Lewis (historian & anthropologist) wrote about dentalium. I thought I’d write a bit more about dentalium among our tribes and neighbors. In Chinook jargon, one of the usual words for them is haykʰwa (and kupkup for small ones). Sometimes the word alikʰuchik is used, though seemingly more commonly used in southern Oregon and northern California than elsewhere, and I wrote about that here.

The Coos and Siuslaw languages have their own words for them. In Hanis and Milluk, the general word for dentalium is tq’ayu or tq’ayau; in Siuslaw/Umpqua it is hiiq’a.

Many dentalium shells were strung – not just as necklaces, but as units of measurement to reflect a specific value of wealth. Everyone had a line tattooed on their upper arm, to measure these strings from their fingertips to the tattoo mark. One string of dentalium was worth $100 (in 1932 value). One of these strings was usually enough for a bride price. When strung without other beads, the shells were strung butt-to-butt and tip-to-tip. The image below is a dentalium necklace that came from Coos Bay and donated to UC Berkeley a century ago.

dentalia necklace w beads

Dentalium necklace with beads from Coos Bay, donated by Agnes Sengstacken to UC Berkeley 90 years ago

Many people had pierced septums and wealthier people wore pendants made of dentalium, called biix in both Coos languages.

Annie Peterson said wealthier women decorated their hair with a bit of dentalium: “Two thin strands of woman’s hair above each temple are strung with dentalia. They may be worn all the time by women.” Very wealthy girls and women sometimes wore a special headdress Annie called the “white eagle head (or hat) xqas mexeyeu xwuuluuxw [Hanis]. Which is a hat made of a central rib of buckskin with strings of dentalia sewn all the length of the sinews; the white had effect is held tight because braided into the natural hair braids. Some strands over the forehead are loose. This can be worn all the time by girls. Mrs. P saw one possessed by her own sister Nelly and another half sister of Nelly.”

There were baskets woven from hazel sticks about 8 inches long and 4 wide, called búuwos (Miluk) or bú’us (Hanis) made special to store dentalium, or purses carved from elkhorn, like the image below.

dentalium purse

Hupa and Tolowa elkhorn purses and dentalium.  Very similar to decorated shells and elkhorn purses made by Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw

In Milluk and Hanis, the longest shells were called qaitltí, and were incised with designs and the ends wrapped with wild cherry bark (similar to the image above). The small, broken tips were called tse’eq (Hanis), tseq (Milluk). They were used as moccasin beads or anything else where someone wanted small trimmings.

There were stories of people who could train hard to be blessed by a wealth power and to get dentalium ‘to grow’. Frank Drew told one such story to Mel Jacobs in 1932:

Another poor boy; he tried to hunt sea otter, but in vain, he has no luck, anything goes again him. He keeps on thinking all the time. How can I manage to get anywhere’s? I’ve done all I could. So he has leanred how others get their wealth. He goes out at night, travels around, several nights, gets out late, goes by himself alone. At length he searches where there are two (men) persons, out in the jungle somewhere; they are busy gambling with dóqsai sticks, and betting dentalia there. The boy stands there and looks on. While watching, then he loses consciousness “he doesn’t know anything any more, he loses his senses.” He falls to the ground. When he comes to, he discoveres the two men are gone. He looks around, he finds one bit of a part of a dóqsai stick lying on the ground, and also the tiniest part of a small dentalium. Knowing how important this is, rejoicing in his heart, knowing what this means, he takes the two bits, caches them, goes thru the same 5 days of light eating washing and soon, and after 5 days, the little dentalium grows to become a lot of big ones, filling the basket qe’lé’en up to the rim. That’s how he got his wealth. Those two men are his tl’xinxat then. Tl’xí’nex stays with you all the rest of your life, tl’xínxat is just a big of fortune that you find.

If you dream of dentalia directly, you will never have anything of them you will be poor. If you dream of a lot of maggots, you will have plenty. If you dream you are covered by head lice, you will have lots of wealth too. It is possible that if you put a dead snake skin around your neck you will get wealth, have good luck-says Drew’s daughter, who was told it by a Coos.

There was a regional tradition along the Oregon coast that dentalium came from the north, from a land where the people ate nothing but dentalium, by sucking the meat out of the shells – so they had tiny, tiny mouths. The shells were tossed aside in great piles. In a Tillamook story (the 12th paragraph of the first story in “Nehalem Tillamook Tales”), Ice and his men travelled briefly to this strange land, tried to eat the meat but went hungry, and returned home. Leona Ludson, an Alsea woman, once said that there was a people who lived on dentalium, “throw shells out in pile like we throw clam-shells – they live there & get all white – once man went there, dragged canoe over pile so some stuck to bottom – that way he got away with some.”

Coquelle Thompson told a few stories about dentalium. One was specifically about a Lower Coquille man from Kammasdan village who made wings to fly north, beyond the Columbia River, to the land of dentalium. He strung up great numbers of shells, wrapping them around every part of his body, and on his hair. He flew home. He was able to share wealth with his family and chief. He also said that there was a trail from somewhere near Roseburg known as Nalyæ´ttannæ, the money road, because Upper Umpqua people used to travel north along this trail to get dentalium from the Columbia River and brought it back south.

Sea serpents are regarded with varying degrees of awe and dread among coastal people, and in some cases can grant good fortune in the form of dentalium and other goods on spiritually and morally worthy individuals. The Tolowa people tell of a sea serpent that lives in Lake Earl. It has horns of dentalium shells on its head. If a man trains hard, the sea serpent might bless him with good fortune. Coquelle Thompson told stories of ‘big snake’ that could grant a good person who trained hard with wealth. Coos storyteller Jim Buchanan told a story of a girl who raises a sea serpent as a pet. It becomes the girl’s wealth power, making her and her family affluent. Buchanan said as the serpent grew, it grew a pair of horns on its head. He didn’t say they were of dentalium, but I find the parallel with the Tolowa serpent story interesting.

Native people still love dentalium, and is mixed with all colors of beautiful beads. Unfortunately it seems harder today to find the large dentalium. Most of the dentalium sold today comes from Asia, and is a bit more fragile than the American Pacific coast species.


Drucker, Phillip. 1933. Ethnographic Field Notes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1909. Coos Fieldnotes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1913. Coos Texts. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, no. 1. New York.

Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1914. Lower Umpqua Texts and Notes on the Kusan Dialects. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology 4. New York.

Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1920. Alsea Texts and Myths. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 67. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.

Jacobs, Melville, ed. 1990. Nehalem Tillamook Tales. OSU Press, Corvallis OR.

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