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.

About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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