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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There are Spiders and then there are spiders

In Hanis and Milluk there are two words for spider. Both languages share the word wa’wá’atl’ (occasionally shrunk down to 2 syllables, wawatl’), and then a second word based on the verb ‘to weave, to pile up, to spread’ which is winq- and milq-, respectively. The nominal forms winqas/milqes can mean spider as well as basket start or bottom, water striders, octopus, and mat (these latter two I’ve found for Hanis, but it may be true for Milluk as well). Whereas wa’wá’atl’ only refers to spiders. The use of winqas/milqes often refers to the rough shape – a central ‘blob’ with spokes or numerous legs or tentacles coming out, and in the case of a mat, it’s going with the meaning of ‘weave’, a woven object.

So when did speakers use one word or the other? There isn’t really a clear pattern. There is a story Jim Buchanan told where Spider-Old-Woman is a wise person.  She lived in the sky, but enemies from the world below killed her family when she was away. When she returned home, she found her home was nothing but burned ruins.  She was able to rescue one grandson from pulling him out of his dead mother’s body. She raised him, and taught him a strong spirit power that the grandson was able to use to defeat his family’s enemies. Throughout the story she is called Winqas Huumik’ – Spider (aka Weaver) Old-Woman.

However, not all myth spiders get that title. Jim Buchanan and Annie Peterson told different versions of a trickster story, where a Trickster gets into the sky world and encounters an older couple with burned heads. The Sun travels through there every day, and she is too hot. Trickster ends up ‘fixing’ the sun by cooling her down. It’s only hinted at in Buchanan’s version, but Annie stated explicitly the older couple with burned heads were a pair of dark spiders – wa’wá’atl’. Later she told Jacobs a short story about spiders (the same or related to the ones in the Trickster myth) who created snow whenever they cleaned ashes out of their hearth. In Jacobs’ notebook notes, he jotted down that she said they were big dark spiders. He wrote ‘tarantulas?’, as he was trying to figure out what exactly Annie meant, although so far as I know we don’t have tarantulas on the Oregon coast.

However, Annie then used the words winqas/milqes to describe little spiders that alight on people. “If you see a little spider alight on or by you then go up again it means company is coming.” (Melville Jacobs notebook 99, page 138).

Annie’s niece Lottie said “wɷ•wά’ɑtɫ [Wa’wá’atl’]-a great big spider that comes down from the sky-not these little spiders at all…white looking…It has a string that shines just like silk, it is supposed to come from heaven. Once we saw this, they told us: don’t you ever touch it! It lit on the rush. This was when we were at [Yachats]” (Harrington 22:857a)

When Harrington asked Frank Drew for Coos words for spider, at first he thought winqas only meant weaver, and wa’wá’atl’ was spider, but as he thought about it he did recollect winqas could also mean spider.

So as far as I can tell, which word to use – ‘weaver’ (winqas/milqes) or the ‘regular’ word for spider, wa’wá’atl’ – wasn’t connected to any obvious rules, except maybe wa’wá’atl’ might mean larger spiders and winqas/milqes smaller ones. However, my lit-major husband pointed out that the stories Buchanan and Peterson told were oral literature, and many other cultures that old long sagas often played with words and phrases to create poetry. The old Norse had a kind of word play they called kenning, where descriptive words or phrases were used in place of the usual one.  (My favorite is ‘whale road’ for the ocean). Storytellers in particular were probably very playful with words – so using a word like ‘weaver’ in place of a pedestrian word for spider was probably done to make a point. In the story of Spider Old Woman, she is knowledgeable and has power, so it makes sense to portray her as a weaver, a woman of great skills who also had a strong spirit power she was able to teach to her grandson. Whereas the couple with their dirty hearth, the wa’wá’atl’, are not necessarily so skilled or powerful.  When little winqas/milqes spiders briefly alight on you and then climb back up to the ceiling, they are trying to pass along a message – company’s coming!

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Do Grizzly Bears eat camas?

I recently finished retranslating the story “Night Rainbow Old Woman” (told by Jim Buchanan to Leo Frachtenberg and published in Coos Texts).  In the first part of the story, two of Night Rainbow Old Woman’s family sees camas bulbs spread out in a prairie.  They begin picking it up. An angry Grizzly comes charging up to them, announcing that camas is his.  He kills them.  Old Night Rainbow later has her revenge by killing one of the grizzlies, and her grandson eventually kills the rest of that grizzly family.

When I first read the story, I didn’t think much about the part where Grizzly claims the camas as his.  In stories with Animal People they often have both human and animal characteristics.  However, it sounds a lot like a story Frank Drew told about his wife’s grandfather’s brother, in a bad encounter with a Grizzly over camas near Loon Lake:

Dan Johnson…(he was L. Umpqua) had a brother who was very smart, thought he was. The men and women went camas digging out to Loon L[ake] up the Umpqua. It’s a prairie with camas. Grizzlies also dig camas and pile them in a certain place. The folks told the smarty not to bother a camas pile collected by a grizzly – lest you get the grizzly angry and be crippled or killed. But having a gun he scoffed. Arrived there, they saw a grizzly digging camas. As long as he wasn’t bothered he would not bother them. He had several camas heaps. “Don’t bother those piles” they cautioned him. But he scoffed. He said he’d hang his coat on his gun ramrod to the grizzly wouldn’t even see him. He disobeyed all this advice, and maliciously scattered the grizzly’s camas heaps, to see what would happen. The grizzly took after him at once. The old grizzly knocked him down. He hadn’t tried to shoot, because if crippled the bear gets only more dangerous, unless by chance a perfect shot is made. So he tried to play dead, held his breath, the grizzly kept watch, near, after feeling his chest, a few times. At last the grizzly gave him up for dead. The people all kept at a distance, watching. The grizzly went away; he was all torn from being knocked down, was laid up for a year. (Melville Jacobs notebook 92 page 80)

So it sound like grizzly bears really did like camas bulbs, which wouldn’t be surprising since they eat all kinds of roots, greens and berries.  I wasn’t able to find any mention of it though in contemporary literature.  However, in a book from 1915 (Field Book of Western Wildflowers by Margaret Armstrong) states that grizzly bears were ‘fond of the bulbs’.  So, I guess when a Grizzly Bear gathers camas in a story, it’s based off of real observations of grizzly behavior.


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Beaded basket

Jonathan Oligmueller

Jonathan Oligmueller

So this is a cute little beaded basket from the collection Agnes Sengstacken donated to UC Berkeley in 1929.  The typed up notes state it was made around the year 1900 by a woman named “Jane Baker”.  Jane Baker…I had never heard of.  I have heard of Ione Baker, an Oregon Athabaskan woman, and I think that is who they meant.

Using the LDS church’s online census resources at, there is a “Jane Baker” listed in the search for the year 1900 living in the “Empire, Prospect” etc district.  Clicking on the link to look at the original link with the handwritten entry, the name looks like”Ione” rather than Jane (it’s funny how easy it is to go either way – but the 2nd letter does not look like the census taker’s other a’s, it looks like an ‘o’).  Jane/Ione was said to be about 50 then, and had one living child.

Searching the 1880 census, a 30 year old Ione Baker shows up, married to a Maine settler named Wentworth Baker and they had one son, Charlie Baker who at that time was 10.  So, same as the “Jane” Baker from 1900.  Probably in both Sengstacken’s notes and the census, someone made the mistake of reading the unusual name Ione for the then-common name Jane.

Ione had the traditional Athabaskan 111 tattoo on her chin.  She had an older brother names Cyrus Tichenor, aka Silas Tichenor.  In 1870 or so it was Cyrus, along with Coquelle Thompson, who brought the Warm House dance (Ghost Dance) to Florence and Coos Bay.

Southern Oregon Indian country being a small world (especially after the Rogue River wars, decimation and removal), it seems like everyone knew everyone.  At one point, Annie Peterson married Ione’s son Charlie.  The marriage was not at all a happy one (Annie described Charlie as abusive) and she divorced him.

The specific tribal affiliation of the Baker and Tichenor siblings is a bit confusing.  Some people thought they were Chetco, some Euchre Creek, some Rogue River.  In the 1900 census, Ione (aka Jane) listed her mother as from Coos Bay and her father “Mackantany” which looks like the name of one of the lower Rogue River villages.  But in an 1940 BIA census she is listed as “4/4 Chetco and Naquenondon”.  Regardless, she lived for many decades among the mixed Indian community of lower Coos Bay.  Ione Baker died on June 1, 1940.

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Kate’s baskets

So yesterday’s pretty basket turned out to be made by Sarah Walker not Kate.  But these baskets both Annie Peterson and collector Agnes Sengstacken’s notes agree these ones were by Kate, who Annie said was a Lower Umpqua or Siuslaw woman married to “Fat Tenmile Tom”.


The Sengstacken notes say this one was made around 1894.

She made this basket around 1889:


Kate, aka xwálxwal (eyes), was clearly a skilled weaver.  I wish I could find more information about her, but this is almost all the information I’ve been able to find out about her (along with Annie’s comment that she went blind in later years).  In Corporal Bensell’s list of Indians around Coos Bay captured and taken to Yachats in 1864, he does list a “Fat Tom and Mrs. Fat Tom” as well as a child of this couple.  Could his “Fat Tom” be the same one that Annie called “Fat Tenmile Tom”?  No way to be sure (there were a lot of Indian men nicknamed ‘Tom’, but how many on top of that also had the appellation ‘Fat’?) but it does make one wonder.

The Sengstacken notes also say basket 2-13223 is also one of Kate’s:


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Kate’s beautiful baskets


photo from Phoebe-Hearst, UC Berkeley

The basket above is a very beautiful one that is in the same collection at Berkeley as the basket caps I wrote about in yesterday’s post.

EDITED TO ADD: Nan MacDonald pointed out that in the museum records, the Sengstacken’s notes say she got it from a Mrs. Mary Johnson who said this basket was made around 1859 on Larson Slough by Sarah Walker.  Cryptically ‘dead’ is added in parenthesis – dead when?  By 1889 when the basket was given to Sengstacken?  Dead by 1929 when she donated these baskets to Berkeley?  There’s no way to tell from the fragmentary notes.  So far I haven’t found any information as to who she was.  Nan found a record of Nancy Walker who shows up in the 1900 census living in the Empire district with the Burns (Coos) family; her father is listed as Coquille and mother Coos Bay.  She was born about 1840.  There is no way to tell, however, if Nancy and Sarah were the same person, or relatives, or if there was any relation at all.  So it seems Annie Peterson thought the basket looked like something Kate “wife of Tom” would have made, but she wasn’t the actual weaver of this one.

When Melville Jacobs’ showed photos of these baskets to Annie Peterson, she said she thought this one was made by a woman named Kate, married to “Big Fat Tenmile Tom.” Annie said Kate was a Siuslaw or Lower Umpqua woman, and her Coos nickname was xwálxwal, meaning ‘eyes’ because she had big eyes. Annie said she went blind in later years, but still wove baskets.

Sadly that is about all I have been able to find out about Kate and Tom. In the Beckham papers it is noted that there is a Kate and Ticky Tom listed in the Indian census as living in Marshfield, and it is likely this couple.

There is also a photograph, taken sometime in the late 19th century or around the year 1900, of an Indian woman noted simply as “Indian Kate”, wearing a headdress, wearing a pine nut apron, dentalium necklaces, and holding two weswos (dance wands for the feather dance). Is it the same Kate? I can’t be sure, but it could be.


photo from Coos County Historical & Maritime Museum (Douglas County Museum also has this photo)

On the facebook Berkeley post I mistakenly said she had hid out at Women & Children’s Island. That woman was a different Kate, who lived with a settler named Dan Hayward. So I got my Kate’s mixed up there.

Kate’s basket above was a type Annie called axu, one of the fine baskets for holding valuables. She doesn’t give much information to differentiate the axu from other types for valuables. It was supposed to be smaller than the getlotl’ which was a suitcase to store good things. Chillahl was a ’round money basket’, about a foot high, one to two feet wide, laced on top. All of these Annie said were finely made with many designs from materials such as cattail leaf, beargrass, eelgrass, and cedar bark.

Annie did not know the names of most of the designs on the basket, but the motifs at the rim and very bottom are a variation of the kweye’is (mountain) design.


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Basket caps

The Phoebe Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley, California, has a large collection of baskets and other artifacts collected in western Oregon by Agnes Sengstacken.  Among them are several Coos Bay and Siuslaw baskets.  When Melville Jacobs worked with Annie Peterson in 1933 and 1934 he showed her some black and white photos of the baskets, and she made a few comments about some of them.

Here is a Coos bay style cap, 2-13261 in the museum catalog:


The Coos Bay caps are a little taller than those made on the Coquille river south to northern California.  Annie said that the style is known in Hanis and Milluk as tlp’óla (another Milluk word for them is shap’ála).  She wasn’t sure of most of the design names but the one along the edge was tlúk’shi, scallop design.

Here is a second Coos Bay tl’póla/shap’ála cap, 2-13260:

Jonathan Oligmueller

Jonathan Oligmueller

The other style of cap, known in both Coos languages as pashtála, were made on the Coquille River and on south.  Annie said sometimes women bought or traded with southern women for caps.  2-13239 is a pashtála type cap:


Photos are from the Phoebe Hearst catalog.

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