entalium is a mollusk with a tusk-shaped shell. There are several types inhabiting the waters off the Pacific coast of America. The one that was so important to Native Americans was white with a smooth surface and ranged in size from one to two inches. The early Spanish explorers gave it the Latin name Dentalium pretiosum, or "precious dentalium," for obvious reasons.
Native Americans used dentalium as ear and nose ornaments, necklaces and bracelets. Dresses and robes were decorated with them and, in some areas, whole bridal crowns were made with them.
Aside from being a means of decoration and personal adornment, dentalium was a medium of exchange
in short, money. With dentalium one could purchase slaves, canoes, horses, rifles and even wives. The rate of currency varied depending largely on geography and the distance from its source.
Dentalium pretiosum ranges from southern California to Alaska, its habitat being sand and mud-bottomed bays and inlets, at depths to five hundred feet.
The Natives of the west coast of Vancouver Island developed a thriving business harvesting the shells, which then made their way through a complex trade network up and down the coast and into the interior. They were in great demand as far away as the north slope of Alaska, the Great Lakes and the American southwest.
he method of harvesting this valuable commodity was quite ingenious. A harvester was made of around a hundred round yew-wood splints about one-quarter of an inch in diameter and approximately two feet long. These were sharpened on one end, the tips hardened by scorching, and bundled together with the tips flush. The other end of the bundle was wrapped onto the end of a long shaft, maybe one and a half inches in diameter. Slats covered the upper two-thirds of the splits, and were wrapped firmly into place at the upper end. A wide board with a hole in it was slipped down the shaft and over the slats. The size of the hole in the board was such that when it reached halfway down the slats, it put pressure on them, and they in turn compressed the bundle of splints.
Stones were lashed as weights onto the ends of the board, to which long lines of rope were attached.
The dentalium hunters would take their canoe to the dentalium grounds, drop the harvester overboard, with one holding onto the shaft, while the other held the lines. Depending on the depth of the water, sections could be added to both shaft and lines.
When the harvester hit bottom, it was pulled up a foot or so, and the weight-board pulled up to the top of the slats. The harvester was then dropped so the pointed splints went into the sand. The lines holding the weight were then released, the weight sliding down the shafts, compressing the bundle of splints, and trapping any dentalia. The harvester was then retrieved, the shells removed, and the process repeated.
(Copyright © 1994 by Duane Pasco)