Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
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Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
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Impearls: HIC 2.02: Money

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Money   by A. L. Kroeber

The money of the Yurok was dentalium shells.  Dentalia occur in California, the species D. hexagonum inhabiting the southern coast, and D. indianorum perhaps the northern.  Both species, however, live in the sand in comparatively deep water, and seem not to have been taken alive by any of the California Indians.  The Yurok certainly were not aware of the presence of the mollusk along their ocean shore, and received their supply of the “tusk” shells from the north.  They knew of them as coming both along the coast and down the Klamath River.  Since the direction of the first of these sources is “downstream” to them, they speak in their traditions of the shells living at the downstream and upstream ends of the world, where strange but enviable people live who suck the flesh of the univalves.

Dentalia are known to have been fished by the Indians of Vancouver Island, and were perhaps taken by some tribes farther south; but it is certain that every piece in Yurok possession had traveled many miles, probably hundreds, and passed through a series of mutually unknown nations.

The Yurok grade their shells very exactly according to length, on which alone the value depends.  They are kept in strings that reach from the end of an average man's thumb to the point of his shoulder.  Successive shells have the butt end in opposite direction so as not to slip into one another.  The pieces on one string are as nearly as possible of one size.  So far as they vary, they are arranged in order of their length.  But shells of sufficiently different size to be designated by distinct names are never strung together, since this would make value reckoning as difficult as if we broke coins into pieces.  The length of “strings” was not far from 27½ inches [69.85 cm], but of course never exactly the same, since a string contained only an integral number of shells and these, like all organisms, varied.  The cord itself measured a yard [91 cm] or more.  This allowed the shells to be slid along it and separated for individual measurement without the necessity of unstringing.  The sizes and names of the shells are as follows:

Length of
shell in
[cm] Yurok name
of shell
Hupa name
of shell
Yurok name
of string
Hupa name
of string
Shells to
string of
27½ inches
2 12 6.35 Kergerpitl Dingket Kohtepis Moanatla 11
2 516 5.8738 Tego'o Kiketukut-hoi Na'apis Moananah 12
2 18 5.3975 Wega Chwolahit Nahksepitl Moanatak 13
2  – 5.08 Hewiyem Hostanhit Ta'anepitl Moanadingk 14
1 78 4.7625 Merostan Tsepupitl 15

The Yurok further distinguish tsewosteu, which is a little shorter than merostan, though still money.  Possibly tsewosteu was the name of the 15-to-the-string shells, and merostan — sometimes called “young man's money” — denoted a size of which 14½ measured a string.  The Yurok further specify the length, both of pieces and of strings, by adding a number of qualifying terms, especially oweyemek and wohpekemek, which denote various degrees of shortness from standard.

Dentalia which go more than 15 or 15½ shells to the string are necklace beads.  These come in three sizes, terkutem, skayuperwern, and wetskaku, the latter being the shortest.  The value of all these was infinitely less than that of money, and they were strung in fathoms [183 cm] or half-fathoms [91], the grade being estimated by eye, not measured.  Ten half-fathom strings of terkutem were equal to about one 13-string of money; making a rate of an American dollar or less per yard [91 cm].

The Karok call dentalia ishpuk, the broken bead lengths apmananich.  The largest size of money shells is pisiwawa, the next pisiwawa afishni, the third shisharetiropaop.

All sizes of dentalia have depreciated since first contact with the whites, so that valuations given to-day in terms of American money fluctuate; but the following appear to have been the approximate early ratings, which in recent years have become reduced about one-half:

To string. Value of shell. Value of string.
11 $5.00 $50.00
12 2.00 20.00
13 1.00 10.00
14 .50 5.00
15 .25 2.50

From this it is clear that an increase in length of shell sufficient to reduce by one the number of pieces required to fill a standard string about doubled its value.

Dentalia of the largest size were exceedingly scarce.  A string of them might now and then be paid for a wife by a man of great prominence; but never two strings.  Possession of a pair of such strings was sufficient to make a man well known.

Shells are often but not always incised with fine lines or angles, and frequently slipped into the skin of a minute black and red snake, and wound spirally with strips of this skin.  The ends of the cord are usually knotted into a minute tuft of scarlet woodpecker down.  All these little devices evince the loving attention with which this money was handled but do not in the least enhance its value.

As might be expected, the value of dentalia was greater in California than among the northern tribes at the source of supply.  In Washington or northern Oregon, as among the Yurok, a slave was rated at a string; but the northern string was about a fathom [183 cm] long.  Among the Nutka, money was still cheaper: it took 5 fathoms of it [9.1 m] to buy a slave.

The size of the shells used in the north has, however, not been accurately determined.  For the Oregon-Washington region, 40 shells were reckoned to the fathom, which gives an individual length averaging at the lowest limit of what the Yurok accepted as money, or even a little less.  In British Columbia it is stated that 25 pieces must stretch a fathom.  This would yield an average of considerably over 2½ inches [6.35 cm], or more than the very longest shells known to the Yurok.  It may be added that the fathom measure was in constant use among the Yurok for almost everything but money.

The actual valuing of dentalia was individual or in groups of fives, the length of men's arms being too variable and the size of shells too irregular to permit of exact appraisals by treating a string as a unit.  The shells on a cord were therefore turned over and matched against each other, and then laid against the fingers from crease to crease of the joints.  The largest size was gauged from the farther crease of the little finger to the fold in the palm below; according to some accounts, the measure was also taken on the index.  Other sizes were matched against the middle finger.  A shell from a full 13-piece string was supposed to extend precisely from the base of this finger to the last crease and was called wetlemek wega.  A 12-to-the-string shell, of course, passed beyond.

Measurement was also by fives, from the end of the thumbnail to a series of lines tattooed across the forearm.  These indelible marks were made from fives of known value, and served as a standard not dependent on bodily peculiarities.

The generic Yurok name for dentalium is tsik.  Since the coming of the whites it has also been known as otl we-tsik, “human beings their dentalium,” that is, “Indian money,” in distinction from American coins.  The early settlers corrupted this to “allicocheek,” used the term to the Indians, and then came to believe that it was a native designation common to all the diverse languages of the region.

Dentalium is frequently personified by the Yurok.  Pelin-tsiek, “Great Dentalium,” enters frequently into their myths as if he were a man, and in some versions is almost a creator.  Tego'o is also a character in legend.

All other shells were insignificant beside dentalia in Yurok consideration.  Olivellas were strung and used for ornament, but did not rate as currency.  Haliotis, which seems to have been imported from the coast to the south of Cape Mendocino, was liberally used on the fringe of Yurok women's dresses, on ear pendants, in the inlay of pipes, and the like.  But it also never became money and did not nearly attain the value of good dentalia.  Now and then a short length of disk beads from central California penetrated to the Yurok, but as a prized variety rather than an article of recognized value.

A myth, told, it may be noted, by a Coast Yurok of Eshpeu married at Orekw, narrates how the dentalia journeyed by the shore from the north.  At the mouth of the Klamath the small shells went south along the coast, but Pelintsiek and Tego'o continued up the river.  At Ho'opeu and Serper Tego'o wished to enter, at Turip his larger companion; but in each case the other refused.  At Ko'otep and Shreggon they went in.  Pekwan they did not enter, but said that it would contain money.  Nohtsku'm and Meta they passed by.  At Murekw they entered, as at Sa'a and Wa'asei, and left money.  At Kenek, Pelintsiek wished to leave money, but apparently did not do so.  At Wahsekw and again at Weitspus they went in and left three shells.  At Pekwututl also they entered, and there the story ends with Pelintsiek's saying that some money must continue upstream (to the Karok) and up the Trinity to the Hupa.  The tale records the Yurok idea as to the situation of wealth; it illustrates their interest in money; and although a somewhat extreme example, is a characteristic representation of their peculiar mythology, with its minimum of plot interest, intense localization, and rationalizing accounting of particular human institutions.

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