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Impearls: HIC 2.03: Treasure

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Treasure   by A. L. Kroeber

Of articles other than shells, those that approach nearest to the character of money are woodpecker scalps.  These are of two sizes, both of them scarlet and beautifully soft: those from the larger bird are slightly more brilliant.  These two kinds of scalp are known as kokoneu (Karok: furah) and terker'it.  The former are rated at $1 to $1.50 each, the latter variously at 10, 15, and 25 cents.  The native ratio seems to have been 6 to 1.  Woodpecker scalps differ from dentalia in that they have value as material, being worked into magnificent dance headdresses, and used as trimming on other regalia.  They represent the Yurok idea of the acme of splendor.  Dentalium currency is never worn or exhibited in display, and being entirely without intrinsic utility or ornamental possibility, is wholly and purely money.

Deerskins of rare colors and large blades of obsidian and flint possessed high values; in fact, all objects carried in dances represented wealth.  But these articles varied so greatly according to color, size, fineness, or workmanship, that their civilized equivalents are jewels rather than money.  At the same time, there was a strong tendency, as can be seen from the examples below, to make part of every payment of consequence in a variety of articles.  When large sums changed ownership, as in the purchase of a high-class wife or settlement for the death of a rich man, not more than about half the total seems to have been in dentalia.  In the same way strings paid over were of graduated sizes, not all of one value.  These facts indicate that a proper variety and balance of wealth as well as quantity were considered desirable.

Even a common deerskin represented value when prepared for dance use.  Besides the hide, there was the labor of stuffing the head, and woodpecker scalps were needed for eyes, ears, throat, and tongue.  An unusually light or dark skin was worth more, and those that the Yurok call “gray” and “black” and “red” are estimated at $50 to $100.  A pure albino skin, with transparent hoofs, is rated at $250 to $500.  But this is a theoretic valuation given for the sake of comparison.  The Yurok state that fine white skins did not change ownership.  Their possession was known far and wide and to part with one on any consideration would have been equivalent to a king selling his crown.  (Pls. 2, 3.)

Similarly with obsidians.  The usual statement that these are worth $1 an inch of length is true for blades of half a foot to a foot.  A 20-inch piece, however, would be held at about $50, and the few renowned giants that reach 30 and even 33 inches are, from the native point of view, inestimable.  The above applies to black obsidian.  The red, which is rarer and does not come in as large pieces, is worth considerably more.  Most valuable of all are the blades of white flint, which can not be chipped quite as evenly as the obsidian, but can be worked broader and somewhat thinner.  The largest of these run to about a foot and a half long.



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