Stem from earlier indigenous peoples that scientists now call “Paleo Hunter Gatherers”, and archeological digs have turned up the same kinds of jewelry that traditional northern indigenous people were still wearing when Edward S. Curtis (see the pics on the right) came through to photograph them in the early 1900s.
It’s a tradition, just like stories about Raven, that spans clans and cultures across the northern Pacific coast, up into Alaska and across the Yukon Territory, and it goes back a long ways. Digs done in Alaska have found evidence of people, like the paleo hunter gatherers, dating to 8000BCE, when a land bridge still connected Siberia and Alaska.
When, according to legend, the first people who spoke Athapaskan crossed over and met the Tlingit and they traded things like abalone shells for food and learned about dances and jewelry.
And with them came Raven. When Raven began journeying between the clans, from the Tlingit and Athapaskan peoples to the Kwakuitl and Inuit, he (and she, because Raven could also be a woman) had many adventures, married men and women, birds and fish and whales. That’s when Raven, as both man and woman, wore an abalone shell labret, and this became popular among the highest caste of people among the Tlingit and Athapaskans.
Eventually, it was said that only the highest caste people, chiefs and children of chiefs, knew the whole story of Raven, because they were the only people who had time to learn it. But even then, no one ever knew the beginning, and no one ever will.