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Published Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Dentalium Labrets of the Tlingit

Dude, there are easier ways to get a light.

There’s a legend among the Tlingit that starts by saying, “No one knows where the story of Raven begins, so everyone starts from where they know and goes on from there.” According to the story, Raven was a god-like figure with an abalone shell labret and he, (or sometimes she) made the world.

Not the whole universe, mind you, but this particular world. So he had a world, and he needed a light for it. Raven knew a guy, out there in the universe, who had a light, so he went and got that guy’s daughter pregnant. The child that was born cried all the time, and Raven and his new family gave the child all the stars in the sky, the sun and the moon, all the earth it could walk on, the sea to fish in, and a lot of friends.

And that’s where the world, and the people in it came from.

Among the Tlingit,

Whose name means “People of the Tides,” that story, the story of how Raven created the world, is as much property as the land you might live on, or the laptop you’re reading this on. Stories, names, dances, and songs were all owned by clans. You might be given a name to pay back a debt, or, if the person who owes you was particularly hard to collect from, you might steal a dance or a song instead.

According to one of their other legends, they met a group of people, not Tlingit but “people with whom you could trade” and they were called Athapaskan people. Nomads who’d been robbed and had other troubles along the way. Mighty hunters though, and very knowledgeable about things like dancing and fashion.

The Athapaskans sported some amazing tattoo work, and some great jewelry. One of their habits, the wearing of nose rings and nose pins and labrets made from slate and abalone, caught on with the Tlingit, and became a tradition practiced over the centuries. They could pierce and stretch their septums with dentalium shells, or porcupine or bird’s quills. The earliest settlements made things like labrets from slate. Later they made ornaments like copper rings and disks.

It wasn't simply a matter of fashion sense either. It’s interesting that the Tlingit legends describe Athapaskans as “People with whom you could trade”, because with the scarcity of food and goods in the northern tundra, people you could trade with were one of their most important assets. War for goods, food, spouses, and among some people (including the Tlingit, at least until the 1860s) slaves was common. A harsh winter could divide clans, and set people against each other.

But how...

Could you know if the people you saw in the distance were friends or foes? If they would kill you or trade with you? The answer is by looking at their jewelry. The way labrets and other jewelry was worn could indicate tribal boundaries, social status, whether you were open to trading or looking for a fight.

They were a sign of who you were within your society, what society you belonged to, and how high caste or low caste you might be. People could tell everything about you just by looking at your face.

These practices...

Clockwise from left: A Tlingit woman dressed for potlatch with copper septum ring, a Nakoaktok chiefwith copper septum ring and an armload of copper,and an Inuit woman from Nunivak with beaded septum and beaded labrets.
Photos by Edward S. Curtis; Case and Draper.

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.