Dentalium shells are small tubular mollusks that look like little elephant tusks. There are over 300 species of dentalium, but the species most used by American Indians as money were Dentalium (Antalis) Pretiosum which are found along the northwest coast of North America.

Dentalium shells have been used ornamentally as beads, money and symbols of wealth for thousands of years and many varieties can be found around the world. Today Asia supplies most of the dentalium shells used in bead work. The Asian dentalium is more fragile than the type used by American Indians. Dentalium Pretiosum or Indian Money Tusk has a smooth finish with horizontal ridges and are a strong shell less likely to chip or break.

The American Indians of the Pacific Northwest initiated the use of dentalium as a standard of monetary exchange and a sign of wealth. These shells are most attributed to the tribes of Northern California ( Hupa, Tolowas, Yurok, Wiyot, Karuk, Wintu) because their societies had a high cultural value on wealth. However, they got most of their dentalium shells from more Northern Indians (as far away as Vancouver).

The tribes of Northern California used dentalium shells as a monetary tool for exchange of goods and services. (purchase their homes, clothing, boats, weapons and food etc) Generally the most prized dentalium shell was a large on two and one half inches long or longer. A small boat cost one strand of dentalium shells (a strand was about the length of a man's arm). The Indians strung the shells on fiber thread ( iris) and stored them in Elk horn "purses". The more wealthy men decorated their ceremonial clothing with both large and small dentalium shells.

But it wasn't just Indians of the pacific coast that used dentalium shells as money – the practice spread as far as the Dakota's. In fact, the Plains tribes wanted these shells for currency also. The demand in that area was so strong that traders imported the Atlantic species (Dentalium entale stimpsoni) from New England and from Europe (Dentalium Vulgare).

Today most bead work is done with the more plentiful Asian variety of dentalium shell and interestingly a two and one half inch to three inch dentalium shell is still valued at about one dollar each!

Thanks for visiting Trinidad Trading Company and reading our Dentalium Shells Were Money to American Indians Article.