Song of the Abalone: As Heard From Different Ears

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums

By: and Katherine C. Ku

December 14, 2017

Object Analysis by Katherine Ku

Abalone shell is unquestionably beautiful. Its unassuming rough exterior only serves to make its iridescent and scintillating interior even more attractive in contrast, making it comparable in aesthetic value to materials like gold, silver, and gemstones. Beyond this surface beauty, abalone is simultaneously a living thing and a life-giving force, in more ways than one. For generations, among Native American tribes of the Pacific coast, its shell has been harvested and made into other products or traded while its flesh was collected as a source of food. Abalone has intrigued and been handled differently by different groups of people throughout time, from indigenous peoples to collectors to modern researchers. Its magic has touched many different audiences and the journey of one pair of earrings exemplifies the differing value and meaning of this material to various groups.

Abalone earrings (97-84-2022A and 97-84-2022B) in the Penn Museum collection. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

This pair of shell ear pendants (97-84-2022A and 97-84-2022B) are simple in appearance, consisting of two triangular pieces of abalone, each with a scalloped edge, attached to brass rings with leather strips. One pendant is slightly chipped and the leather is worn, a testament to the earrings’ age and their long journey to their current location in the collection of the Penn Museum. They tell a complex story, addressing human interactions, values, and meanings from ocean to shore and trade to religion.

Originally collected by Amos H. Gottschall, the earrings were curated in Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences before being given to the Penn Museum on permanent loan. Gottschall originally acquired them from the Shoshone people near the Weber River in Utah in the late 1800s. This is where their story begins – with their original creators and users.

Before becoming a collector’s item, abalone earrings and other abalone items would have been extremely significant, both physically and spiritually, to the Native peoples they were used by. Though these specific earrings were found in Utah, abalone regalia has commonly been associated with Native Americans up and down the Pacific coast, where these marine creatures once teemed. Abalone shell was used as adornment in several different ways, including as appliques glued directly onto the skin, in monumental art, and, of course, in jewelry.[1] To these Native peoples, abalone was a symbol of life, both literally and figuratively.

Abalone was an important part of the diet of coastal tribes and was eaten both fresh and dried. As a living creature, abalone literally nourished tribes like the Point Arena Pomo, and was traded with other groups as a means of sustenance as well. However, abalone’s life-giving properties extended far beyond physical nutrition, with Native people recognizing it as not only a living thing, but also as a part of the earth. In the Bole Maru, or Dreamer religion of the Point Arena Pomo, there is a narrative about the “Parent of all Abalones,” the first creature to inhabit the ocean and the living thing responsible for the existence of all other abalone, which became so important to the Pomo people. Recognizing this, John Boston, a Dreamer leader, was known to take care of the abalone by protecting them from sea urchins, and, by extension, taking care of the earth.[2]

Native practices gave the abalone new life after the living creature died, by integrating the shell into religious ceremonies, where the chimes of the shell on a dancer’s clothing would make the “abalone sing.”[3] Similarly, the Karuk people have the legend of the “Abalone Woman,” a Spirit Being whose dances were replicated through ceremonial dances, again evoking the chiming of abalone, the “playthings,” or ikamiichvar, of the Spirit Beings.[4]

However, abalone regalia was often stripped of its spiritual value by collectors. Amos Gottschall obtained these particular triangular ear pendants while making his way across the US peddling patent medicines to Native peoples. During his amateur expeditions, mainly through the southwestern United States, Gottschall amassed thousands of Native American objects from jewelry to weapons, and recorded them in three distinct collections. According to the original Gottschall records, these earrings were assigned the number 320 and were logged in Collection No. 1, which was deemed to have “specimens gleaned with much care, and are the very cream of their kind.”[5] Though Gottschall seems to have treated the Natives and their objects with respect, he also assigned monetary values to each of the objects in his collection, with the earrings in question being one of the least valued in that collection at only $2.50. Such an assignment of numerical value can degrade and strip the object of its spiritual value, by recognizing only its material value.

Gottschall treated his journey through the United States as an exciting adventure, documenting the most exciting or exotic portions of his expeditions, such as witnessing Native peoples eating raw meat. Gottschall also evaluated Native American peoples from a Eurocentric lens, mentioning in his own writings that “the chief of the Shoshonee Indians is Washakie, a man much respected by Western people who can appreciate a truly ‘good Indian.’” By his definition, Gottschall evaluates Washakie to be a “good Indian” on the basis that he “has not been on a war-path against the whites for years.”[6]

When Gottschall collected these shell earrings, the action of collecting them and reducing them to a catalog number separated them from their story and people. The history of this specific pair of pendants is lost, and although they are now treated carefully and respectfully in the Museum, they may never sing again like they might have once for the Shoshone.

It is intriguing to see the meaning of an object evolve through time and to see the stark contrast of the value of the same object differ so greatly between the perspectives of different groups. While the Native peoples saw the abalone as a living, breathing, powerful force, collectors like Gottschall were only able to recognize the extent of its physical beauty and monetary value. Fundamentally, this draws a parallel to how European and American anthropologists and researchers of the past often viewed Native peoples – recognizing only the value of their material culture for anthropological research rather than seeing them as a living group with diverse cultures and values. The journey of a single object – from a Native American tribe to an itinerant medicine-peddler and finally to a university museum – can speak volumes about how materials are and could be treated and viewed.

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2017 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

Sources Cited:

[1] N. A. Sloan, “Evidence of California-Area Abalone Shell in Haida Trade and Culture.” Canadian Journal of Archaeology / Journal Canadien d’Archéologie, vol. 27, no. 2 (2003), 276.
[2] Les Field, et al. Abalone Tales: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2009), 66.
[3] Ibid, 76.
[4] Ibid, 85.
[5] The inventory of materials acquired from Gottschall’s “Typical Collection No. 1” is housed in the Penn Museum Archives. See Amos H. Gottschall, Priced and Descriptive Catalogue of the Utensils, Implements, Weapons, Ornaments, Etc. of the Indians, Mound Builders, Cliff Dwellers. (Harrisburg, PA: A. H. Gottschall, 1909).
[6] Amos H. Gottschall. Travels from Ocean to Ocean and from the Lakes to the Gulf: Being the Narrative of a Twelve Years Ramble and What Was Seen and Experienced. 3rd ed. (Harrisburg, PA: A. H. Gottschall, 1882), 53.

For an overview of the 2017 object studies in the Anthropology of Museums class, see:
• Margaret Bruchac. “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, December 4, 2017.