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Cheyenne Dentalium Choker and Earrings

Cheyenne Dentalium Choker and Frank Gehry Fish necklace.

Traded extensively throughout North America, dentalium shell (Dentalium spp.) was used as a medium for decoration and ornamentation by many Native American tribes. I have long admired dentalium chokers and ear drops, especially those crafted by the Cheyenne.

Numerous examples of early and late 19th century use of dentalium chokers and earrings by Plains tribes can be found in early works by artists and photographers. In Karl Bodmer's America (Bodmer, p 265), there is a watercolor of a Cree woman wearing an elaborate set of dentalium earrings. Bodmer has also included an insert to the portrait that highlights the earrings decorated with blue trade beads. Other interesting and highly decorative uses of dentalium shells for hair and ear ornamentation are further evident in portraits of Mandan men "Mandeh-Pahchu" (Bodmer, p. 301), Si'h-Sa (Bodmer, p. 306), and Si'h-Chida (Bodmer, p. 307).

Ledger drawings offer additional evidence of dentalium choker and earring use among Plains tribes (Powell, Vol 1, pp 129, 137, 349, 359, 361, 363, 543, 545, 547, 549; Vol 2, pp 963, 967, 979, 1103, 1105, 1109, 1110). From photographs and ledger drawings, there does not appear to be too much variation in the appearance of men's and women's styles for dentalium chokers, although earrings tend to be longer in style for women than for men.

Because I did not have access to original pieces, 19th century photographs of individuals wearing dentalium chokers and earrings were the most useful for me in gaining insights on style and construction.

I found two excellent photos of dentalium choker in Vol 2 of Peter Powell's People of the Sacred Mountain worn by White Buffalo (p. 1066) and White Hawk (p. 1127). I also found a good close-up of a plain dentalium choker in Hau, Kola (Hail, p. 134, plate 107). On page 233 of Hail's book, is a photograph of Little Wolf wearing an excellent example of fancy dentalium ear drops with what appears to be abalone dress pendants.

Materials &Elsa Peretti Starfish necklace

The materials I used were old style smooth tusk dentalium shells (Dentalium vulgare) and white abalone (Haliotis spp.) dress pendants courtesy of Chuck Snell in Trinidad, Calif. (Genera and species epithets cited from Mr. Snell's price list). For the spacers, I used latigo leather dyed with red earth paints mixed with bear fat and a pinch of salt. The dentalia were sorted by size and color and strung with split imitation sinew. After all the shells were strung, #12 brass tacks were driven through the latigo spacers (be careful - one wrong blow with your hammer and your shells can shatter!). The points were then cut off with nippers. (The nippers were not able to cut off the shafts of the tacks completely flush against the latigo spacers, so after I was finished, I glued strips of braintan on the backside of the spacers, covering the exposed points.) Small Glover's needles were used to string the dentalium through pre-punched holes in the latigo and an awl was used to pop out sand grains that were lodged in the small ends of dentalium (by gently applying pressure against the tip of the shell, the awl was also useful for enlarging the holes just enough so that the needle could be pulled through easily). Small jewelry crimp rings were used to attach the abalone pendants to the spacers, and commercial hoop earrings were purchased for the actual earrings of the ear drops. Two strips of brain-tanned leather were looped through the ends in a "cat's paw" for tying the choker around the neck.

Finally, I found a pair of narrow needle-nose pliers to be helpful in pulling the Glover's needles through the latigo and dentalia. Since the completion of this project, it has been suggested that the brass tacks could be driven into the spacers and bradded flat before stringing the shells to avoid breaking and to minimize Tiffany Beads necklace against the wearer's neck.

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