Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gender Differences in the Northwest Coast

Moss, Madonna L. 1993. Shellfish, Gender, and Status on the Northwest Coast: Reconciling Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Ethnohistorical Records of the Tlingit. American Anthropologist 95(3): 631-652.

            Within this article, Madonna Moss explores other possibilities for the importance and the role shellfish had in maritime societies throughout the Northwest coast, specifically the Tlingit peoples. Moss describes how shellfish has been viewed previously and most often by archaeologists as a low-priority resource. She says that this may be due to the lack of ethnographic and ethnohistoric focus when examining the importance of shellfish. Moss argues that shellfish, in fact, played a larger role than most archaeologists originally assumed within maritime societies such as the Tlingit. There is a greater dietary and economic role shellfish plays, as well as having a social and symbolic meaning attached. This social and symbolic meaning Moss says may have contributed to most archaeologists believing shellfish as being a low-priority resource. Furthermore, Moss uses ethnographic and ethnohistorical and oral historical data to establish that shellfish indeed played a bigger economic and dietary role for the Tlingit.
            Along the Northwest coast, Moss points out that there are variations in seasonality and thus variations in ecological conditions and extent of economic reliance on shellfish. Moss says that cultural factors and differences come into play, as well. Some groups gathered shellfish during the low tides of June whereas other groups would not gather any shellfish at all during this time.
            Moss goes on to say that there is an extremely high presence of shell middens throughout the coast Tlingit area in southeast Alaska. She says that these site distributions “give evidence of the area’s high intertidal productivity, amplitude, current-driven upwelling, and abundant estuaries.” The archaeological record, from eight sites near Angoon, Alaska, were used in Moss’s analysis. She says that the food sources are relatively the same as it was 1,600 years ago. In all but one of the sites in this area, shellfish was seen to be the most abundant faunal class by weight. Because there is such great abundance of this food source, Moss points out how it does not make sense that most archaeologists consider shellfish being a second-rate resource.
            In order to find answers, Moss uses ethnographic and ethnohistorical data. Ethnohistoric accounts have shown that shellfish indeed played a greater role within Tlingit societies. The ethnohistoric data came from accounts during a French expedition in 1791, and two Russian Amercian Company officials in 1832 and 1850-1. These accounts said that the Tlingit relied heavily upon shellfish, and some groups had shellfish as a seasonally important food source.
            Furthermore, Moss says how shellfish can become extremely toxic due to organisms such as phytoplankton. This may have led to the stigma that became attached to eating shellfish. Not only could shellfish be very poisonous, it was also very easily accessible. Most Tlingit groups associated those who ate shellfish as being lazy. They viewed people who ate shellfish as not having the work ethic to hunt or fish. Hunting and fishing were mainly men’s activities and a way to achieve wealth and status. Only in times of survival could men eat shellfish.
            Additionally, the stigma attached to shellfish due to its possible toxicity Moss says may have led to its role for women. For women, they were supposed to avoid eating shellfish during menses or their monthly menstruation to ensure purity and to “thereby ensure wealth as the young woman grew older.” The same applied to mourning widows and women giving birth for the first time.
            Overall, Moss says that men were not supposed to eat shellfish, nor were women. However, women depended more on shellfish than men, except for high-status women. Moss says that men probably ate shellfish more often than they would admit because it would lower their perceived masculinity.
            This reference is not as widely applicable to other regions. However, it is widely applicable to the Northwest in that most maritime societies depend to some extent on shellfish and marine-animals. For the Tlingit, certain symbolic and social implications existed for shellfish. Moss’s conclusions about gender roles and differences can be compared and contrasted with other Northwestern societies.

Burchell, Meghan, 2006. Gender, Grave Goods, and Status in British Columbia Burials. Canadian Journal of Archaeology. 30(2): 251-271.

            Analyzing sites from the coast of British Columbia, Meghan Burchell looks at burial modes and grave goods to better understand and challenge traditional views of gender and status. Burchell says that archaeologists have previously interpreted status within the Northwest coast in relation to the presence of grave goods, and even more so if the grave goods were ornate. Burchell goes on to describe how grave goods should not be the only aspect taken into account when attempting to determine status differences of individuals in certain Northwest coast societies. She says this because grave goods are so infrequent at times, so they should not be the only factor. Burchell used ethnographic as well as ethnohistoric data to explain how gender was viewed historically and then how it “may have been projected into mortuary treatment” in addition to using data present on 1,130 burials collected from published sources. Region, site, dat range, age, sex, present of grave goods, absence of grave goods, and grave good types were analyzed.
Upon examining regional variability between the north and south, Burchell found that the southern region contained burials of men and women with higher frequencies of ornate grave goods and at fairly equal rates for both genders. However, in the northern region men were more likely to be buried with ornate grave goods. Yet, overall Burchell says that there were no significant gender differences in grave good distribution. Though, there were significant differences in grave good ornamentation. The south had a lot more ornamentation than did the north, and women were found to have a lot more variety of grave goods then men. Burchell concludes that in the north, men were buried more often than women yet both received equal rates of grave goods. Here, men’s included more variety and ornamentation. Burchell interprets these differences through two main causes: “the increased evidence of warfare on the north coast; and the north coast unilineal descent versus the south coast bilateral descent system.” Furthermore, Burchell says that the south may have engaged in such funerary practices to attract new members and display wealth and power.
The importance that comes from this article is that there were no significant differences within a region, there were only significant differences between regions. Gender played a role, but not significantly. The presence of grave goods was occurred fairly equally for both genders. Since this article focused only on regions within British Columbia, this finding can be compared and contrasted to other regions on the Northwest coast. In this way, the findings can be applied, as well as the analysis of not only using grave goods and burial modes as a way to understand status and hierarchy within a society. Ornamentation plays a role, also, but still is not enough. There also needs to be an understanding of social organization, to learn why individuals were buried in particular ways.


  1. I found your Berchell article very interesting because I read an article on hierarchy and communalism in the Northwest Coast. The conclusions from the two article are not what one would expect. Whereas in your article Berchell states that the south had a lot more ornamentation than the northern region, my Coupland, Clark, and Palmer article stated there was more hierarchy in the north as evidenced by artifacts found in long houses. Because there is more evidence for hierarchy in the north according to my article, I would expect that the north would have more grave goods than the south, not less. I wonder what causes this unexpected and seemingly opposite difference?

    Coupland, Gary, Terence Clark, and Amanda Palmer.
    2009 Hierarchy, Communalism, and the Spatial Order of Northwest Coast Plank Houses: A Comparative Study. American Antiquity 74: 77-106.

  2. Your first article reminded me of one of the articles that I read. The article I read was specifically about salmon and malnutrition. In one section of the article they specifically address the issue of Vitamin D toxicity, and how children are more susceptible to this, and so may have consumed less marine-life, including salmon and shellfish, because of this reason. Due to the fact that consuming large amounts of marine-life could be toxic or even fatal to children, the researchers also propose the idea that women, “upon becoming aware of their pregnancy, would reduce or eliminate salmon consumption throughout gestation and nursing.” Due to this possibility of women switching between terrestrial foods and marine foods based on pregnancy, compared with men who would be consuming marine-life consistently, with further research on this topic, it may be possible to use these gender differences in food consumption to determine the amount of time a woman was pregnant/nursing over the period of her lifetime, due to the differences in her stable carbon isotopic signature, as compared to that of the average male.

    Lazenby, Richard A. and Peter McCormack
    1985 Salmon and Malnutrition on the Northwest Coast. Current Anthropology. 26.3:379-384