Museum Minute: Dentalium Shell Dress

Feb 16, 2021

Dentalium Shell Dress, Lakota (Sioux), Northern Plains, ca. 1890 Made of dentalium shells, wool, and ribbon.
Credit Paul Dyck Buffalo Culture Collection; NA.202.1229

One day while working in the Plains Indian Museum collections, Hunter Old Elk, the curatorial assistant, found a very heavy box.

"I didn't really know what it was going to be," said Old Elk. "I kind of had an idea. I called a colleague over. He helped me uncover this box, we pulled it down, and it ended up being a 20 pound dress."

The dress is covered in dentalium shells, also known as money shells. They were used as currency among tribes. Dentalium was fished out of the British Colombia coast down through Vancouver and then traded into the Plains.

"This was an incredibly revered material used for material wealth," said Old Elk.

The top of the dress is completely covered with dentalium shells which is why it weighs so much.