An Analysis of the Cultivation of Root Vegetables, the Mariculture of Shellfish, and the Trade of Luxury Goods throughout the Pacific Northwest

Topics: Luxury Goods

While the study of salmon fishing provides an incredibly valuable perspective into the macrocosms and microcosms of economic and social relations in the Pacific Northwest, there are a range of other resources that can be studied as reliable vantage points into the cultural and economic inter-workings of the region. Some of these resources include the cultivation of root vegetables (in particular the Chinookan wapato), the mariculture of shellfish, and the trade of non-sustenance luxury goods throughout the Pacific Northwest. In “Lower Columbia Trade and Exchange Systems”, Yvonne Hajda and Elizabeth Sobel discuss larger systems of exchange in the Greater Lower Columbia through an analysis of non-sustenance resource trade.

They state that although valuables and non-perishables were being traded in a market of risk – a risk of prestige, social status, and community ranking – subsistence goods were being traded and consumed in a market of ongoing inter-social relationships (Hajda, Sobel 2013: 122).

While systems of larger macrocosmic exchange in the Northwest can be studied through the trade of luxury resources, the socio-economic exchange of sustenance goods in the region and the cultures/ideologies of this sustenance production can be used to study the gender role dichotomies, intercommunity social variation, and status systems of the many peoples that inhabited the area.

The harvest and consumption patterns of shellfish in Tlingit society provide a clear perspective into the different distinct systems of gender dichotomy and the sexualization of food in Northwestern sustenance culture. Generally, harvesting and eating shellfish was not taboo in Tlingit culture, but for many, it was selectively and socially prohibited.

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For example, women could not consume shellfish during their menstrual periods, a restriction that could last up to two or three years (Moss 1993: 642). It was also prohibited for shaman to eat shellfish during specific times of the lunar calendar, and it was generally taboo for aristocrats to eat shellfish during any time of the year, in order to maintain a state of prestige and purity (Moss 1993: 642-643).

Although it is generally agreed upon by most modern anthropologists that this shellfish taboo is largely rooted in the toxicity of particular shellfish during peak phytoplankton seasons (Moss 1993: 641, 646), shellfish was still consumed by much of Tlingit society as a local staple type, or secondary food source. Moss also writes, “I propose that shellfish provided a low cost food supply for proportionately more women than men, and for those of lower rank. However, shellfish were not without societal or biological risks” (Moss 1993: 643). Essentially, while men were generally expected to focus on fishing and hunting (to distinguish themselves as people of wealth and status in the community), and avoid the consumption of shellfish due to fear of losing respect and social agency, women were far more inclined to harvest and consume shellfish (Moss 1993: 641). This is because, they did not fear these social consequences as much as men, due to the fact that they were judged differently under the patriarchal social hierarchy of Tlingit society. Through the study of shellfish consumption, it becomes clear that women simply had far less social/political agency than men in Tlingit culture.

Unlike the harvesting of shellfish, the cultivation and procurement of plant sustenance (another staple of many different Northwestern peoples) transcended lines of status or prestige. The Chinookan people alone utilized over 27 different fruit species, 3 types of nuts and seeds, 12 species of greens, and more than 35 species of root vegetable (Gahr 2013: 64). By utilizing such a large variety of different plant species, during different seasons of the year, along with complex systems of food drying and storage, the Chinookan people were able to sustain an incredibly diverse diet, which led to food stability, low infant mortality rates, and longer life spans (Hockett and Haws 2003). The rights to these harvests, whether they be wapato marshes or berry bushes, were “owned” by particular families and lineages. David Ellis writes that, “These connections provided rights of access to the resource areas of the home villages of both spouses and could be extended to the home villages of parents, grandparents, and more remote ancestors” Ellis 2013: 49 Essentially, rights to particular harvests were exchanged and extended through kinship structures, and therefor connected people across tribes through intra-community marriage, creating much larger systems of economic agenda and power exchange.

In addition to this exchange of cultivation rites and organization of socio-political relationships, particular key- stone species were literally traded among tribes in the Columbia region. According to Melissa Darby, The Chinookan people “intensified” the natural production of wapato by placing villages near wapato beds and cultivating the wild root vegetable through shortening stalks, hunting natural predators, and developing specialized harvesting technology. (Darby 1996). Wapato production was so high that the Chinookan people were able to set up highly profitable trade networks of wapato throughout the Columbia region (Moss 2011). However, although the Chinookan people were able to profit off of the cultivation of wapato, for the most part, raw food sustenance was being *exchanged or distributed in the context of on going relationships”, while, alternatively, it was valuables that were “associated with situations where relationships, lives, and prestige were being changed or were at risk” (Hajda, Sobel 2013: 122).

So essentially, it was not the trade of food, but the trade of valuables (dentalia shells, beads, horses, hides, rare sea animals, and later, Western goods such as weaponry and iron) that was exchanged in a system of intra-society economic prestige and power (currency) – spanning across the Columbia, greater Pacific Northwest Region, and even further inland (Hajda, Sobel 2013: 114). On the other hand, food, or simple sustenance, was the matter of inter-society trade and tribe relations. This system of ownership, harvest, and consumption not only acts as a good studying point for inter-community social exchange, but also brings new perspective to Pacific Northwestern social ideologies and local systems of prestige. Through the utilization of an extremely diverse set of resources, the Pacific Northwestern peoples not only developed highly specialized forms of cultivation, trade, and tool production, but also multi-systemic networks of socio-economic exchange, cultural ideologies, and social rankings.

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An Analysis of the Cultivation of Root Vegetables, the Mariculture of Shellfish, and the Trade of Luxury Goods throughout the Pacific Northwest. (2023, May 16). Retrieved from

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