Review: Abalone Tales

A Review by Deanna Ikari.  Written for ANTH 300 (Feb. 2011).

Abalone Woman is a Spirit Being, one of those who indigenous people of California say came before, and who gave them their rituals and their knowledge of the land upon which they live. Abalone Woman become involved in a relationship with an abusive man and from her pain abalone is created. Upon this much, most of the narratives that Les W. Field includes in his ethnography, Abalone Tales: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California agree. However, the existence of multiple telling of this tale reveals that variations exist between, and perhaps even within the different groups that Field describes, a point to which he returns throughout the book.

Field’s ethnography of Native Californians documents multiple groups’ struggles for official recognition and subsequent attempts at cultural revivification through the reestablishment of cultural patrimony and ritual dance. He approaches both of these endeavours with reference to the cultural significance of abalone. As Field describes the succulent flesh and the stunning beauty of its iridescent shell, the reader begins to understand why abalone is anthropomorphized as a woman.

Rather than telling one version of Abalone Woman’s story and thus establishing that specific tale as canonical, Field makes room for multiple tellings within his ethnography, and this inclusion of diverse voices is reflected in the way he structures his book. While still identifying himself as the author rather than as an editor, Field includes large passages of text that are written by his interlocutors, including Francis Lang, a Karuk scholar, and Wiyot Cheryl Seidner. In these sections, Field’s voice is barely present if not entirely mute. He also includes direct transcriptions of his conversations with others such as regalia maker Bradley Marshall, rather than recraft their conversations in a more typically ethnographic fashion. This technique of including the words of his interlocutors in lieu of building his narrative entirely upon his own representations is Field’s effort to simultaneously ensure that indigenous peoples are given their say, while avoiding the creation of a “single native voice,” which he stresses does not exist.

Field’s book is as much about the people with whom he speaks as it is about the title subject. Chapter Three is exclusively concerned with Field’s conversations and relationship with Florence Silva, granddaughter of John Boston, who was a famous practitioner of the Dreamer religion. The pair discusses Pomo myths, including John Boston’s story about “the Parent of All Abalones,” with whose existence all life on earth is intertwined. Florence also speaks of her grandfather’s position as Dreamer and healer for the Point Area Pomo, and with Field attempts to dispel misrepresentations created by previous ethnographers about the Dreamer religion in general, and her family in particular. Field’s narration is clearly empathetic, and at times even sentimental. This is not the objective observer of the past, but the involved ethnographer of the present who is aware that his very presence is consequential to his interlocutors.

Another topic that Field and Florence examine is John Boston’s abalone shell pectoral, central to his Dreamer rituals. The significance of abalone regalia is further explored in Field’s conversations with other Native Americans, including Bradley Marshall. Marshall, a crafter of abalone regalia speaks of the importance of mindset when creating such pieces. He explains that when a piece is danced it becomes alive, imbued with the life forces of the animals that went into its creation, which amalgamate to form a new consciousness. This consciousness can be affected by the negative feelings of its maker. Marshall stresses that although he creates the piece, he is not its owner but merely its holder, and like any other living being the regalia too has a voice that can both sing and cry out in pain.

Abalone regalia is one of the types of artefacts central to establishing a cultural patrimony for native groups seeking recognition from the Californian government. However, as Field comes to realize, although such patrimony is necessary for obtaining sovereignty, in an ironic reversal of direction, sovereignty is necessary for identifying such artefacts as one’s own. In the book’s final chapter, Field takes note of what he has accomplished in the writing of Abalone Tales, as well as of the limitations of which he is conscious. Throughout the ethnography, the author has been extremely aware and often highly critical of his own presence. He even briefly questions whether what he has learned might perhaps harm some groups’ sovereignty claims. Still, his efforts to give each of his interlocutors his or her own voice grants each of them sovereignty over their own expression, which is something integral to their cultural revivification and is, in its own way, a step toward official recognition.