Shell Game: A True Account of Beads and Money in North America

Jerry Martien, Author, Gary Snyder, Foreword by Mercury House $14.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-56279-080-6
Somewhere among the turkey, corn, square-toed pilgrim shoes and succotash of our early learning about pilgrims and Indians is the knowledge that Native Americans used shells as money. And that early settlers bought land for beads. In his provocative if flawed account, Martien combines a shoe-string travelogue with musings about an early and fatal misunderstanding. The carved and pierced pieces of sea-shell were not money but ran a more subtle gamut that included oath of fealty, contract, symbol of power, gift and sympathy card. So while settlers felt the exchange of beads gave them proprietary rights, Native Americans assumed, rather, that they were joined by a mutually binding agreement. This is the most fascinating part of the book and luckily the largest. Martien, a California-based poet and carpenter, who lives (and travels) with very little money, makes a bit too much of his poverty and such self-righteous proclamations as ""art being just another thing the rich had to have to replace the souls they'd lost in the market,"" add an unfortunate sanctimonious note to his usually big-hearted book. Still, like writers who have extrapolated lessons from Native American culture on spiritual growth or environmentalism, Martien has gleaned important lessons on the difference between price and value. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/04/1996
Release date: 03/01/1996
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