Why Abalone? The Making of
a Collaborative Research Project
Like Native American peoples across the North American continent,
the lives of individuals and communities in Native California are inter-
twined with struggles over both political sovereignty and cultural iden-
tity. Sovereignty, or ‘‘forms of autonomous control’’ (Field 2003) over
territory and natural resources, is thus inextricably intertwined with the
disposition of historical and contemporary material culture, the use of
Native languages, and the enactment of customary practices and narra-
tive traditions among Native peoples of this continent. In both Native
and non-Native discourse, there are certain animal entities that, as com-
plex and multilayered cultural symbols, historically have been consid-
ered to congeal the complex meanings and struggles about identity and
sovereignty and continue to do so. Bu√alo are frequently treated as this
kind of entity for the Native peoples on the Plains, while salmon are
similarly considered for many peoples in the Pacific Northwest. The
gray whale is such a creature for the Makah Indians of northwestern
Washington State. Among Native peoples of California, abalone is po-
tentially also such an animal, and I conducted several years of research
assuming that this was true. In this book, I will present multiple perspec-
tives bearing on the material and symbolic relationships between Cali-
fornia Indian peoples and abalone that both support and ultimately
undermine such an assumption.
I came to think of abalone in this way because of the remarkably
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