Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Labrets Worn By Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Labrets. Ornaments worn in holes that are pierced through the lips. Cabeza de Vaca notes of Indians of the Texas coast: "They likewise have the nether lip bored, and within the same they carry a piece of thin cane about half a finger thick." It is quite certain that this custom prevailed for some distance inland along the Colorado r. of Texas and in the neighbouring regions, while large labrets were also found by Cushing among the remains on the W. coast of Florida. Outside of this region they were almost restricted to an area in the N. W., the habitat of the Aleut, Haida, Heiltsuk, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and [Inuit] tribes, extending from Dean inlet to Anderson r. on the Arctic coast. They were also adopted by some of the western Athapascans. Here the lower lip alone was pierced. While the southern tribes made a single aperture in the middle of the lip, and consequently used but one labret, the Aleut and [Inuit] usually punctured a hole below each corner of the mouth and inserted two. Moreover, among the southern tribes the ornament was worn only by women, while Aleut men used it occasionally and [Inuit] men more and more generally, as one proceeded northward, until beyond the Yukon the use of labrets was confined to males. Among the Haida, Heiltsuk, Tlingit, and Tsimshian the labret was a mark of high birth, superseding in this respect the head-flattening of the tribes living farther S. The piercing was consequently done during potlatches, a small aperture being bored first, which was enlarged from year to year until it sometimes became so great that the lip proper was reduced to a narrow ribbon, which was liable to break, and sometimes did. The labrets were made of wood, stone, bone, or abalone shell, often inlaid, and present two general types, namely, a long piece inserted into the lip at one end, or a round or oval stud hollowed on each side and protruding but slightly from the face. George Dixon noted one of this latter type that was 3 7/8 in. long by 2 5/8 broad. The last labrets used were small plugs of silver, and the custom has now been entirely abandoned. On account of the use of these ornaments the Tlingit were called Kolosch by their northern neighbours and the Russians, whence the name Koluschan, adopted for the linguistic stock.


Among the [Inuit] and Aleut bone labrets predominated, though some very precious specimens were of jade. They were shaped like buttons or studs, or, in the case of some, worn by women, like sickles. The lips of men were pierced only at puberty, and the holes were enlarged successively by means of plugs, which were often strung together afterwards and preserved.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 260-261.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College