Shell Fish – Shell Money

This project explores the currency and interrelationship of women’s work in a Vanuatu community: shellfish, food, story, and music. The project is set up to benefit the community in ways that are practical (working practices and healthy expanded networks), creative (documentation and media tools for expression) and financial.

Specifically, the Traditions Foundation , has given a grant towards connecting a Native American tribe – the Tulip community in the North West Pacific area of the USA – for a project to support traditional shellfish practices in the South Pacific. The goal is to work with an indigenous community interested in engaging in participatory research to document traditional knowledge and practices around shellfish populations and harvesting to foster community connections to shellfish resources and to integrate more strongly traditional and modern sciences in management planning.

Tom worked with Delly Roy Nalo and Gina Kaitiplei to make this project happen with communities in northern Vanuatu on the island of Gaua.

Delly rinsing out the old “factory” – the rock where people four-five generations ago were grinding shells to make shell money. (Gina Kaitiplei)

The video we produced is available to view here: Shellfish Project Video Documentary

If you like to read about how it all unfolded … and also see another video unpacking some of the ideas in the documentary, please read on.


  • Delly prepared to perform ceremonies with traditional knowledge custodians which would then allow her to make arrangements with the custodians for them to share that knowledge with her and Tulalip.
  • Chief Johnsta explained that Gaua has three “tribal area councils”: Lokon (or Lakon) in the West, Tavaliu in the South, and Go in the East.
Delly and Chief Johnsta. (Gina Kaitiplei)

West Gaua – Lakon/Lokon (and South Gaua – Tavaliu)

  • We got in the boat and landed at Dolap. It was late in the day and so we had a kava ceremony with the community before retiring for the night. The next day, we held a series of ceremonies and community engagement sessions with the community of Dolap. Chief Johnsta and Delly lead the initial ceremony and the engagement process.
  • We explained that our intention was to create a film to share with the Tulalip community – and that there may be some other activities that ensued but we could not be certain about it. People in Dolap were very responsive to the idea of the project and there was lively discussion amongst several of the women about shellfish, shell money and water music.
  • We decided to create a space outside of the formal meeting house (usually dominated by formal ceremonies and usually mediated by men) where the women could talk to some of these issues in a “testimonial” style. Five women sat on a mat in front of a mango tree, while the rest of the women sat behind them on the roots of the tree. The five women each spoke – mainly about water music. We encouraged the women to speak in their vernacular Lakon language, as we believe that it is critical that these customary practices are expressed in the language of the place. This does create some challenges for us in terms of translation and subtitling.
  • In the afternoon, Chief Johnsta, conducted a workshop with the community. We found a suitable site (there was some strong wind that made it difficult to get really good audio) next to some bamboo. Chief Johnsta gave a fascinating account of the context and history of the production of shell money. He presented 12 different types of shells – some of them with live molluscs inside them still. He named them all in Lakon language, identified distinguishing features, described various collection techniques, and cooking methods. Then he demonstrated the various uses of the shells.
Chief Johnsta in the foreground with his shells laid out in front of him. (Gina Kaitiplei)
  • Shells are used as knives for cutting, knives for tearing, grating/scraping food and kava, bowls, and as a file (like sand paper). He also demonstrated the process of making shell money. Some of the community members were keen to try for themselves – and we all realised how difficult it is. It takes quite some skill to do it, and it takes a lot of time. Chief Johnsta explained that it was family groups who worked together as a team to produce shell money. A fascinating and lively discussion ensued about various aspects of the workshop. Some people were very keen to revive the practice and Delly and Chief Johnsta were able to commit to supporting people to attend a Provincial heritage festival in 2018 to showcase their work with reviving the production of shell money.
  • Later, Aunty Ebwu (Chief Johnsta’s sister) lead us down to the beach and showed us where one of the family groups used to sit together to make the shell money. Several large rocks at the shore were deeply grooved with generations of productive work. These grooves were often full of ash and dust from the volcano and some of them had plants growing in them. Community members cleaned them out and the grooves became beautiful patterns in the stones.
  • Aunty Ebwu and other women demonstrated their shellfish collection techniques down on the rocks.
  • In the afternoon, we got in the boat and returned to Namasari in North Gaua, and said farewell to Chief Johnsta, before traveling by road down to the village of Nowo on East Gaua. Again it was late in the day by the time we arrived and we shared kava and quiet ritual with the community.

East Gaua – Go

  • The next day, Sep 30, Chief Polwyn lead us on a performative historical tour of the area. He walked around pointing out significant sites, sharing stories, and creating a rich contextual grounding for the work. We sat on the shore and looked across at the two islands in the distance Merig and Merelava. Chief Polwyn talked about the migration of people between these three islands and how the patterns of mobility intersected with the use of shell money as a currency – especially how highly the people of Merelava valued shell money – much higher than other places did. We connected this idea with the English language concept of “arbitrage”. We reflected on how important the idea of “value” is for people in the islands and it is the performance and expression of identity that is valued most highly. We discussed the many layers of customary reality: land-place, food-livelihood, wisdom-dance/music, language-arts, kinship-mobility. We also talked about how the practice of producing shell money is still active in the Solomon Islands. Chief Polwyn talked about Delly’s family connections to a community in the Solomon Islands where they are still producing shell money. Chief Polwyn also instructed Delly to continue her research and provided some names of women who he believes may still be making shell money today. Strangely enough, they are actually based in Santo.
  • Later that day a formal welcome ceremony took place and we shared stories about shellfish over a feast.
  • The next day, Delly lead the team up to the caldera of the volcano on Mt Garet, the freshwater lake in the caldera, and to Siri Waterfall. People demonstrated their skills hunting for freshwater prawns with bows and arrows. In the evening, a farewell ceremony was held. After many speeches and some shells of kava, Chief Polwyn presented Tom with a string of shell money. Tom accepted the string of shell money, and acknowledged the obligations that are embodied in the string. A road has been opened and there is an obligation to respond to the ceremony with a reciprocal ceremony: Tom will need to make sure there is a gift/exchange of commensurate value coming back to the Nowo community. Tom explained to Delly that he felt that he was accepting the strong of shell money on behalf of the Tulalip community and that the shell money (and associated obligations) should be delivered to the Tulalip community along with the video.
  • The next day, the team said goodbye to Nowo and to Gaua, and flew back to Santo.


  • Delly and Gina continued their research. The went to Palekula, Shark Bay, and some other places to try and find the women that Polwyn had mentioned. Eventually, the found one of them in Shark Bay and they interviewed her. But she also suggested finding another woman … and it turns out this woman actually lives in the same neighbourhood as Delly, in Chapuis area of Santo. So after this journey all over northern Vanuatu, it turns out the person to talk to is actually living right next door to you! Unfortunately, we have not been able to find this woman. And now we have run out of time and money. Other projects have arisen and especially the work with the people from Ambae who were evacuated from their island because of the volcanic activity.

Port Vila

  • Delly and Gina did some post-production work on the film and interviewed Tom.
  • Gina completed the post production. Tom and Delly drafted the report and uploaded the videos.

Future Steps – ideas for ongoing collaborations between Gaua and Tulalip

  • We will deliver the final product – it will be mixed media: some video, some audio, some photos, some words, and some shell money.
  • Delly needs support to encourage the revival of the production of shell money. This could take the form of:
    • Assistance to transport people from Gaua to arts and heritage festivals and events in Vanuatu to showcase their work.
    • Facilitating some shell money production workshops with some Solomon Islander people – bringing Solomon Islanders (who have kinship ties) to Gaua to do some skills training with Gaua people.
    • Tulalip community responds to the gift of shell money.

The other video that we made – which has me, Tom, explaining some of the processes and findings in more detail, can be viewed here:

Supplementary video

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