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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Beyond lip service : an analysis of labrets and their social context on the Pacific Northwest Coast of British Columbia La Salle, Marina J.


This thesis provides an analysis of the history and social context of the labret (lip plug) on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia over the last 5,000 years. Although labrets have typically been characterized as markers of ‘status’ with connotations of gender, the variability in observations made by early explorers and ethnographers suggests that this simplistic depiction belies a complexity in what aspect of social identity this form of personal communicated. Therefore, this research has sought to explore the relationship between labrets and social identity by conducting a comprehensive typological analysis by which to examine patterning in materiality through time and space. Although hindered by a lack of temporal data and contextual information on gender association, the results of this research demonstrate that there is geographical patterning at multiple scales—regional, sub-regional and even on the village or site level—which supports the hypothesis that the labret has been an exclusionary tradition conveying both individual and group social identity that varies through time and space in this region. The social meaning of labrets is further explored through research on contemporary labret use, which highlights a tension between individual expression and group acceptance that is expressed materially, contrasting the physical permanence of the labret and the mutability in social meaning conveyed. Finally, interviews with First Nations artists who include labrets in their art has shown that cultural identity both informs and is informed by a concept of shared heritage; thus, the labret is a symbol and expression of social identity that continues to hold significant meaning for the descendants of this heritage. Therefore, while simple correlations of the labret with ‘status’ and ‘gender’ are not wrong, nonetheless they betray the complexity of body ornamentation which, though manifested materially, is highly contextual. This research contributes to the ongoing anthropological discussion of materiality and identity, considering the ways that structured style is negotiated through practice, and asking whether this recursive, dynamic and dialectical relationship can be accessed archaeologically—a task that ultimately requires a commitment to reflexivity, multivocality, and critical examination of the research process itself.

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