Fishing and hunting were the primary methods
of obtaining food on the Northwest Coast.

Supplemented by the seasonal gathering of berries, certain species of nutritious seaweed, and a variety of edible-root plants, fishing and hunting provided the bulk of the Native diet. Five species of migratory salmon schooled in huge numbers along the coastline and moved into the rivers and creeks during summer and fall to spawn. Bottom fish, clams, mussels, oysters, and other marine creatures provided ready sustenance.

The coastal rainforests teemed with deer, elk, or moose in different regions, as well as Black and Brown (sometimes called Grizzly) bears. Fish and game could be dried, smoked, and stored in wooden or basketry containers for winter use, when seasonal food supplies dwindled and the cold, wet months seemed never-ending. Though resources of the sea and land were once abundant in this area, they required intense periods of harvesting, preparing, and storing-away of foodstuffs in order to survive on an annual basis.

It has often been said that it was the abundance of food and subsequently non-migratory lifestyle that enabled the development of the rich artistic culture of the Northwest Coast peoples, though this is only partly true. It is also the case that the area with the most abundant resources and most hospitable climate of all (the southern coast, now western Washington State and southern British Columbia) was home to cultures with the numerically smallest artistic production, the Coast Salish.

The far northern coast, now Southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia, has the least hospitable climate and greatest distances between resource sites. Nonetheless, this is the region that produced the greatest volume of carved and painted objects of ceremonial and utilitarian use. Clearly, there were much deeper social and cultural influences at work than merely the availability of ‘leisure’ time in the level of creative production. Social structure, cultural and ceremonial motivation, and the wealth of trade were also important factors in the equation.

One ingenious method of hunting
developed that did not require the use of weapons or tracking. It was the dead-fall trap, a carefully constructed and balanced pile of logs or poles and stones that was held up above the height of their prey and ‘triggered’ by the careful placement of a wood or bone ‘key’ stick. A form of bait was attached to this with a short length of cord and when pulled, the key or trap stick came out of place, and the heavy weights fell down and captured their quarry beneath them.

Trap Stick, Northwest Coast

Carved and pierced wood, mid-nineteenth century, 9” Long

The image of a bear or wolf embellishes this functional trap stick, the ‘key’ element to a dead-fall trap. The spirits of these hunting creatures were thus called upon to assist the hunter in the capture of his prey, and also represented the totemic emblem of his clan and or family line.

Fish Hooks and Related Implements
Halibut Hooks
Halibut Hooks Target Specific Size Fish
In Order to Preserve the Resource

The halibut is a wide, flat, bottom-dwelling fish that is white on the bottom and a camouflage, speckled brown on the top side. They range from a small (so-called ‘chicken’) size at 10-20 pounds to giant, “barn-door” sizes that can attain over four hundred pounds in weight and are 6 feet in length.

The bait (octopus meat was the favorite) would be tied around the branch of the hook about the barb, and this side would be on top when the hook was in place near the bottom. Halibut ‘inhale’, rather than nibble and bite their prey, and they would draw the barbed half of the hook into their cheek, where the point would lodge. As they pulled against the line, a wooden float attached at the surface would stand upright, alerting the fisherman to a strike. As the line was retrieved, the hook was pulled from the bottom side of the Y-shape, where the weight side of the line was attached. This would turn the halibut upside-down as it was pulled to the surface, a position said to take the ‘fight’ out of them. When they reached the surface, they would be clubbed and hauled into the canoe for the journey home. The entire fish, including the head, would be cooked in boiling water or roasted before the fire. Halibut flesh was most often preserved by sun or smoke-drying for later, winter consumption.

The design of the halibut hook, whether the two-piece northern type or the bentwood southern style hook, was such that each hook was made to some very particular measurements, based on the hands of the carver-fisherman. The width of the ‘mouth’ of the hook (the open portion of the ‘Y’ shape) was equal to the width of four fingers. The distance from the tip of the barb to the opposite side of the hook was the thickness of one’s thumb. These measurements allowed for only medium-sized fish to be caught on these hooks, rather than the indiscriminate capture of modern fishing tackle. Fish that were too small couldn’t get the hook in their mouths, while those that were too big to handle in a dugout canoe would not be pierced by the barb. This left behind a younger generation of fish to reproduce and maintain the resource in a given area, and let the bigger, less tender and edible fish to go on their own. In this way, a individual or a village could fish the same area year after year without depleting the population upon which they depended. In contrast, modern and overly efficient longline or trawl gear can easily wipe out the fish population in a work zone, which can take many years to replenish, even if left alone to recover.

‘Singing Shaman’ Halibut Hook,

Ca. 1880-1900, 9” Long
Wood, cotton seine twine, iron point

The ingenuity and environmental awareness of Northwest Coast peoples is succinctly demonstrated in the form of the highly specialized halibut hook. The northern coast style, of the types illustrated here, was made of two pieces of wood, often of two different species, one more dense than the other. To one was fastened a barb, or point, at an inward-pointing angle. These points were shaped of bone in aboriginal times, and later, iron obtained in trade was hammered and ground into the same long, strong, pointed form. The second, more dense (and therefore heavier) piece of wood was often carved like a figure from a tiny totem pole.

These images were meant to call to the halibut, and draw them to the bait without fear or apprehension. The incredible variety of carved figures and complex imagery seen in northern halibut hooks is a testament to the creativity of individual fisherman, who most likely carved their own hooks in order to protect their ‘fishing mojo’ from ot hers.

This hook appears to portray a shaman, wearing an animal-form headdress and carrying a charm or perhaps a fish club, ready to dispatch the fish when captured. His lips are formed in the shape often referred to as ‘singing’ when seen in shaman’s masks and other paraphernalia. Here his song is to the spirit of the fish. The two sides of the hook are specially shaped to form a ‘Y’ when fastened together with binding cords. Aboriginally, this would have been split spruce root, a strong and easily obtained native fiber. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, laid cotton seine twine was substituted, as in this example.

Right at the navel of this shaman can be seen a small square hole. This is where the hooks were typically fastened to their ‘ground line’, the long two-ply cedar bark (or later, hemp) cord that held the hook ‘floating’ horizontally a few feet above the bottom, often in pairs attached to either end of a cross stick. A stone weight kept the hooks in place against the tidal currents, and was tied so that it would drop free when the fish was caught.

Halibut Hook
Northwest Coast, ca. 1880-1900 Wood, cotton and/or hemp twine, iron point

This very unusual hook features a large pierced area opposite the barbed side of the hook, allowing the viewer to see through to the ‘business end’ of the hook, the barb or point. A small spirit face carved at the top would look down at the sea floor, scanning for approaching halibut.

Using such materials as wood, woven twine and ivory in combination with trade iron, the resulting pieces were extraordinarily effective and communicate the tribe's view of nature and their own position in it as a single intertwined lifeforce.

A unique variation on the concept of the fish hook, these hooked spears demonstrate both the ingenuity and the craftsmanship of the Northwest Coastal Fishermen. From towers next to nets suspended in rivers or waterfalls, Fishermen would use the "Y" shape of these devices to hold the fish securely, until a quick yank could set the hook . Once impaled, the fish was dropped into a holding pen.

Halibut Hook
Northwest Coast, ca. 1860-1890 Wood, spruce root, iron point

The long, sleek figure of an otter is carved on the downward side of this halibut hook. The otter is of course a skilled fish hunter, and the fisherman would call upon its spirit to assist him in capturing a prime fish for his family.

Halibut Hook
Northwest Coast, ca. 1880-1900 Wood, cotton twine, iron point

A supernatural ‘monster’ that is part sea lion and part halibut swims along the side of this hook, ready to sweep a halibut from the sea floor. The suspension cord protrudes from the creature’s back, and would connect to the stone sinker on the sea bed below the hook.

Halibut Hook
Northwest Coast, ca. 1860-1890 Wood, spruce root, iron point

An unusual humanoid-animal image with a pointed snout and tall ears embellishes this hook. The spaces between its arms and body and between its legs are pierced through the wood, and the suspension cord protrudes from its belly or genital area, perhaps a reference to its potency!

Halibut Hook
Northwest Coast, ca. 1890-1930 Wood, cotton twine, iron point

A raven’s head and backbone are sculpted on this somewhat later example. The raven’s backbone indicates raven in a spirit form, which may refer to its spiritual power to attract and capture the halibut.


Fishing Hook
Carved, painted ivory, iron hook and wooden handle.

Fishing Clubs
The legendary Northwest Indians skill as carvers and sculptors is shown in many items related to the practice of fishing. The clubs shown below were intended to dispatch fish which had been trapped along coastal rivers and streams. Although these were heavy, everyday work items, they possessed a native spirit that summoned a natural harmony. Eagles, whales, seals and men all ate the fish, so the carvers summoned the spirts of these natural companions and invoked their presence into their tools.

Fishing Club
Shaped, inscribed volcanic rock in the shape of a seal, 1880's.
14" L.

As the practice of fishing became more commericalized after the turn of the century, much of the poetry associated with the Indian fishing tools was lost, as the example below exemplifies.

Fishing Gaff
Carved wood with iron head and contemporary valise handle.
Collected British Columbia, 1930's.
18" L

Collected in British Columbia in 1930, this gaff, used to pull hooked fish from the water, employs a simple shaft attached to an iron head. The looped handle appears to be from a discarded valise and would seem to serve no useful function beyond that of decoration.

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