Fishing and hunting were the primary methods
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.
Stick, Northwest Coast
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.
Hooks and Related Implements
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.