North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Partners with Nature

Bounty From the Sea

Halibut HookTo the Indians of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the sea was not just a way of life, but life itself. The coast gave rise to many different cultures, each with their own languages, beliefs, designs, and routines. However, their dependency on the sea united them all.

The islands, channels, inlets, and bays of the Pacific Northwest Coast were home to hundreds of densely populated villages. All villages hugged the water's edge; all houses faced toward the sea. The waterways were the main highways; a long row of canoes on the beach in front of a village was evidence of the people's marine mobility.

Many myths, songs, dances, and ceremonies had their foundation in the sea, its spirits, the underwater world, or the characteristics of the fish. Creatures of the sea became family crests and were incorporated into everyday life—carved into objects, painted on possessions, tattooed on the body, and woven into baskets.

The beaches of the sea produced an abundance of shellfish, edible invertebrates, and seaweeds. The sea itself provided herring, cod, kelpfish, red snapper, dogfish, flounder, smelt, octopus, and many others.

The Northwest Coast Indians were totally adapted to living with the unpredictable ocean as a neighbor. They knew the ebb and flow of the tides, the currents, the changing winds that turned the water from a gentle ally to a violent, cruel enemy. They understood and respected the sea, its creatures, and the entire coastal environment. They loved the coast with a deep reverence, and in return the coast was good to them, providing them with wealth and nourishment for both body and spirit.


Image: Halibut Hook
Tlingit, pre-1898
The Pacific halibut looks like a fish swimming on its side along the bottom of the sea, except both eyes are are on the upper side. It belongs to the flounder family and is by far the largest of all flatfish. Although a halibut can weigh up to 600 pounds, the specially engineered Tlingit hook was designed to catch a fish no larger than a man could haul into his canoe.

The fisherman gave his halibut hook a personal name and carved a figure on it. Then addressing the hook, he said something like, Go down to halibut land and fight! The carved image on the hook endowed it with power to lure the fish.

On this hook, the wood carver created a land otter, an animal that swims like a fish, has webbed feet like a duck, and according to Tlingit mythology, was once a human being. As a supernatural being, the land otter steals the spirits of humans who have drowned and entices the living, especially in times of physical weakness.
Yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) or Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), red alder (Alnus rubra) or Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), Sitka spruce root (Picea sitchensis), unidentified bone, cotton cord; L 27.8 x W 11.5 x H 4.8 cm; 638-13

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