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

Partners with Nature

Sea Mammals

Seal Feast Bowl Although the sea offers a bounty of animal life to the people of the Northwest Coast, the rugged terrain of the coast and the rough waters make hunting a challenge. Faced with the challenges of making a life in this environment, the Tlingit people developed skills that enabled them to reap the harvest of their most accessible resource, the sea.

Seals and sea lions were the most valuable sea mammals to the people of the Northwest Pacific Coast. Symbols of wealth and plenty, they provided food, clothing, and medicines. In addition, skins were fashioned into floats and bags, the intestines into string and bow-strings, and the bladders into containers.

The Northern Pacific is home to a number of different species of sea mammal. The harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) lives everywhere along the coast and enters many rivers. The northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) is an offshore migrant. The northern sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) ranges along most of the coast, frequenting both offshore islands and estuaries. The smaller California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) and large northern elephant seal are found in the area as well.

Most Pacific Coast peoples admired whales from afar. Hunting these mammals required both great skill and endurance. The whale was never actively hunted by the Tlingit; however, beached whales were an important resource. A single whale could provide a village with blubber and skin for food, bone for tools, sinew for rope, and oil for lamps.

Before commercial whaling, the most common species of larger whales were the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), which often entered straits and sounds, and the gray whale (Eschrictius gibbosus), which migrates seasonally just off the outer coast.

The orca or killer whale (Orcinus orca), once commonly called blackfish, is present all along the coast and and abundant in waters from Alaska to Puget Sound. Killer whales were a clan symbol for many tribes.

Sea Otters

Fish Club The sea otter (Enhyda lutris) was once very common all along the outer coast. With the Europeans arrival in 1780, their pelts became the most sought-after trade product, resulting in the animal's near extinction.

Unlike the other members of the amphibious otter family, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) lives the majority of its life in the water. The sea otter, the largest member of the weasel family, ranges along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California.

Nature has equipped the sea otter with many adaptations for a life in the ocean: tightly-packed water-repellant fur; a long, strong, and flexible body built for vigorous swimming; flipper-like hind feet and webbed paws to propel it through the water; and ears and nostrils that close underwater.

Spoon An adept underwater hunter, the sea otter has a very rapid metabolism and must eat frequently, often four times each day. Its stiff whiskers are sensitive to water turbulence and alert the otter to nearby prey, which it snatches in its strong jaws. An otter eats what is readily available and easy to catch, including fish, frogs, crayfish, and crabs. The sea otter's large, rounded molars are perfect for crushing sea urchins, abalone, and mussels, which it pries from rocks with its forepaws.

When it comes to handling objects, the versatile otter is a master of manipulation. Other than primates, otters are the only mammals that use tools in obtaining food. To dislodge abalone underwater, an otter grasps a stone between its forepaws and bangs it against the edge of an abalone shell. It may take three or more dives to successfully dislodge the tasty abalone from its shell. However, an otter may use the same stone over and over again.

Once it has obtained its catch, the sea otter brings its food to the surface. The otter places a stone on its chest and uses it as an anvil on which to open mussels, clams, and other shellfish. Food is carried to the surface in the otter's forepaws and the stone is placed in a flap of skin under its arm. The otter may roll in the sea between bites to clean itself of debris and keep its fur clean.

The fur coat which was perfect for a life at sea also nearly cost the species its life. The sea otter was hunted close to extinction for its pelt until it was protected by one of the first international endangered species agreements in 1911.

Image 1: Seal Feast Bowl
Tlingit, collected 1904
This feast bowl is carved in the shape of a seal, complete with its head, flippers, and body curve. It was used on special occasions to serve eulachon or seal oil. Oil tendered from the eulachon, a small slender fish, is a prized condiment that is mixed with fish, berries, and other foods. It is also a nutritious dietary supplement, notable for its high vitamin A content.
Red alder (Alnus rubra), abalone (Haliotis sp.) shell; L 32.0 x W 18.0 x H 12.2 cm; 3178-63

Image 2: Fish Club
Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl), northern Vancouver Island, collected 1904
The fisherman talks first to the hook and then to the halibut after he catches the fish. Before he can lift it on board, he quickly strikes the fish on the head with the heavy club to subdue it. At the same time, he apologizes to the halibut, saying it is not him that strikes, but his hunger.
The stylized carving on this club may represent an otter or another predator adept at catching fish. Images of predators add power to the club.
Pacific yew? (Taxus brevifolia), L 58.2 x D 9.0 cm; 3178-46

Image 3: Feast Spoon
Tlingit?, mid 1800s, purchased 1876
Special spoons made from steam-bent mountain goat (or sheep) horn or wood were brought out to use at great feasts. The handles were usually delicately carved with crest animals from family stories about their ancestors' legendary encounters.
Mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) horn, brass?; L 25.0 x W 6.4 cm; 9010-3, gift of Oliver McClintock

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