The evolution of wooden halibut hooks carved by native people of the Northwest Coast
The Tlingit and Haida, indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast (NWC), have used carved wooden hooks to catch halibut for centuries. As modern fishing technology crept into use, however, the old hooks practically disappeared from the sea. But they thrived on land—as decorative art.
|Devil Fish Halibut Hook by Arthur B. Nelson, 2012 [Credit: Kathy Dye, Sealaska Heritage Institute]|
"I used to be a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and also lived in a Tlingit and Haida community," Malindine said. "So, the intersection of fisheries and Alaska Native art has always fascinated me. These NWC hooks are really effective at catching halibut, and also are intricately carved with rich, figural designs. Between the technology and the mythological imagery, there's a lot going on."
Halibut hooks, often called wood hooks, are part of a sophisticated apparatus for catching the flat, bottom-dwelling fish that can weigh more than 500 pounds. Constructed in two pieces of different woods, they look something like an open fish mouth from the side, with a barb, facing backwards, lashed to the top piece. When the fish tries to spit out the hook, the barb sets in its jaw. Hooks were carefully carved to maximize their potential for catching fish, and their shape and size varied depending on the size of halibut they were used for.
|Halibut hook [Credit: Jonathan Malindine]|
It was that transition in the hooks, from utility to art, that Malindine studied. To do so, he examined, photographed and took detailed measurements of every intact NWC hook—109 total—in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian. He found that "in the case of NWC halibut hooks, shifting function drives the shift in materials, dimension, and meaning," he writes in the paper. "The NWC halibut hook has largely ceased to function to catch fish, and its dimensions are changing to favor decorative and symbolic content over utilitarian/functional requirements. Nowadays it is primarily designed to link Alaska Natives to their ancestral heritage, and the art buyer to a tangible representation of NWC mythological and artistic tradition."
In addition to its contributions to academia, the research will benefit NWC carvers of wood hooks. Malindine has shared his work with them, allowing them to see what the hooks looked like as many as 150 years ago. "The Alaska Native carvers and Tribal members with whom I've shared these images and dimensional measurements are just happy to see them," he said. "These hooks are part of their cultural heritage, and have basically been locked away in storage facilities—sometimes for a hundred years.
|Halibut hook [Credit: Jonathan Malindine]|
Malindine's study of the hooks came through his participation in the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA) program, which is funded by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Science Foundation. He was one of 12 graduate students chosen from around the country to learn to use museum collections as field sites for research.
"There are vast numbers of important objects hidden away in museum collections facilities that are rarely studied," he said. "The SIMA program taught us how to approach studying museum objects—from theory of material culture, collections management, conservation and object handling, to photography, research design, data collection, analysis and eventual publication of results."
|Jonathan Malidine displays a halibut hook made by Jon Rowan, a Tlingit master carver. The hook has caught fish; |
note the scratches from teeth on the lower arm [Credit: University of California - Santa Barbara]
Casey Walsh, an associate professor of anthropology and Malindine's graduate advisor, called the examination of wood hooks solid science that places it in a human context. "Jonathan's paper is a great example of the explanatory strength of a holistic approach to understanding humans," Walsh said. "He skillfully combined environmental, social and cultural elements to tell us why halibut hooks matter, not only for basic sustenance, but also for people's relationships with each other and their creative, artistic lives."
Author: Jim Logan | Source: University of California - Santa Barbara [February 14, 2017]