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. (photo courtesy University of
California - Santa Barbara)
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 landas
The hook's evolution from utilitarian tool to expression of
cultural heritage is the subject of a paper by Jonathan Malindine,
a doctoral student in UC Santa Barbara's Department of Anthropology.
In "Northwest Coast Halibut Hooks: an Evolving Tradition of
Form, Function, and Fishing," published in the journal Human
Ecology, he traces the arc of the hook's design and how its dimensions
have changed over time.
"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
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.
courtesy Jonathan Malindine)
But as modern fishing technology displaced traditional gear,
wood hooks began to change, varying greatly in design and dimension
from early versions. These "art hooks" were created as
decorative objects, often depicting animals important to NWC traditions
and using materials such as abalone inlay.
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 hook109 totalin
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 facilitiessometimes for a hundred years.
courtesy Jonathan Malindine)
"I've specifically given the images and measurements I
produced to several Alaska Native artists and carving instructors,
so they can use them in their classes when teaching students to
carve halibut hooks," he continued. "Hopefully these images
and measurements will be really useful in that type of classroom
setting, especially for creating accurate reproductions."
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
"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 objectsfrom theory of material culture, collections
management, conservation and object handling, to photography, research
design, data collection, analysis and eventual publication of results."
courtesy Jonathan Malindine)
As Malindine noted, wood hooks are still more than curiosities
or museum pieces. "I was fortunate enough to interview two
of the very few people who still fish with traditional wood hooks,"
he said. "One of them, Jon Rowan, claims he has as much, if
not more, success using wood hooks to catch halibut than he does
using modern fishing gear. These have stuck around for a reason:
They're very good at catching halibut. Of course most people don't
want to risk losing a valuable and beautiful carved NWC halibut
hook, so almost everyone these days uses commercially produced circle
hooks that cost a few dollars each."
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."