Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_SHI releases most comprehensive book on halibut hooks ever published

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Book explores indigenous genius, effectiveness of traditional fishing gear

January 29, 2019


Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has released the most comprehensive book ever published on traditional northern Northwest Coast halibut hooks, known as náxw in Tlingit.

Doing Battle with the Halibut People: The Tlingit, Haida, & Tsimshian Halibut Hook by SHI Culture and History Director Chuck Smythe, Ph.D., delves deeply into the ingenious engineering, use of and spiritual dimensions of the hooks as relayed by expert Native fishermen and members of the institute’s Council of Traditional Scholars.

The book, published through SHI’s Box of Knowledge series, outlines in the words of traditional scholars their knowledge relating to the biology of halibut; an understanding of the environment, ocean tides and weather; and the qualities of different types of woods used in the construction of traditional hooks, wrote SHI President Rosita Worl in the book’s foreword.

“The book records the traditional ecological knowledge of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian,” Worl wrote. “It preserves for future generations this rich body of knowledge and tradition of Southeast Alaska Natives.”  

One of the most remarkable qualities of traditional halibut hooks is they were designed to catch only halibut. The hooks rarely, if ever, caught other species, Smythe wrote. The hooks also were engineered to harvest only medium-sized halibut, sparing smaller and younger fish and large, egg-laden females.

“This approach perpetuated the reproductive stock, preventing the depletion of the resource,” wrote Smythe.

That is not the case for modern steel hooks, observed Kenneth Imamura, a retired Alaska Department of Fish & Game biologist who studied Tlingit and Haida halibut hooks in museum collections.

“There are interesting implications for modern management of the halibut fishery,” wrote Imamura, who was one of the first non-Natives to recognize the ingenuity of the hooks.

The hooks also were engineered to catch the fish in such a way that once on the line, they rarely escaped. Northwest Coast Native fishermen knew that halibut do not bite the hook, rather, they swim up to it and suck it into their mouths by expanding their gills, which creates a strong vacuum. When they try to expel it, the barb catches on soft tissue located in the corner of their mouth as they try to dislodge the hook.

“This action drives the barb deeper, and they are unable to let go of the hook,” Smythe wrote.

Additionally, the hooks were designed to flip the halibut belly-side-up when reeling them in—making them more docile and easier to land.

The book also explores the spirituality of the hooks as described by members of SHI’s Council of Traditional Scholars, who explained how the use of the hook was an interaction with the Halibut People. The hooks were enhanced with carved designs representing the spiritual entities that interacted with the halibut.

The traditional cultural and ecological knowledge in the book came mainly from a number of expert and highly-skilled Tlingit fishermen and traditional scholars, who generously shared the knowledge received from their fathers and grandfathers, as well as learned through their own experiences.

Those individuals included Jon Rowan, Mike Douville, Robert George, Thomas George and Webster Demmert of Klawock; Charles Jack, Thomas Jack and Ken Grant of Hoonah; David Katzeek of Juneau (formerly of Klukwan); and Ted Valle of Yakutat. Traditional scholars who participated included Clarence Jackson and Dr. Walter Soboleff. Dr. Steve Langdon, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, conducted the majority of the interviews.

Major funding for the development of the book was provided through a grant from the National Park Service, Maritime Heritage Program, awarded though the State of Alaska, Office of History and Archeology. A portion of the interviews was carried out with funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Alaska Native Education Program.

The book is available at the Sealaska Heritage Store at 105 S. Seward St.  in Juneau and online.

In 2018, the Juneau Economic Development Council and the Alaska State Committee for Research (SCoR) inducted the traditional wood halibut hook used by the northern Northwest Coast Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian into the SCoR Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame.

The halibut hook was selected because it is a “sophisticated and innovative piece of technology unlike any other fish hook.”

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, SHI Media and Publications Director, 907.586.9116,

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