Congratulations to former Sealaska Heritage employee Tamara Ikenberg, who just won first place in the cultural stories category from the Alaska Press Club! She wrote, Hooked: Ancient fishing technology preserved and revived for the next generation, for First Alaskans Magazine on behalf of Sealaska Heritage. The piece, first published in 2018, is reprinted here with permission from First Alaskans.
It took some time for fisherman and traditional Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian wooden halibut hook carver Thomas George to land the perfect protégé.
“I tried to teach my son and he carved a couple hooks and caught a couple halibut, but I couldn’t get him excited about it,” said George, who is Tlingit and lives in Klawock. “I tried my first grandson and he was more interested in wheels and I knew he was going to be a mechanic. I moved to the next grandson and I was in extreme glory to see that he wanted to learn.”
The next grandson, a.k.a. Thomas Barlow (right), 14, now avidly carves traditional Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian wooden halibut hooks (náxw in Lingít) and fishes the way his ancestors did for thousands of years. The steel J hook and circle hook replaced the ingenious and ancient two-armed wooden halibut hook only relatively recently in the history of Alaska.
Barlow and George are traditional halibut hook heroes using their powers to help preserve the traditional tool. In February, Sealaska Heritage Institute flew the duo to the Juneau Innovation Summit for the hook’s induction into the Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame. It marked the first time an Indigenous invention was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and George and Barlow were asked to accept the honor on behalf of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people.
“It was great,” Barlow said. “It’s my heritage and I’d like to keep it alive.”
George was equally elated. “That was quite an honor considering I’ve been fighting to keep that part of our heritage alive. I’ve been fishing these hooks all my life,” George said. “When we came back home everybody thought we were celebrities.”
A triumph for ancient Alaska Native ingenuity, the induction was a watershed moment for Sealaska Heritage Institute, which nominated the hook for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. For nearly three years, the institute has strategically spearheaded efforts to revitalize the crafting and use of the traditional halibut hook, with the help of Alaska Native culture experts, traditional Native scholars, and dedicated carvers and halibut fishers determined to keep the tool and tradition alive.
“It’s such an incredible technology. It’s a unique, sophisticated approach to fishing,” said Sealaska Heritage Institute Culture and History Department Director Dr. Charles Smythe, who is leading the fight for preservation and revitalization. “It incorporates a lot of knowledge, and that would all be lost [if people stopped carving and using the hooks].”
The hook is a conservation-conscious marvel that sustains both halibuts and humans by targeting intermediate-size halibut between approximately 30 and 100 pounds.
It spares undersized or “chicken” halibut, which often have to be thrown back, and also saves large female halibut that may be filled with millions of eggs.
“It’s really important to maintain the very large fish, which are primarily females, to continue to have a productive halibut fishery that will be sustained into the future,” said University of Alaska Anchorage Anthropology Professor Emeritus Dr. Steve Langdon. “It ensures the continuity of the species.”
The V-shaped hook, which has a cedar upper arm and yew or alder wood lower arm lashed together with spruce root or thin woven nylon, must be precisely measured to catch the right size halibut.
The measurement most crucial to catching the right fish is the width of the gap between the lower arm and the baited, sharpened steel or bone barb attached to the upper arm. That gap must equal the width of one finger, measured by passing the ball of the fingertip under the barb. The open end of the V should be equal to the length of four fingers across the knuckle to work correctly.
“All the measurements are in the hand so there’s no guesswork to it,” George said.
Langdon likens the effect of the hook to Goldilocks, in that only fish that are just right will get their cheek penetrated by the barb.
“The little ones are too small and their mouths can’t get in to penetrate over the barb. The right-sized ones can get their mouths in there and get caught,” Langdon said. “The big ones, the top of their mouth is too big and they can’t get their mouths in, so what they tend to do is inhale the entire hook and spit it back out.”
Langdon added that it is possible to catch a larger fish with the hook, but that is not what it is designed to do.
There are more aspects of the hook that reflect the uniquely impressive and effective technology behind it.
“It virtually never catches any other species, because it’s designed to fit the way a halibut mouth is constructed…and when it is caught it is very rare that the fish gets off,” Langdon said. “Rockfish, cod…the structure of their mouths is different so they would not get caught on these hooks.”
The hooks are often fished in sets of two and accompanied by a set of gear, including two buoys, anchors, and a ground line, that all work together to haul in the halibut.
There is a modicum of mystery surrounding the hook’s origin. Different clans have varying stories to which they trace its provenance, and many of them involve communication between animals and humans.
The wealth of technological, cultural and ecological significance behind the hooks prompted Sealaska Heritage Institute to promote and preserve them from multiple angles.
“Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land,” the new exhibit at the Walter Soboleff Building in downtown Juneau, features an interactive multimedia component called “Halibut, Attack The Hook!” It covers the history, technology, and spiritual side of the hooks and includes footage of Barlow and George fishing and demonstrating how to use the hook.
Thomas George wrapping the baiting line around the upper arm of a wood halibut hook using herring as bait.
Sealaska Heritage Institute also incorporates the hooks into its Open the Box Math and Culture Academy, using the tool’s unique design and engineering to teach science and math concepts to Northwest Coast students. The institute is also publishing a traditional halibut hook source book which will be available at the Sealaska Heritage Store this summer.
Several classes covering the carving, history, technology and use of the hook, including one taught last spring by Thomas George, have also been offered.
“There are a lot of people that don’t know how to use them,” George said. “That’s why I teamed up with Sealaska Heritage Institute to put it out there.”
Now that it’s out there and being re-introduced to the public, people are enthused about reconnecting with this part of their heritage and joining in the revival.
“I want to be part of its resurrection,” said Cultural Tourism Supervisor for the Hoonah Indian Association Donald Starbard, who took George’s class. “It’s not going to die and I feel good about that.”
For the last five years, Starbard has been making hooks as art pieces rather than functional fishing tools. The hook’s unique design, natural materials and intricate symbolic carvings make them coveted Alaska Native art pieces.
Since the widespread use of the hooks in Native Villages ceased around 1895 when the commercial halibut fishery was established in Southeast Alaska, the hooks have been chiefly confined to dry land where they hang on the walls of houses and reside in museum display cases. Eye-catching examples can be found in institutions including New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the Portland Art Museum.
For Starbard and other self-taught traditional halibut hook carvers, George’s class was a revelation. They learned it’s one thing to make them work as art, and quite another to make them work underwater.
“It really wasn’t until that class last year that I realized I wasn’t making them properly for fishing,” Starbard said.
George also shared the rich spiritual and ritual side of using the traditional halibut hook, which goes down to the land of the Halibut People to do battle with the halibut. According to the Takdeintaan Clan of Hoonah, the Halibut People introduced a clan shaman to the hook long ago and showed him how to make it.
In keeping with the Alaska Native belief that all things have a spirit to which respect is due, fishers traditionally talk to the Halibut People and say encouraging words to the hook as they lower it into the water.
Thomas George (right) and his grandson Thomas Barlow (middle) accept an Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame award for the traditional halibut hook on behalf of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people during the Juneau Economic Development Council’s Innovation Summit in Juneau Feb. 21. With George and Barlow are, from left, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Sealaska Heritage Culture Director Chuck Smythe, and MC Mead Treadwell.
The carvings of animals, spirits and other significant images on the lower arm and the names given to the hooks are intended to entice and attract the halibut and please the Halibut People.
“Thomas taught us to name it after our old girlfriends and talk to her,” Starbard said.
Starbard’s history with halibut hooks starts in Hoonah half a century ago when his uncle taught him to bait and rig them.
“Of course they went by the wayside because of modern halibut fishing techniques,” Starbard said. “I’ve always been semi-artistic and I knew someday I would make my own.”
That instinct proved prescient.
“I retired from my career with the State and got back into art, and that’s where halibut hooks start coming back in my life,” Starbard said. “I noticed very few people made them and almost nobody used them, so I started making some.”
The melding of Starbard’s enthusiasm and his newfound knowledge gained in George’s class make him just the kind of traditional halibut hook advocate essential to perpetuating the art of making and using the tools.
“There’s an interest out here in Hoonah. I’m trying to foster that,” he said. “I found an old timer here who makes them and used to use them. I’ve been picking his brain and I want to share with my family members and get it back and going and not let it die.”
The passion to perpetuate and preserve the tradition is catching on.
“When I was a kid there were Elders who were still fishing them, but there was nobody teaching it, so I really wanted to make sure that if I was able to, that I could teach it and pass it on,” said artist and educator Donald Gregory, facilities and special project coordinator for Sealaska Heritage Institute. “I think there are a lot of people who would love to make them just to try them out and see if they work.”
Gregory, who also took George’s class, has taught traditional hook carving classes to Juneau-Douglas High School students and inmates at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.
He still remembers his first experience with the hooks. Back in the ‘70s, when Gregory was 3 or 4, he was fishing with his father in Stillwater, Angoon, when he witnessed the “tattletale” buoy move, which indicates a halibut has taken the bait, and the battle between hook and halibut has commenced.
Tattletale buoys are customarily made of red cedar wood and carved in the shape of cormorants or other sea birds.
Later in life, Gregory was inspired to make a go of carving his own halibut hooks.
“I never used them for fishing, they were just showpieces,” said Gregory, who has had his hooks displayed in several venues, including the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. “At that time I didn’t know how to design it to fish. After the class with Thomas George it became more about making a functional hook.”
Gregory was familiar with some of the lore associated with the hooks long before he took George’s class.
“There is a story that had been passed down for a long time about how halibut hooks are like a marriage,” Gregory said. “The woman is the part of the wood that’s carved; the beautiful part of the marriage. The upper arm that fishes with the barb on it is the man, because he has the strength. And the spruce roots bind you together forever or until it rots. It’s appropriate as a wedding gift because it represents both sides and joining together to make a union.”
George is one of very few Alaska Native fishermen who learned how to use the hooks in his youth and just kept on making and using them long after the rest of the fishing world abandoned them.
“I started when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. My father sat me down and started teaching me how to bait them,” George said. “He didn’t know how to carve them. He was more a fisherman than a carver. He was just handed hooks from different people over the years.”
When George was 11, he began teaching himself how to carve the hooks. He started teaching Barlow when his grandson was the same age.
George said it took a little time for his eager protégé to develop the patience and precision necessary to properly carve a functional, good-looking hook.
“Once he did, there was no stopping him,”George said. “I’m just glad it’s being passed on and acquired by his mind. I look at other kids his age and they don’t have any kind of interest whatsoever other than walking around with their face buried in a cell phone. And here he is with a bucket of bait and a handful of hooks walking down to the dock and going to do something other than looking at a video game.”
Barlow has already shown some of his friends how to use the hooks and intends to keep following his grandfather’s example of passing the tradition on to future generations.
Could those future fishers include Barlow’s own kids?
“Oh, for sure,” Barlow said. “I’d be fishing with them and teaching them all the time.”