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Photograph by Hillel Burger
Not your ordinary fishhooks. Little made by the Tlingit Indians of coastal southern Alaska and British Columbia was ordinary looking. Beautifully crafted wooden objects include boxes, canoes, cradles, bowls, and spoons; even utilitarian gear such as hand adzes may be decoratively carved. Traditional Tlingit halibut hooks consist of two pieces of wood, usually alder and cedar, lashed together at an angle of 30 degrees with split spruce root. They are about a foot long and sturdy, for the fish they are designed to catch are the largest of flatfish, bottom dwelling, routinely 20 to 100 pounds and possibly far larger. When the hook is in use, in deep, open waters, its carved arm is down, running roughly parallel with the ocean floor, and the bone barb carries a strip of octopus as bait.

The Tlingits embellished their hooks with carved renderings of spirit helpers. Anne-Marie Victor-Howe, curatorial associate in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, says that the hook at right represents a seated being with skeletonized spirit figures emerging from his body. The other hook shows a bound witch being devoured by, most probably, a land otter. The head of the witch is topped by an owl. "The land otter," says Victor-Howe, "was seen by the Tlingit people as sinister and potentially harmful, and it was feared. However, when properly controlled, the land otter could be of great help to humans, such as halibut fishermen, who penetrated the sacred realm beyond social boundaries."

Both hooks date from about 1800. The one at right is on display in the Hall of the North American Indian at the Museum of Cultural and Natural History. The wicked witch hook is in the Peabody's storehouse of treasure.


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