This article was originally published by Alaska magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
The wooden halibut hook, designed and used by the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian for thousands of years, is a balance of beauty and practicality. For a while during the twentieth century, more halibut hooks were hanging on collectors’ walls than being used for fishing. These days, thanks to a revitalization movement, more people are learning how to carve and fish with halibut hooks.
Heather Douville, who lives on Prince of Wales Island in southern southeast Alaska, is planning to carve her first halibut hook this year. Heather’s Tlingit name is Kootink, and her clan is Shank’weidi wolf clan. Her dad, Michael, has been carving hooks for 55 years, ever since his adopted grandfather taught him how. Together, father and daughter fish, hunt, and gather their own food. They share the food they bring home with elders and others in the community, which is an important Tlingit tradition. Fishing with wooden halibut hooks is one of Heather’s favorite ways to provide for herself and others.
“When we set halibut hooks, I think of the people who have been doing it for 10,000 years. It makes me feel connected with my ancestors, culture, and the land. It’s hard to put into words how I feel about the land and my food. When people go out gathering with me, then they get it,” she said.
Making a wooden halibut hook
Each halibut hook is made with a balance of technological ingenuity and spiritual observance. The hook is made by binding a piece of yew wood and a piece of yellow cedar. The yew has a design carved in it that embodies a spirit, complete with eyes so the hook can see what it’s catching. The barb, traditionally made from the sliver of a bear bone but nowadays made from stainless steel, juts from the yellow cedar, and is baited with octopus or herring. The Douvilles use a rock as an anchor—and the hook, due to the buoyancy of the yellow cedar, floats three or four feet off the ocean bottom. Before setting a hook, Heather and Michael say the traditional Tlingit phrase, “Weidei yei jindagut!” which encourages the hook to charge down and catch fish.
Heather and her dad always fish halibut hooks in pairs as they compete against each other under water. Every hook fishes differently and is endowed with its own individual essence—or as Heather would say, spirit. A sea monster hook Michael carved in 1996 almost always out fished other hooks. This year, after providing the Douvilles and others in their community with countless delicious halibut meals, Michael retired it.
The right energy
Heather is also a fur sewer and has a small business selling clothing and accessories from the animals she harvests. She takes great care to make sure her mind is in the right place when she’s making something.
“You want that energy to go into what you’re making so that the person that gets it, gets it. During the winter when it’s so dark, you got to have a hobby. I like using every part of the animal that I harvest. My great grandmother was a sewer. I feel like it was something I was meant to do. What I make is not just for looks; it’s made to be worn. I want it to be functional, something that you can pass down to your kids to wear someday. I put a note in every purchase about the particular animal used and where it came from,” Heather said.
A deep connection
One thing Heather won’t sell are halibut hooks, although she gets plenty of requests from people wanting to buy one. The Douvilles are adamant about wooden halibut hooks being used to catch fish, not hang on a wall. It’s often not easy explaining that not everything is for sale. Halibut hooks possess a sort of meaning to Heather and her family that goes beyond a price tag and into a deep connection with the history of her people. Sharing the experience with her dad makes it that much more special. While Heather’s goal is to carve her first halibut hook this year, her dad is planning to make a “precontact hook” that only uses material available before Euro-Americans came to the Pacific Northwest.
“I’m always learning from my dad. When we go out fishing, hunting, and gathering, I’m always learning more about my food. I’m also always learning about my culture and how we got here. Even though we’re using some modern things, our culture is still very much alive. And I think it always will be,” Heather said.