Halibut Use on the Northwest Coast of North America: Reconciling Ethnographic, Ethnohistoric, and Archaeological Data

Trevor J. Orchard and Rebecca J. Wigen

Abstract

Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), though of varying importance to First Nations across the Northwest Coast of North America, was a particularly important resource for the Haida, Tlingit, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Makah living on the exposed outer coast of the region. The dietary importance and scale of halibut use, however, are difficult to determine due to seemingly inconsistent ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and archaeological accounts. Among the Haida and Makah, ethnographic descriptions highlight the importance of both halibut and salmon; early historic accounts mention halibut repeatedly, but only rarely mention salmon; while archaeological data point to a high abundance of salmon, and reveal only low, though persistent, quantities of halibut. Drawing on examples from Haida and Makah territories, this paper examines these various lines of evidence and explores possible biases that account for the differences in the importance and relative abundance of salmon and halibut that they reflect. We aim to compare these variable sources of data to gain greater insight into the nature of halibut use throughout the Late Holocene on the Northwest Coast.

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