Language: Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut dialect)
Womenfolk would gather together when we bring in the fresh halibut and cut it up, and then they eat some of that raw halibut. Chuumlag^ii [eating raw halibut] we call it.
—Vlass Shabolin, 2003
Halibut are one of the most important wild foods in the Aleutian Islands. Traditional wooden hooks like this were tied to long lines made of seaweed. Stone weights held them near the ocean floor where halibut swim and feed. The line was connected on the surface to a float made from the stomach of a seal or the bladder of a sea lion. When the float went under it was a signal that a fish was on the other end of the line.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Fishing
Dimensions: Length 33.5cm
Accession Date: 1861
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E398275
Vlass Shabolin: Homemade halibut hooks at Unalaska, all the way down the Aleutian chain, they were all similar, because the men were actually from the Aleutian chain. They went to the Pribilofs for the fur seal with the Russians. Then a year later when they went back, they found a way of building some homes, and then they brought some of their families back to the Pribilofs. When they [Russians] looked over from St. George from the highest cliff, they saw another island, so they got to St. Paul Island. When they went there, they found that people were already there, because they found a bonfire there that was warm yet, a broken piece of pipe and some other items. So, the Aleuts with the baidarkas [kayaks] were there before the Russians discovered St. Paul.(1)
Daria Dirks: What are we going to call this in Aleut then?
Maria Turnpaugh: Chag^am . . .
(Halibut . . .)
Mary Bourdukofsky: Chag^am . . . x^umxig^ain.
(Halibut . . . fishing gear.(2))
Aron Crowell: Were there different size hooks to catch a larger halibut?
Vlass Shabolin: That’ll catch any size you want. From a chicken halibut to an eight-footer will get on that.
Maria Turnpaugh: There’s one like this in my son’s cabin. He’s making all these old things like that.
Daria Dirks: What kind of wood?
Vlass Shabolin: It’s got to be redwood, because a lot of redwood was used in early days.
Mary Bourdukofsky: The only way they found the wood is from the beach, driftwood.
Aron Crowell: How were they used?
Maria Turnpaugh: Well you just put the line on—
Mary Bourdukofsky: See, right here [middle of side opposite hook].
Maria Turnpaugh: You have the weights on it, big weights. I’d see my father make them. He’d have a mound of big lead weights. Most of them were like that [approximately baseball-sized].
Vlass Shabolin: About three pounds, five pounds.
Aron Crowell: How would you put the weight on?
Vlass Shabolin: The weight will be on your extended line [on lead attached to same point as main line at middle of side opposite hook], so it will come down with the sinker. And you’ve got a lead about that far [approximately two feet long], so your sinker is at the bottom and your hook is above the bottom of the ocean floating.
It’ll float like this, on the side [horizontally], moving up and down, back and forth. It’s floating, and you’ve got bait on the hook. The halibut will come in there and close his mouth [on bait] and hook himself on there, and then you pull it up. They do it that way, or you keep your lead above too, and then you play with your sinker. You’re jigging, so you’re bobbing it up and down on the bottom there, and the halibut will come over there and grab it.
Aron Crowell: Did certain families have fishing spots that were theirs?
Vlass Shabolin: No, everybody went to the spot where they knew there was halibut. You have to know where the halibut is in the channel. In other words, you’re out there fishing maybe a mile out, then you hit a channel that comes down at least fifty feet and then back up. In the channel, you’ll find the halibut going with the current. So you fish where the channel is, and you fish with the current so you don’t have to go too far from the island, because in those days they didn’t have outboards [motors], so they were oaring their boats in and out.
Aron Crowell: And when did people stop doing the jigging?
Vlass Shabolin: They’re still doing jigging.
Maria Turnpaugh: But it’s on a machine, and one line has how many hooks? And they’re all baited and put down.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, from the big boats, but the dories are just jigging.
Vlass Shabolin: Now you get a whole set of three-hundred foot skate with maybe 200 to 300 hooks on it. You set it and let it soak over night, then you go back the next day. If you’re lucky, you’ll bring in ninety halibuts off one line. So that’s the new way of doing it. But for subsistence, some of us go out only in a skiff, a nineteen-foot skiff or something like that, and go jigging the old way. I like to go jigging.
Aron Crowell: What time of the year do you do the most halibut fishing?
Vlass Shabolin: With the weather on St. Paul and down the Aleutian chain, from May until about the middle of August. If we do have good weather, then we go as much as we can, but the weather changes so fast nowadays. And then when we used to fish maybe a mile from the island, last year we had to go about twenty-five, thirty-five miles off the island to catch some halibut. Like some people say, the weather is getting too warm, and the halibut are staying in the deeper end where the water is cool. So it became a problem with our boats, because we only have thirty-two footers and going out that far, you have to watch with the weather, otherwise you get caught in a storm, and there’s no bigger boat that will come out there and bring you in.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Before the war [World War II]—we were just kids then—when they went jigging, they stayed out all day, maybe eight to ten hours, and even the women watched the water. And then they would see from far away two men walking with a long stick and something hanging, and they called for us children to come get clean green grass and that’s what we do.
They had an oilcloth, and they laid it on the grassy spot, and then they laid the halibut on the clean grass. On the side there are two containers, one with plain water and one water with salt. The women are the ones that butcher the halibut to eat raw as soon as they bring it, like sushi they call it nowadays.
Vlass Shabolin: Womenfolk would gather together when we bring in the fresh halibut and cut it up, and then they eat some of that raw halibut. Chuumlag^ii [eating raw halibut] we call it. They’d all sit there and eat that halibut, then after they’re done, they’d go back in the house and drink tea.
Mary Bourdukofsky: But if the weather is bad outside, they bring the oilcloth with grass and portions of halibut in the house. There’s salt and knives all over. The men go first and have a feast, what they call chuumlag^ii. Our father didn’t go out fishing because he was the storekeeper, so our mother gave us a plate, “Go there and just ask for a couple of pieces, so dad and I could have some.”
Of course they filled our plate for us and sent us home.
Importance of halibut
Aron Crowell: And is halibut an important food now?
Maria Turnpaugh: Oh, yes.
Daria Dirks: It’s hard to get enough to keep for the winter.
Vlass Shabolin: Always was and still is very important, because down on the Aleutian chain we don’t get too much salmon. And where I’m from, it’s halibut and cod, that’s what we fish. After halibut season comes black cod. The fish that we grew up on was halibut. Come summer, we fish for halibut, and then we fillet them or cut them in steak sizes and fish pie and then freeze them in Ziploc bags nowadays. In the early days, we used to just put them inside a coffee can or a five-gallon container and put some water in there so it would stay fresh and then freeze it. We didn’t have freezer and stuff like that, we just got what we were going to eat for a couple days, maybe three days.
And if the weather’s good, then you go out almost every day, catch enough and bring it in. But if there was a storm coming, then you take an extra halibut with you and bring it home. Of course everybody provided for the whole village anyway. All the fishermen, we were just like one big happy family where everybody helped each other. If an elderly person couldn’t go fishing, then somebody used to bring an extra halibut and give it to them. We still do it to this day. When our first halibut season comes in, the halibut that they catch on the first day are given to senior citizens that need it, and then we divide it among the families after that. So, halibut is very important in the Pribilofs.
Aron Crowell: Is there anything you do or sayings about fishing, halibut especially, that might bring you bad luck or good luck?
Vlass Shabolin: I fished with my uncle, John Kozloff, who had eleven-foot wooden dory—people on St.
Paul made their own dories then. The first halibut I caught, we cut it up, and he gave me the heart. It’s a tradition that the first halibut you catch, if you want to be a good fisherman, you have to eat the heart. That was a big heart, still thumping. He gave that to me and he said, “You eat that.” I just took it and swallowed it. I didn’t even chew it [laughs]. That’s a good luck charm. Also, in the early days you never could take a woman out on the water in a fishing boat, they called that bad luck.
Mary Bourdukofsky: And another story I have is about the umbilical cord of a baby. When the first child is born, they [women] save that and when it dries up make a little pouch, drop it in there and tie it. When the men are going out fishing or hunting, they put it around their husband’s neck for good luck.
Maria Turnpaugh: A good luck charm. My father had an icon, it was porcelain.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, I’ve seen those. St. Nicholas?
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes. My mother stuffed it with some kind of cotton to keep it from breaking, and then she got [animal] gut and made a little pouch around it, sewed it around really tight. And I know she used to take it out every time he was going out hunting or fishing.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, they wore it around their necks. They believed St. Nicholas helped them on the sea.
Maria Turnpaugh: Well, he’s the saint for all travelers.
Vlass Shabolin: Almost every boat that’s on St. Paul has St. Nicholas inside. It’s to protect you when you’re out fishing. Another thing is after they cleaned the halibut, the bones and that stuff were not thrown into a garbage can. You put it out in the green grass, someplace where it’s cleaner. If you didn’t take care of the catch you got that day, sometimes your luck would change for fishing halibut, so you have to take care of what you got.
[From discussion with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
1. Baidarka [kayak] comes from the Russian word bajdarka “kayak.”
2. According to Mary Bourdukofsky and Vlass Shabolin, x^umxig^ain [fishing gear] refers to a fish hook, sinker, line, and rod. Mary Bourdukofsky later identified the word for hook as ux^tax^ [fish hook] or cheripuchka [hook], a Russian loanword.
Likewise we catch fish: halibut, cod, sculpins, pogies, great sculpins, flounder, black bass. The implement for catching the halibut is called yarus [Russian, ‘fishing tackle’]. At the end of its line there is an inflated bladder. That’s its float. When the bait has been tied onto the yarus, the float is thrown into the sea. When the halibut takes the yarus in its mouth, the float dives. Thus the halibut that has taken the yarus in its mouth is choked and dies.
- Arseniy Kryukov (Nikolski, Umnak Island, 1909-10) (1)
The Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), which can grow to over 400 pounds, has always been a key food species on the islands of the Aleutian chain. The large fish were traditionally eaten raw, cut up and cooked on flat stones, or dried and stored for the winter in thatch-roofed fish sheds.(2) Captain James Cook was present in 1778 when the chief of Unalaska dined on delicate “cheeks” from the head of a fresh-caught fish, prepared raw and served to him on a bed of grass.
(3) As Unangax^ Elders described in 2003, a chuumlag^ii [eating raw halibut] feast of halibut “sushi” served on grass was still a special occasion when they were children.
Arseniy Kryukov’s description of halibut fishing (above) was recorded in the Unangax^ language on a wax cylinder recorder by anthropologist Waldemar Jochelson in 1909 or 1910. In the old method, the fisherman placed his bait on the bone or iron point of a large wooden hook which was called yarus [Russian, ‘fishing tackle’] or chagim ux^tax^ [halibut hook]. He tied the hook to a stone weight and dropped it to the sea bottom on a long line made of oiled, stretched, and dried seaweed (kelp). The baited hook floated just above the sea floor, where halibut feed. The line was connected to a float made from the stomach of a seal or the bladder of a sea lion.(4) When the float went under it was a signal that a fish was on the other end of the line. As Henry Elliott’s painting shows, fishermen pulled the halibut up by hand and killed it with a wooden club.
They fished up to ten miles out to sea above the deep channels where the fish congregate.(5) Halibut that were too large to be put inside the kayak were towed home.(6)
A later method, described in 2003 by Maria Turnpaugh and Vlass Shabolin of St. Paul, was to jig for halibut from a dory (open wooden boat), moving the hook up and down to attract the fish (see Elders’ comments). Wooden hooks were eventually replaced by iron ones. Long lines with hundreds of steel hooks are used in modern commercial halibut fishing.
Elder Bill Tcheripanoff (born in Akutan, 1902) described how to make a wooden hook.(7) Two pieces of yellow cedar—available only as driftwood on the treeless Aleutian Islands—are carved into shape and pegged together at the base. The bone point is then added. Before using the hook, fisherman rubbed it with the leaves of wild celery (Heraculum lanatum), also known as putchki (Russian). Wild celery has a strong smell and covers human scent. This “Aleut perfume”, as Father Ishmael Gromoff (born St.
Paul, 1924) called it, was also used to erase human scent when setting fox traps.(8)
1. Bergsland and Dirks 1990:395
2. Beaglehole 1967:460, 1337; Jochelson 1933:8
3. Beaglehole 1967:460
4. Coxe 1966:73, 173; Hudson 1992:144, 199-200; Jochelson 1933:11; Krenitsyn and Levashev 1988:250; Merck 1980:171
5. Jochelson 1933:11
6. Langsdorff 1993:14
7. Hudson 1992:114
8. Hudson 1992:151, 180