Sharing Resources on the North Pacific Coast of North America: The Case of the Eulachon Fishery

By Donald, Leland; Mitchell, Donald | Anthropologica, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Sharing Resources on the North Pacific Coast of North America: The Case of the Eulachon Fishery


Donald, Leland, Mitchell, Donald, Anthropologica


Eulachon: Preface to the two following papers

The original versions of these two papers were presented in October 1998 at the 8th International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies, in Osaka, Japan. They were written for that occasion independently, for until receipt of the final programme none of the authors was aware that another paper on the Northwest Coast eulachon fishery was scheduled. Indeed, all were surprised that a topic with such a small literature would elicit two papers at a single conference. The papers had been assigned to different sessions, but upon hearing each other's presentation, we felt that they were complementary in several ways and we agreed they would benefit if published as a set.

As readers will discover, while the papers share a fish, the perspectives are quite different. Gloria Cranmer Webster's "Dzawadi" deals with a contemporary fishery and is written from the perspective of a Nimpkish Kwakwaka'wakw who has long participated in activities at the place where her family has ancient rights to harvest and process eulachon. Donald Mitchell and Leland Donald's "Sharing Resources on the Northwest Coast: The Case of the Eulachon Fishery" is an ethnohistoric treatment of eulachon fisheries, drawing on historic and ethnographic materials from the entire Northwest Coast. While all three authors are aware the perspectives offered do not exhaust possible views on this small fish, we do feel they give recognition to the importance of eulachon and to the significant relationship, both past and present, between this resource and many Aboriginal peoples on the north Pacific coast of North America.

Gloria Cranmer Webster's paper focusses on the fishery at the head of what is now called Knight Inlet. As Dzawadi is one of the fisheries discussed by Donald Mitchell and Leland Donald, interested readers can locate that place on Figure 1 of their paper. The contemporary community of Alert Bay is located on the small crescent-shaped island situated just north of the label "Nimpkish" on that same figure.

This paper is about the Aboriginal eulachon fishery of North America's Northwest Coast at a time that can be simply identified as a few generations ago. The manner of the Aboriginal exploitation of this resource raises questions about how aggregations of people form and, at least briefly, continue in the absence of formal political arrangements and raises questions about the concept of property and how access to resources is obtained, controlled and maintained.

In hunter-gatherer studies aggregations and their character and purpose have been a major theme. As Richard Lee (1999: 828) has pointed out, all known hunter-gatherers have practised a pattern of concentration and dispersal of people during the course of their annual rounds and this pattern cuts across those differences among hunter-gatherer societies that have led to the distinction between simple and complex foragers. Seasonal assemblies involving people drawn from more than one local group were important on the Northwest Coast and in an earlier study one of us (Mitchell, 1983) reviewed such aggregations in the central portion of the region. Here we look at the entire culture area concentrating on aggregations based on a single very important resource. This enables us to clarify the nature of such assemblies and examine in greater detail what may underlie their characteristics.

After a period of relative neglect, anthropological interest in concepts of "property" (or "ownership") has recently begun to return (see, for example, Hann, 1998; Hunt and Gilman, 1998; and Rigsby, 1998). This reappearance is partly fuelled by growing issues surrounding indigenous people's rights to land and resources in a number of countries (Australia and Canada, for example). Legal cases and political issues often involve questions regarding traditional forms of property, tenure, and access to resources. The traditional cultures of the north Pacific coast of North America have been long depicted in the anthropological literature as particularly concerned with notions of property and ownership. …

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