General Comments
   Plaited Basketry




Return to  


By Del Nordquist

Reprinted from The Washington Archaeologist, Vol.5, Nos. 8 & 9,
August-September, 1961, pp. 6-9.

Comment: The possible weir fragment described in this article is reported to have been found in situ. This means that is was found as an isolated fragment lying in the waterlogged midden, not that it was found upright, in place, at the site of a weir. The hypothesis that it is a weir fragment is certainly viable, given the bound net weights, fish hooks and bound anchor that have been recovered from the same midden.

The discovery of a fragment of weir in situ makes a suitable excuse for giving some ethnic data reported on weirs. Members of WAS are to be alerted to the importance of excavating so that the likelihood of further intact or associated fragments may be found. It is of utmost importance that the reČlation of knots and poles, of weights and lines, of lines and hooks be careČfully recorded and observed. Only associational data can give answers to the many questions of use and relation of the materials retrieved from the site.

Weirs are a known fishing technique along the whole of the Northwest Coast. They are reported from Alaska to California and, although more frequently used on the west side of the Cascades and the Sierras, are also reported for the interior. The Salish use of the weir is described by many ethnographers but only two will be mentioned here.

The most significant reference is that in Haeberlin and Gunther, for it describes an actual Snoqualmie weir

"Salmon fishing was done by means of nets, traps, or weirs, fishing with hook and line or trailing a net. Salmon were also speared like seal and sturgeon.

"A salmon weir described by Snuqualmie Jim was used as follows: Several sets of alder wood poles (Figure II) were set up in tripod fashion across a river or creek where the water was quite shallow. The whole stream was fenced off with willow staves about 8 feet long and one to two inches thick, stuck side by side in the river bed and lashed together with string. The row of willow sticks was fastened to the tripods, which were held together by a long pole. The water came about to half the height of the willow sticks. Each tripod had a platform above the water that was about 6 feet square. The fisherman stood on this holding a long pole with a dip net about 4 or 5 feet long at the end. In coming up the river the salmon were held back by the fence and the water at the trap would be full of fish. The men on the platforms took the salmon out of the water with their dip nets and clubbed them to death.

"The Indians had such weirs near their summer camping place, It took a great deal of labor to construct them. Unless the water was thick and dirty, they got salmon at night. Such a weir was called stEqa'lEku. Shelton explained stEq means closed and alEku is evidently suffix for water." (1)

Barnett gives the following description of the weir for the Coast Salish of British Columbia:

"Weirs and Traps. These devices were used almost entirely for catching salmon. Where a stream was shallow, narrow and not too rapid, a weir was built across it from bank to bank (see Plate VII). A series of stakes or piles was driven into the stream bed in sets of three in a tripod arrangement. Two of the stakes slanted upstream against the current, while the third stake, slightly longer and sloping downstream, was braced against the other two and lashed to their tops. The stakes were driven down with an unworked river stone or the common spool shaped hand maul, not a special pile driver. Three horizontal poles, one on the stream bed, one at the surface of the water, and a third midway between, were then lashed to the series of stakes on the upstream side. The stakes and horizontal poles formed the framework of the weirs, which was left in the stream from year to year, those parts being restored which were washed away in floods.

"Sections of latticework were then laid against the framework to hinder the passage of salmon. This latticework was composed of three or four crosswise pieces to which were bound, a few inches apart, upright cedar laths which reached to the high water mark. The laths were tied with cedar withes to the crosswise pieces either by the wrapped-twine method or in the manner shown in Fig. 19. The latticework was made in sections convenient to handle and could be removed or reset with little trouble. When slipped into place against the frameworks, the sections were held fast by the current. Salmon, coming upstream, were congested on the downstream side, and were therefore relatively easy to land with the harpoon, dip net, or gaff.

"Among the Cowichans and Nanaimo, a few dams had boarded runways along the top from which fishing was done. Usually, however, a canoe was used, with one person, commonly a man, to steady it and another to operate the net, harpoon, or gaff. Most salmon fishing was done at night, and by feeling rather than seeing the fish. The harpoon, net, or gaff was submerged and held steady until a mere touch told the fisherman that it was time to strike or jerk. In a split second he acted and rarely failed to catch his prey. Some fishing could be done in daylight but salmon are wary. Unless they were crowded against the weir, the optimum conditions for catching them were provided by murky water, dark rainy days, or darkness." (2)

It is noted that the weirs as reported for the Salish in the State of Washington and those along the Georgia Straits of British Columbia are essentially the same, Fishing techniques as part of the weir fishing complex are also similar. Barnett makes mention of the gaff hook used in taking fish once they are crowded against the weir. His description of the gaff is worth adding here for it strongly suggests the use of the wooden hooks found in 45SN100.

"The shaft of the salmon gaff, fitted into a socket in the hook and a line, led to the detachable hook (see Fig. 23). Like the harpoon and the leister, the gaff was operated from canoes, from platforms close to shore, in eddies, or at rapids. It was held under water until touched by a fish; then it was jerked upward, the hook came off, and the fisherman held to the line. There is some doubt whether this hook, or any like it, was made aboriginally. Some informants (Tswasan, Slaiaman, and Nanaimo) disclaimed it as an Indian invention. The point of the aboriginal hook was described as a steamed and fire-hardened wooden crook, or a long bone barb fastened on at an acute angle much like the straight shwiked trolling hook." (3)

The accompanying plate (above) gives details of the weir as found in the recent excavation, and a reconstruction based on the illustration in Haeberlin and Gunther, plate VII in Birnett, and an excellent photograph of a weir at Cowichan River from the British Columbia Heritage Series, Our Native Peoples: Coast Salish. (4)

End Notes

(1) P. 27 Haeberlin, Hermann and Erna Gunther: The Indians of Puget Sound, University of Wtshington Press, Seattle, 1930.
(2) Pp. 79-80 Barnett, Homer G. The Coast Salish of British Columbia. University of Oregon Press, Eugene, 1955. .
(3) P. 84 Ibid.
(4) P. 19 British Columbia Heritage Series, Series 1, Volume 2. Coast Salish. Provincial Archives, Victoria.