Fishing for Answers

Fishing for Answers

Archaeologist studies ancient aquaculture techniques.


9 - 12+


Anthropology, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

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Tla’amin (TLAH-ah-mihn) people say they have lived in British Columbia, Canada, "from time immemorial." According to their traditions, they have always lived on the land and used its resources. Their place along the northwest coast has made the marine environment an especially important part of their culture. In the late 1800s, however, laws against using fish traps prevented them from fishing in traditional ways. Later developments took away many of the places where they caught fish and gathered clams.

Today, the Tla'amin are working to regain access to their traditional resources and harvesting locations. They also are turning to traditional knowledge to learn how to manage their marine environment. One way they are doing this is by asking their elders how Tla’amin people used marine resources in the past. Another way is by teaming up with archaeologists, who can unearth artifacts to supplement the elders’ knowledge. This information provides insight into how the Tla’amin traditionally managed and used the once-abundant marine resources of the region.

The Tla’amin did not have a written language, so all of their history was communicated through telling and retelling events and stories. Children learned the right way to do things by listening to and observing their elders. For the Tla’amin people, as with Indigenous peoples worldwide, when culturally important activities such as fishing can no longer take place, the traditional knowledge and history that are linked to these activities may also disappear.

Archaeologists Dana Lepofsky and John Welch are working with a team of researchers from Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, and Tla’amin First Nation to rediscover some of this knowledge and history. One of the ways they are doing this is by studying ancient fishing and clamming techniques used by Tla’amin people during the past several thousand years.

Lepofsky and Welch’s team found that the Tla’amin managed both clams and fish to get large, sustainable harvests. To increase the number of clams, they cleared the beach of rocks, providing the clams more space to grow and flourish. The rocks were either moved to the side to create shallow pools or rolled to the low tide line to create a wall. The pools held relatively warmer water, creating a better environment for the organisms on which clams feed. The walls gave clams more room by building up the beach at the low tide line.

Tla’amin clam beaches, with and without rock walls, still exist. However, they are difficult to see except from the air. Elders remember clearing beaches as children, but no one remembers making the rock walls. Based on the age of the archaeological sites nearby, some of these gardens may be thousands of years old, Michelle Washington of Tla’amin First Nation said.

Fish Traps

The archaeology team is also studying fish traps used by the Tla’amin. Fish traps were built out of stone and wood. They looked like mazes. To catch more fish, the Tla’amin set traps in the intertidal zone, an area that is covered with water during high tide but exposed to the air during low tide. When the tide came in, fish would enter the traps either because of natural tidal currents or because of long lead lines that would guide them in. Once in the traps, walls prevented the fish from swimming out again when the tide receded.

The Tla'amin built all sizes of fish traps. "I'm fascinated by the variety and scale of some of these fish traps. Some of them are huge—hundreds of meters," Megan Caldwell, a student who works on the research team, said.

Caldwell wonders how many fish the Tla’amin were able to catch with the traps. She also wonders what they did with big catches, because the Tla’amin did not have refrigerators to keep the fish from spoiling. Caldwell believes the ancient Tla'amin used holding ponds to keep the fish healthy until they could either eat them or preserve them.

On April 5, 2016, representatives of the Tla’amin, the province of British Columbia, and the government of Canada finalized a treaty that returned a little more than 8,300 hectares (20,510 acres) of government land to the Tla’amin. About 80 kilometers (50 miles) of that land is waterfront.

Co-management agreements and shared harvest areas will provide Tla’amin the opportunity to manage some important ocean resources in their territory once again. The archaeological research has helped the treaty process, said Washington, who is part of the Silammon Treaty Society, which negotiated the treaty. In addition, local governments are more aware of the importance of preserving archaeological sites. Local government protection becomes very important because laws that are supposed to help protect archaeological sites are very weak, Washington said.

Fast Fact

First Nations
First Nations is the term used by native people of Canada. There are hundreds of First Nations cultures, including the Tla'amin of the Pacific coast, the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region, and the Innu on the North Atlantic coast. The term "First Nations" is not generally applied to the Inuit, native to the Arctic region of Canada, or the Metis.

In the United States, native people usually prefer to be called Native Americans.

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Evelyn L. Kent
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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