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MOTA Debuts Exhibit On Traditional Fishing Tools


For thousands of years, fishing has been central to the culture and survival of the people of Unalaska Island.

The Museum of the Aleutians (MOTA) celebrated that tradition on Friday, by unveiling a new exhibit on the prehistoric technology that made the Unangax such successful fishermen.

The temporary exhibit has hundreds of fishing tools on display. Many of them are at least 3,000 years old, but MOTA Director Dr. Virginia Hatfield said most should be familiar to contemporary fishermen.

“It’s not very different from what they do today,” said Hatfield. “They also used fishing hooks and lines, and I read one ethnohistorical account that said they could get down to a couple hundred feet deep using seaweed as line.”

The collection features delicately carved hooks and spear points as well as heavy sinkers, fashioned from basalt rock to anchor nets and lines.

It also includes gorges, which aren’t commonly used today. Hatfield said prehistoric fishermen honed the splintered pieces of bone until they had sharp barbs at each end.

“They would tie fishing line around the center of the gorge,” she said. “When it was swallowed with bait on it, they would yank up, the gorge would go perpendicular inside the fish, and they’d be able to bring that fish up.”

The tools were excavated from sites across the island -- from Margaret and Summer Bays to Amaknak spit and Chernofski Harbor. Hatfield said most pieces are made from bone.

“There are a few made out of teeth and a few made out of ivory, but most are bone -- bird bone and sea mammal bone,” she said. “Fishermen would carve and polish them to get them nice and smooth and pointed.”

The new exhibit is open through the end of February. It’s the second in a three-part series of small exhibits highlighting MOTA’s wide-ranging inventory.

Hatfield said the third and final exhibit will focus on artifacts from the Islands of the Four Mountains, a cluster of volcanic islands in the western Aleutians.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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