Makah Cultural and Research Center Online Museum

Wood Technology

Fish HooksAs they knew the ways of animal life and the products available from the hunt, so Makahs knew the precise characteristics of all the woods of the forest. Redcedar was particularly valuable, but it was far from the only tree they relied upon. Other woods such as spruce, hemlock, yew, and alder are present among the Ozette artifacts. There also are lance heads of fool's huckleberry, gaming discs and children's bows of salmonberry, float plugs of redberry elder, combs of salal and cascara and dogwood. At Hoko River there even are fishhook shanks of devils club!

Selection never was random. Woodworkers picked what they needed, secure in the knowledge of what each wood offered.

Cedar had many advantages. Because it splits easily and straight, Makahs had dimension lumber. This is unusual anywhere in the world without saws. Furthermore, cedar doesn't warp badly, important for boxes made of single boards bent to form the sides, then fitted with a bottom piece pegged or sewn in place. Toxic substances within the wood resist rot and insect attack. Lightness let arrowshafts fly true, and massive objects remain maneuverable: canoes were buoyant and paddled well, roof supports and wall planks could readily be raised into position and secured in place. Cedar also offered better insulation than any other wood. Cell walls are thin, spaces between cells large.

Yew wood is just the opposite. It is dense and heavy, therefore ideal for harpoon shafts and clubs. It would also serve well for wedges, but ninety percent of the Ozette wedges are not yew, but spruce. They aren't made from ordinary spruce, however, but from the dense wood that forms on the underside of branches and in gnarled trunks subject to heavy wind. This spruce has the heaviness typical of yew; normal spruce, on the other hand, is famed for its lightweight in proportion to strength.

Western hemlock is stiff enough to hold shape well, and the prehistoric Ozette halibut hooks are hemlock. They were made by thinning and smoothing a pencil-like rod, then steaming and bending it in a kelp bulb set into fire-heated sand. Within historic time, Makahs made the hooks from spruce knots.

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All content for this exhibit is © Makah Cultural and Research Center.

The Community Museum is a project of community organizations and Tribes across the Olympic Peninsula, and the University of Washington.
Support for the project comes from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Preston, Gates and Ellis, LLP.