INDIANS AND STURGEON
Forth Upon the Gitche Gumee,
On the shining Big-Sea-Water,
With his fishing line 0{ cedar 0{ the twisted bark 0{ cedar,
Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma, Mishe-Nahma, King 0{ Fishes,
ln his birch-canoe exulting
AIl alone went Hiawatha.

Longfellow, Hiawatha.

Sturgeon appear to have been highly prized by Indians. Their large size must have made them a greatly esteemed quarry; one sturgeon would provide as much food as very many smaller fish. Then, their oily flesh meant that it would take smoke well and could thus be preserved for a long time. Another advantage the sturgeon had was its habit of congregating in rapids and their vi ci nit y at spawning time, thus making many readily available for capture. An Indian hunter is recorded as saying, "It is to us Indians in the water what the buffalo was on land." The Jesuit Relations contain a number of references to the use made of sturgeon by Indians.

Richardson, (79) who accompanied Franklin on his first expedition in search of a northwest passage to Asia, when they spent the winter of 1814-20 on Fine Island Lake, a tributary of the Saskatchewan River, recorded that, "The great rapid which forms the discharge of the Saskatchewan into Lake Winnipeg appears quite alive with these fish in the month of lune, and some families of the natives resort thither at that time to spear them with a harpoon or grapple them with a strong hook tied to a pole."

That they were not universally important to Indians is indicated by Richardson when he wrote, "The sturgeons of North America, though almost equally numerous with those of Asia, are of comparatively little benefit to the natives. A few speared in the summer time suffice for the temporary support of some Indian hordes, but none are preserved for winter use, and the roe and sounds are Utterly wasted."

However there are enough references in the literature to make it certain that in some areas Indians did smoke or dry sturgeon for future use, but it is not clear to what extent they depended on such food. It probably varied from place to place.

Drying appears to have been the most widely and commonly used method of preserving fish in aboriginal North America. Smoking was probably a variant of drying through the use of fire to hasten drying.

That Indians, when they became less dependent on wild food, did not hold sturgeon flesh in such high regard is indicated by a report Harkness had that at Moose Factory in 1927 both Indians and white men used to take six or seven tons annually, smoke them and feed them to their dogs. One of the reasons advanced by the Ontario and Manitoba Fisheries commissions of 1909 for trying to restore the sturgeon fisheries was their importance to the northern lndians. ln spite of very stringent regulations recommended for the protection of the fishery, it was suggested that they be relaxed in favour of lndians dependent on sturgeon for food More recently, their importance as a commercial product to supplement the Indians' income from trapping, has been recognized.

The lndian mode of fishing was described by Charlevoix, ( 19) who came to Canada in 1720, commissioned by the French Government to seek a route to the western sea. He journeyed to Lake Superior and down the Mississippi, visiting posts of what was then the extreme western frontiers of New France. He wrote: "Two men placed themselves in each end of a canoe, the one behind steered, the other stood holding a dart in one hand to which one end of a long cord was fastened, and the other end to the canoe. When he saw a sturgeon within his reach he threw his dart and endevoured to strike where there was no scales. If the fish was wounded he darted off, drawing the canoe swiftly after him but after swimming about 150 paces the fish generally became exhausted and died, and was then drawn into the canoe by hand. "

The congregation of sturgeon in or near rapids at spawning time in spring made spearing the most feasib1e method of capturing the fish at this time. At other times and especially in winter, gill-nets were used.

Baron La Hontan who travelled through the Indian territory, including the Mississippi, in 1688-9 reported that sturgeon were caught with nets in winter and grapples in summer. (54) Evidence of the use of gill-nets, especially in winter, is afforded by Champlain and numerous missionary reports contained in the Jesuit Relations describing conditions in the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes areas.

Rostlund, (81) quoting Zolotarev, suggests that gill-netting in winter was necessary as a means of survival of lndians in many parts of northern Canada where fish were plentiful and game scarce. All the evidence supports the belief that gill-nets and also seines were used before contact with Europeans.

Such roots as those of spruce and willow were probably used in making nets. Grooved and notched stones, which have been found in numbers in some areas, may have been used as sinkers for gill-nets, although the connection between fish nets and these stones has not been firmly established.

Hook and line fishing was probably not of great importance in aboriginal fishing on this continent. For the taking of sturgeon, it was probably much less efficient than spearing or gill-netting. However, Longfellow describes Hiawatha as using a "fishing line of cedar, of twisted bark of cedar", presumably with a baited hook. lndian fish hooks were of two types-composite hooks and those made of one piece. The former were made by lashing a point to a shank. The point, which was baited, was often made of bone. The shank was generally of wood, split for the purpose of receiving the point. Sometimes, two bones were lashed together at an acute angle.Singlepiece carved hooks were commonly made of bone. (81)
Their rough bony scales are said (37) to have been used by Indians as rasps and graters
.

 

UNIVERSITÉ LAVAL


FACULTÉ DES SCIENCES & DE GENIE Biology department
Cité Québec university, Canada G1K 7P4
Quebec, the 18th of march 2002
Mister André Sénécal 187 des Érables
Cap St-Ignace (QC)
G0R 1H0

Sir,

I have examined and analysed the few dermic shields (bones that develops in the skin) of sturgeon «presumably black sturgeon [Acipenser oxyrilynchus]» that you had left with me several weeks ago. I also have examined the documents arising from the analysis carried out at the geology department of Laval University on these same sturgeon's bones as well as the ivory of walrus.



According to the dictionary the word «ivory» designates the principale part of a mammal's tooth, wich we also called dentine.
In the case of most mammals, the teeth are mostly small, have a complex form and are covered with a layer of enamel(mineral tissue harder than the dentine). The volume of dentine in most mammal's teeth is consequently small, therefore we don't normaly call the dentine of their ordinary teeth, ivory. We usually reserve the word «ivory» to designate voluminous teeth and those simple form of defenses like the walrus, the hippopotamus or sperm whales. But above all to designate the elephants tusks(defenses) {Asian & african} that the word ivory was invented. These defenses are indeed very big and consisting uniquely of dentine. Moreover the Greeks utilized the word elephasto to designate the elephant and his ivory at the same time.

As animal tissue, ivory is essentially from the bone, a tissue that we find only among the vertebrates, whether they are fishes, even primitive as the sturgeon, or mammals, as the walrus and the elephants, The analisys results of the structure of the dermic bones of sturgeon are therefore not surprising; Theses bones are very similar to the ivory of walrus or elephant.

Therefore it seems to me that you are justified to call these sturgeon bones ivory, and further more the characteristic form of these dermic shields prevent any possible confusion with the ivory of elephant.Sturgeon bone's has everything in commun with genuine ivory.

Finally when considering it's method of reproduction, the black strurgeon is a species sensitive to commercial overexploitation.
Actually the species is not considered threatened in Quebec