Cultural Importance

Clam gardens are a sophisticated form of shellfish management designed to ensure a reliable food source for the large populations of First Nations and Native Americans that inhabited the Northwest Coast. Prior to European contact, First Nations’ and Native American towns and villages dotted every stretch of habitable coastline.  Many areas were more heavily populated than today, with people living in settlements of a few hundred to potentially thousands of people. Clams would have provided a reliable, easy to harvest protein and vitamin-rich food that could have been eaten fresh at any time of year or dried for later consumption.  In addition, people valued clams as a trade item and for their use in community events and gatherings.

Mask used in Heiltsuk Clam Dance. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (catalog number 9/2227).

Today, clams and clam harvesting remain important economically, culturally, socially and ceremonially for Indigenous Peoples on the Northwest Coast, and feature prominently in origin stories, rituals and songs. As shared with us by Gitla, the Heiltsuk have a popular non-ceremonial dance for the girls called the Clam Dance. The girls represent supernatural clams who come to life to make fun of real clam diggers who can’t find them.

The famous sculpture “The Raven and the First Men” by Haida artist Bill Reid represents the deep connection between clams and coastal peoples. A wonderful quote by Anne Cross who documented the creation of Reid’s masterpiece (link to PDF) describes a foundational relationship between clams and the first Haida people:

According to Haida legend, the Raven found himself alone one day on Rose Spit beach, on Haida Gwaii. Suddenly, he saw an extraordinary clamshell at his feet, and protruding from it were a number of small creatures. The Raven coaxed them to leave the shell to join him in his wonderful world. Some were hesitant at first, but eventually, overcome by curiosity, they emerged from the partly open clamshell to become the first Haida.

Photo: Nicole Smith
Raven and the First Men. Photo: Nicole Smith

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