Puyallup Tribal News

Traditional Use of Shellfish

Historically, shellfish played a major role in the lives of our ancestors as a major food source and trade item, and continues to be an important part of modern economic life. Elder's testimonies, archaeological shell midden analysis and ethnographic reports all reveal the major role shellfish played in traditional Puyallup diet, livelihood, and even social structure. Usual Puget Sound shellfish harvested included barnacles, mussels, oysters, many types of clams such as butter clams, horse clams and geoduck (or gwiduck as it is most commonly found in historical documents) and cockles. However, clams seem to be the most used and readily available, providing year-round protein and vital calories. Shellfish were eaten fresh, either boiled or steam baked, cured with smoke, or dried in the sun. When cured or dried and strung, shellfish acted as an important trade item, often noted as a favorite of people east of the mountains. Fondness for the strings of clams could be seen in memories of Sahaptin visitors "wearing precious necklaces of clams which they munched on the homeward journey."

Harvesting Methods

According to Anthropologist Marian Smith, clams - much like roots - were dug using a digging stick and carried in large baskets. Often, a large clam shell was used to clear the hole of sand and water. Clam digging was generally viewed as women's work, unless a canoe was required in an area offshore, then a man would be called on to assist. Men, women and children all enjoyed eating shellfish. Marian Smith noted that dried clams were used as pacifiers and teething rings "being tied to the baby's wrist." The shells meanwhile often served as rattles. Different clam types were harvested during different months. Ethnographer Arthur Ballard for example, was informed by his Puyallup informants that the best time to dig geoduck was in late June and all throughout July. In order to take advantage of the most ideal times to harvest different shellfish, people would often leave their winter homes and travel to other locations on Puget Sound and establish summer camps for the purpose of procuring clams for the winter. Historic Tribal leader Jerry Meeker noted that his mother would "put away fifteen to twenty baskets of clams during a season" to last during the winter months. Seasonal travel to other areas of Puget Sound for the purpose of taking shellfish continued even after village and ceremonial life had been interrupted post treaty. Social structure, especially marriage and kinship allowed for optimum use the different harvest areas around Puget Sound. The common practice of marrying outside one's local group and equal likelihood of choosing to live with the husband's or wife's household and villages resulted in greater access to resources such as shellfish harvesting areas.

Other Uses of Shellfish

Importance of shellfish to Puyallup culture was not limited to diet alone. Clams often became bait for fishing, shells were used as tools such as spoons for eating, knives for cutting, and scrapers, and even for storage. Shells were commonly seen as attractive jewelry or sewn into clothing, used to make beads, and played a huge part of Native economy as shell money or dental that was used in intra/inter-tribal trade. Early European explorers of Puget Sound often noted native people clam digging, mentioning the trade of clams for buttons and "other trinkets." Early Puget Sound explorer Menzies, noted locals "sitting near their blankets of provisions and stores. The former consisted chiefly of clams some of which were dried and smoked and strung up for the convenience of carrying about their necks, but a great number of them were still fresh in the shell which they readily parted with to our people for buttons, beads, and bits of copper."

Shell Middens

Deposits of shell and other cultural resources, often called middens, are indications of native people's occupation of a site and are commonly used for identifying archaeological sites. Middens are associated with human occupation often showing evidence of winter houses, summer camps, and shellfish processing stations. According to Anthropologist Llyn De Danaan, shell middens offer primary and salient evidence for the general availability, persistent exploitation and multiple uses of the shellfish in all its variety as major component of Puyallup subsistence. Local midden analyses have shown at least 114 species of shellfish were regularly used in the Puget Sound area.

Post Treaty Reliance

Puyallup reliance on shellfish post treaty is evident in the late 1800's and continues today. With the settlement of non-natives in the area came opportunities for Tribal members utilize shellfish for business opportunities as well as Trade. Local Indians supplied the Blackwell Hotel in Tacoma with shellfish after its opening in 1874, amounting to substantial trade. History has captured examples of Puyallup reliance on shellfish in historic photographs, Elder's interviews, and Jerry Meeker's annual Brown's Point clambake. This manner of gathering shellfish continues even today as many tribal members continue to harvest the various shellfish species for food and commercial purposes.


Shellfish were clearly an incredibly vital part of Puyallup life. Elder's testimony, archaeological shell middens, and the journals of early Puget Sound visitors all reveal the major role shellfish played in traditional Puyallup diet, trade, and even social structure. Superintendent Milroy once described the resources of the Puget Sound area as "paradise" for the Indian, with fish, clams and oysters, and game. While salmon runs change and are not always predictable, shellfish were reliable, dependable and could make up for nutritional loss. Though shellfish may be less celebrated than the salmon, it still played a highly important role in Puyallup life.


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