Clam gardens are a sophisticated form of shellfish management that provided a reliable food source for the large populations of First Nations and Native Americans of 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 to several hundreds 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).
Photo: NMAI Photo Services. Retrieved from Hakai Magazine
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. Q̓íx̌itasu shared that 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.
Photographer: Bill McLennan
From: Cross, Anne (1990). The Raven and the First Men: From Conception to Completion.
Photos used with permission from the Bill Reid Estate.
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 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."
As a reliable and sustainable food source, it is no surprise that clams also played an essential role in past social systems. Shell-rich archaeological sites, dating from at least 8000 years ago, bear witness to the importance of shellfish throughout time. Earlier shell-bearing sites are difficult to find because the region’s acid-rich soils tend to degrade the shell. It is not till enough shell has been deposited in any one place that the soil pH becomes basic enough to preserve shell. Later in time, shells are especially abundant in the archaeological record of the Northwest Coat because people used the shells leftover from meals as construction material – to make level surfaces on which to built their homes.
Although people were likely cultivating shellfish in small ways throughout time (e.g., not over-harvesting a beach, putting small shells back), ~4000 years ago is our earliest evidence for the cultivation of clams in clam gardens. However, we have excavated very few clam gardens and it is possible that some will date older than this time.
We are just beginning to understand how clam gardens fit into past social and economic systems. In Quadra Island for instance, where extensive clam garden research has been conducted, the initiation of clam gardens corresponds with an increase in the establishment of new, large settlements. New settlements continue to be established on the landscape until about 2000 years ago, at which time the only expansion in human habitation was within already existing settlements. The Indigenous people of Quadra Island compensated for this increasingly densified population by building even more clam gardens.