How did native peoples ice fish?

Native ice fishing scene: This classic painting by Seth Eastman depicts how Native Americans ice fished hundreds of years ago by using lures, spears and small dark houses.
Native ice fishing scene: This classic painting by Seth Eastman depicts how Native Americans ice fished hundreds of years ago by using lures, spears and small dark houses.Courtesy Wikigallery
Spearfishing with decoys is perhaps one of the oldest recorded methods of harvesting fish during the winter months in the northern portions of North America. The basic method is believed to have continued since antiquity. The process involved the spear fisher lying upon the ice with a blanket or, later, a dark house, over his head watching through a hole in the ice.

The blanket blocks out the sunlight directly over the hole, while the light diffusing though the surrounding ice illuminates the water and, hopefully, some fish. Sometimes broken mussel shells were dropped in the water to pave the bottom and enhance the visibility further. A decoy carved to resemble a small fish is attached to a line and lowered into water to attract predatory fish. A jigging stick is used to move the decoy and imitate the movement of a real fish. When a large fish swims within range, it is speared.

Early historic accounts indicate that the method was relatively common in the Great Lakes region and along the Upper Mississippi River by central Algonquian and Siouan speaking people since the 1600s. Archaeological evidence in the form of carved mussel shell decoys tells us that the tradition extends back at least 1,000 years in the Upper Midwest and Plains. To date, about 63 specimens of carved mussel shell decoys are known. The majority are from Oneota settlements in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. The details of these decoys vary widely from simple fish-like profiles to elaborately carved varieties that resemble living species.

– Excerpted from a report by SMM Archaeologist Ed Fleming