American eel are reported to have been eaten by the Micmac (Mi'kmaq), Montagnais (Innu) of Lake St. John and St. Lawrence River, Eastern and Western Abenaki, Northern Iroquois, Penobscot, Rappahannock, Onondaga, Plateau Indigenous Peoples [1-14].
Eels were caught mainly in fall, though some cultures obtained them during other seasons; the Micmac caught them year-round except for ice freeze-up and break-up periods [1, 2, 6-8, 11, 14-18]. The Penobscot caught them in all seasons but spring . The Micmac, Northern Iroquois and Penobscot journeyed and set up eel camps [9, 11, 14, 15]. The Micmac of Richibucto and the Wampanoag usually caught eel with spears [19, 20]. The Micmac of Newfoundland are reported to have fished for eel from spring to early fall, eating most of it immediately, but preserving some for winter use .
In mid September, when eel were abundant, the Micmac left their seaside camps to go to rivers to catch them; in winter they speared them through the ice near their community [11, 15]. The Northern Iroquois, who caught eel in spring, formed fishing bands and traveled to distant clan fishing stations in search of eel and other types of fish. Because they also farmed, the composition of these fishing bands varied depending on the month. In early spring before the farm fields needed to be readied for planting, the fishing bands consisted of both male and females. By late spring, the fishing band likely consisted of mainly males, as most of the females needed to return to the villages to farm. If new land needed to be cleared, some of the men returned as well . Among the Penobscot, bands of families camped on the Sunkhaze meadow to obtain the bulk of their eel catch during low water season in August. In fall, when eels migrated to salt water, families traveled upstream and set up camp. During winter when eels hibernated in mud coves, some families undertook an expedition to those areas and set up camp .
Eels were caught with spears, traps (including weirs), nets and hook and line [1, 6, 7, 9, 15, 16, 18, 22]. The Montagnais of Lake St. John used weirs .
The Micmac and the Montagnais of St. Lawrence River used spears to catch eels, the latter also employing weirs [1, 6, 15, 16]. At night, the Montagnais of St. Lawrence River lured eels to canoes with torches and speared eels using iron-pointed leisters. The eels were dried and transported into the interior. In the daytime, they used series of stones laid in the sand at the river edge to guide the eels, and when waves broke onto the shore the fish were trapped into large weirs . In September, eel spawning season, Micmac caught them with three-pronged spears . Most eel fishing was done at night in a dory with a birch rind torch at the front to see the eels and lure them [1, 15]. Depending on the season, the Penobscot used traps, spears or poison. In August, they added a mixture of crushed pokeberry and Indian turnip root to streams, which stunned the eels and killed them. Children went to the water and collected them. In fall, when eels migrated to salt water, weirs were used, the most popular being a fence of brush or sticks pointing obliquely downstream, or a corral with one entrance. Once captured, the eels were speared or scooped using dip nets, and transferred to baskets or barrels to carry them to shore where they were placed in pits to free them of “slime” to make handling easier. Most eels were caught at night, due to migrating patterns. During winter when eels hibernated in mud coves, the men made ice holes, poked the mud with their spears, and caught the eels with spears/leisters. They used the leister supposedly at night, from a canoe with a torch secured in front. The man in front was in charge of holding the leister and looking out for eels. The leister consisted of two outside prongs made of hardwood and one sharp central prong made of iron, or, in earlier days, the central prong was made of sharpened hornbeam. Splint basket traps were also used. This was a trap made of twilled weave, which had a hole in the bottom that allowed the eel to enter but not escape. It was weighted with stones, baited with dead fish or fish heads and set in streams .
Eel flesh was eaten roasted, smoked and dried [1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 12, 13, 15, 23]. Other Indigenous Peoples smoked or dried eel for later use, usually winter [2, 5]. The Montagnais of the St. Lawrence River ate fresh eel in September and October and dried and transported it into the interior to be eaten in early winter [6, 23]. The Micmac roasted and smoked it on poles made of rock maple to give it flavor [1, 12]. They smoked it in two ways: placed whole through the lower jaw on poles in the wigwam and smoked, after which the insides were removed, or split and sun-dried on a warm sunny day with a fire built nearby to repel flies . The Micmac typically salted and dried eel, placing it in an oven to dry after splitting . The Penobscot are reported to have salted and dried the flesh. The women skinned it, split it open, removed the backbones, salted the remaining carcass and hung it on dead branches to sun dry for two days, after which it was hung it in a tent to smoke, In the winter eel was frozen . The Onondaga Iroquois smoked or dried eel and used it like fish. They also fried it without oil or roasted it on a split pole . The Wampanoag preserved eel flesh for later consumption by salting it .
Eel flesh and byproducts were also used to make soup [9, 13, 15]. The Micmac made soup with eel flesh, salted beef, onions, potatoes and flour for thickening, usually adding flour dumplings . The Penobscot boiled the dried, smoked or frozen eel flesh for soup, using backbones to make corn soup with boiled hulled corn and fat . The Onondaga Iroquois used dried eel as an ingredient in corn soup .
Uses other than food
The Micmac used eel skin to wrap their spear head points . The Micmac of Richibucto are reported to have used eel skin as a bandage [19, 20].
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