Animals -> Marine Invertebrates -> Bivalves -> Oysters


Oysters were incorporated into the diets of coastal Indigenous Peoples including those of the northwest coast (including Twana of Puget Sound, Coast Salish, Nootka [Nuu-chah-nulth] and Tlingit) and the northeast coast (including Micmac [Mi'kmaq] of Nova Scotia, Penobscot, Iroquois and coastal Algonquian such as Wampanoag) [1-11]. The Attawapiskat (Cree) occasionally ate oysters in small numbers [12]. The Algonquian called oysters e’sis, a common name used for most bivalves [13].

Northwest coast cultures tended to avoid oysters in summer due to risk of shellfish poisoning, but on the east coast, Micmac often collected between May and September [14, 15]. The Micmac are also reported to have staved off hunger with oysters found in abundance during winter and spring when food stores were low [10]. The Wampanoag living at Grey Head consumed oysters gathered from Manemsha pond at their yearly Cranberry Festival [7].

Oysters were collected from the beach with digging sticks and bark baskets [4, 15]. The Nootka of Vancouver Island ate either boiled or steamed oysters [16]. The Iroquois are reported to have boiled oysters for many hours to make them soft, similar to how they prepared mussels [8]. The Wampanoag would occasionally eat oysters raw [7]. The Micmac and Penobscot dried oysters in the sun or over a smoky fire and stored them in boxes for winter [6, 15]. The Micmac used ground oyster shells to polish bows [17].

Eastern oysters were reported to have been an abundant and important shellfish for the Micmac (Mi'kmaq) of Richibucto and Wampanoag. The Wampanoag stored large numbers for winter. Although in the past they were abundant at Manemsha Pond, Grey Head, and Cape Cod, by the 1950s the eastern oysters became rare and difficult to find [7, 17].

Olympia oysters were found on the west coast of Puget Sound and collected regularly by the Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) of Vancouver Island and Coast Salish [9, 11, 16, 18, 19]. The Manhousat occasionally gathered Olympia oysters from rocks along beaches [20, 21]. The Manhousat usually steamed or boiled the oysters; the resulting broth could be drunk as a tea thought to enhance male potency [20]. The Coast Salish barbecued or steamed Olympia oysters in a pit [9].


1.         Stephenson PH, Elliot SJ, Foster LT, Harris J: A persistent spirit: towards understanding Aboriginal health in British Columbia. In. Edited by Stephenson PH, Elliot SJ, Foster LT, Harris J, vol. 1. Victoria: Department of Geography, University of Victoria; 1995.

2.         Drucker P: Indians of the Northwest Coast. New York: The natural History Press; 1955.

3.         Eells M: The Indians of Puget Sound: The Notebooks of Myron Eells. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 1985.

4.         Moss ML: Shellfish, Gender, and Status on the Northwest Coast: Reconciling Archeological, Ethnographic, and Ethnohistorical Records of the Tlingit. American Anthropologist 1993, 95(3):631-652.

5.         Newcomb WW: North American Indians: An Anthropological Perspective. Pacific Palisades, California: Goodyear Publishing Company, Inc.; 1974.

6.         Speck FG. In: Penobscot Man The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine. edn. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press; 1940.

7.         Speck FG, Dexter RW: Utilization of marine life by the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 1948, 38(8):257-265.

8.         Waugh FW: Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation, vol. No. 12; Anthropological Series. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau; 1916.

9.         Batdorf C: Northwest Native Harvest. Surrey, B.C: Hancock House Publishers Ltd.; 1990.

10.       Prins HEL: The Mi'kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation, and Cultural Survival, vol. Series: Case studies in Cultural Anthropology. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers; 1996.

11.       Olsen SL: Animals in American Indian Life: An Overview. In: Stars Above, Earth Below American Indians and Nature. edn. Edited by Bol MC. Dublin: Roberts Rinehart Publishers; 1998: 95-118.

12.       Honigmann JJ: Fishing. In: Foodways in a Muskeg Community. edn. Ottawa: Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources; 1961: 143-150.

13.       Speck FG: A Northern Algonquian Source Book. In: A Northern Algonquian Source Book. edn. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc.; 1985.

14.       Niblack AP: Food; Implements and Weapons; Hunting and Fishing. In: The Coast Indians of Southern Alaska and Northern British Columbia: based on the collections in the US National Museum and on the personal observation of the writer in connection with the survey of Alaska in the seasons of 1885, 1886 and 1887. edn.: [S.l. : s.n., 19--?]; 1899.

15.       Stoddard NB: Micmac Foods, vol. re-printed from the Journal of Education February 1966. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Halifax Natural Science Museum; 1970.

16.       Arima EY: The West Coast People: The Nootka of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery, vol. Special Publication No. 6. Victoria, B.C.: British Columbia Provincial Musem; 1983.

17.       Speck FG, Dexter RW: Utilization of animals and plants by the Micmac Indians of New Brunswick. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 1951, 41(8):250-259.

18.       Suttles W, Lane B: Southern Coast Salish. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 485-490.

19.       Bouchard R, Kennedy DID: Utilization of fishes, beach foods, and marine mammals by the Tl'uhus Indian People of British Columbia. In.: British Columbia Indian Language Project; 1974.

20.       Ellis DW, Swan L: Teachings of The Tides: Uses of Marine Invertebrates By The Manhousat People, vol. 1st edition. Nanaimo, B.C.: Theytus Books Ltd.; 1981.

21.       Suttles WP: Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians. In: Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians The Economic Life of the Coast Salish of Haro and Rosario Straits. edn. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc.; 1974.

Oysters have quite broad ranges and occupy shallow estuaries. In North America, oysters include two species of true oysters: the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), occurring along the Atlantic coast, from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, but declining in abundance since early 1900s, and the Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida), occurring along the Pacific coast and listed as of special concern according to COSEWIC. Oysters are called huîtres in French.

In oysters, unlike in clams, cockles, and mussels, the two valves are not the same shape, one being flat, elongated, and more triangular, and the other being cupped and rounded, and adductor muscles are centrally attached to each valve. Their shell is thick and solid, and has a creamy-white exterior with rough purple or brown concentric sculpturing and a glossy white interior. The eastern oyster can grow as large as 35 cm, while the Olympia oyster is smaller than 10 cm.

Oysters prefer hard substrate, like rock or shell, to attach to and will not settle on muddy bottoms. Unlike mussels, oysters do not use attachment threads, but secrete a cementing substance to glue the more cupped valve to the substrate. Sea snails are the main predators of oysters, but crabs, shorebirds, sea star, and fish are also important predators. Oysters, like other bivalve mollusks, are filter-feeders, and can accumulate bacterial or viral agents, pollutants, or biotoxin produced by their food (dinoflagelates and diatoms) that can be harmful to human.


Gosling EM: Bivalve molluscs: biology, ecology and culture. Malden, MA, USA: Fishing News Books; 2003.


Images provided below were obtained from: Encyclopedia of Life. Available from
Eastern oyster
Some rights reserved
© Kirk Mantay (2009)
Supplier: EOL Rapid Response Team
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network
Olympia oyster
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© VIUDeepBay
Supplier: Flickr: EOL Images
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network