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Mini-episode: Eel pot making

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This episode was recorded in Irvington, Virginia at an outdoor traditional eel pot making workshop in February 2023.

I’m Brad Hatch of the Patawomeck Tribe.

Eel pots are a traditional eel trap made out of white oak splits that we’ve used for generations in our Tribe, in the Potomac Creek and along the Potomac River. So, what we’re doing today is a short workshop to teach people how to weave them. This specific style of pot doesn’t come along until after the Civil War. It’s an amalgamation of English and Indian and African traditions, much like a lot of what Virginia Indian culture is right now. In the ancient times, there were fish traps that would have been used. Some of them would have been woven, although probably not out of white oak splits, it would have been a different material. Probably reeds or something like that. They most likely would have been used in conjunction with a weir, which is a trap that’s made to direct fish into one area and the basket would have been placed at the end of that weir to kinda collect all the fish. They would have been much larger than an eel pot, probably. And the eel pots are – the full-sized ones – are about 21- inches tall and 8-inches in diameter at the base.

Eel pots work on the same kind of concept in that it directs the eel into an area through a funnel. Funnel traps are something that are seen all over the world. It’s not just a Virginia Indian thing. They’re used in Europe in ancient times, they’re used in Asia, Australia, all over the world. Any place that has fish or eels that you need to catch a funnel trap is a very common thing because it works. It works really well.

Eels are actually a catadromous fish. They’re unlike a shad where a shad will come into fresh water to spawn and then go back out to the ocean. They live their cycle out in the ocean. An eel lives mostly in the fresh water and goes out to the ocean to spawn, they go to the Sargasso Sea.

So, eel pots, there’s historical examples used within Algonquin groups up and down the East Coast, United States, from about Maine all the way down to Virginia. And as of right now, from what I can tell, the only groups that are really making them traditionally to any extent are us, the Potawomeck, and the Nanticoke have a pretty strong eel pot-making tradition. Matter-of-fact, the eel pot is on their tribal flag, which, I mean, tells you what you need to know right there how important is was to them. Now, they’re in Delaware, but they come from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The pot is constructed of two different parts that are woven on molds. There’s like a body, which is the exterior part. And then there’s a funnel, which is the part that actually does all the work of the trap. It directs the eel in and catches him.

Even though the body is kind of the most iconic part, it’s the most visible, when you look at it, it’s actually the funnel that’s the most important thing to get right, because if your funnel’s not right, you won’t be able to catch eels in it.

DEBORAH WILKINSON: I’m Deborah Wilkinson and I’m a citizen of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe. The funnel has its complexity as far as versus the shell. It’s smaller, it’s easier to hold, however, it also slips more. So, trying to hold it and keep it from slipping and trying to keep the ribs of the funnel aligned. Very complex and I’m like wow, you know, I’m just amazed that they used to do these with a lot less modern tools than what we have today.

BRAD HATCH: We’re doing half-scale pots because it’s just a little easier to work with the smaller materials. But I always tell people, if you can make a small one, like the half scale one, a big one is easy to make.

They’re working on molds now that are sitting on frames. The molds are turned that are poplar and they have dowels through the center of them. And they set on a frame so it allows them to rotate while you’re weaving. Traditionally, the molds and the frames would have been actually a bench that you sat on, so you would sit down to weave instead of standing up. When I make a large-sized traditional pot, it’s on a traditional style bench.

REAGAN ANDERSEN: I’m Reagan Andersen, I am a member of the Patawomeck Tribe. I am an apprentice with the Virginia Folk Life with Brad and I’m also the tribal preservation intern at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Historically, there might be two men in a boat and they’ve got about 50 pots that they’re putting on a line and then sinking down of the big pots. We only really have a couple that we put out because there are laws against putting them out. There’s mesh size laws and everything. But since we’re Native American we can put a couple out as long as we tag them for game wardens or anything. So, we only put out about two or three. We can’t make 50, it would be pretty hard to make that many. So, we haven’t had any success yet, hopefully in the future.

BRAD HATCH: What Deb is doing is she’s taking and scraping a split down right now to thin it. It’s what I call dressing it. After you get it split down to a certain thickness, then you can take a knife and use your knife, essentially, like you would a wood plane. So you set your knife flat against the strip and then you pull your strip through along the knife and it makes these little shavings and it shaves the white oak split down as thin as you need it to be able to weave.

DEB RANTANEN: My name is Deb Rantanen. Actually, I don’t have a tribal affiliation but I’m here from Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum. We have many archeological sites and artifacts from many different Tribes across Maryland, actually.

BRAD HATCH: When I designed the workshop, I designed it for members of Virginia Indian tribal communities, but also people who work with tribal communities as educators, and so Deb fits that bill really well. And even though she’s in Maryland, they work with the Piscataway a lot. We actually go up there, have been up there a couple times to do events with them. Like an Indigenous heritage day, an archeology day event, where we sit and make eel pots and nets and stuff like that.

DEB RANTANEN: And really an important commonality is we we’re right on the Patuxent River, so the river communities is another commonality.

BRAD HATCH: The last time I was there doing eel pots up at Jefferson Patterson Park, I ran into a guy who was Piscataway. And the Piscataway are another Tribe that used to have a pretty strong eel pot tradition. They have at least one example, that I know of, of an eel pot of theirs that’s in the Smithsonian. And so I was very excited to run into him while we were making eel pots. And I asked him, I was like, “Oh, do you all still make them?” And he said, “Not any more, there’s just nobody that uses them anymore.” But he remembered people making them and using them.

There are several people that remember them being made and remember them being fished. But there are fewer people that remember how to make them. Within our Tribe, when I started doing it, there were two people left that knew how to make them and only one of those people had learned how to make them from his grandfather.

Of the two people, one of them passed not long ago. The other guy, who is 82 years old, is the one who learned from his grandfather, and he’s a wealth of information. He’s actually a good friend of mine now. I try to see him at least once a month just to talk, not just about eel pots, but about fishing and everything like that. He’s a commercial fisherman. Still out on the water every season. I mean, that’s just amazing. I think he’s going for the record.

Up at home, the people who were the watermen, a lot of them, they fished until they died, And a lot of them died out there on the water. It’s hard work, you know. It’s a hard life to live like that, but it’s a style of living that we’ve had for a very, very long time. And I think in some ways, it call us. It’s something that’s kind of in us. I think there’s a desire to be out there and do things like this. Maybe less so these days because we live in a part of Virginia now that’s rapidly growing and it’s expensive to live. We’re not too far from Fredericksburg. We’re very much in the Northern Virginia sprawl these days. So, a lot of people that are younger have turned more toward what I would consider a regular job, working up toward D.C. or in Northern Virginia. There are a few folks left that are watermen full-time, you can count them on one hand, in our community now. But there still are a lot of people that are watermen part-time. So they’ll fish crab pots or they’ll fish nets every now and then, but it’s not like their major source of income, it’s just something they do. It’s just part of that tradition, that they still are connected to the waters of Potomac Creek, Potomac River in a very real way.

This episode was made possible by a grant from Virginia Humanities.