Marmot Trap Triggers in the Royal B.C. Museum Ethnology Collection

May 28, 2019.

By Grant Keddie.


Marmots were hunted in many parts of British Columbia for their furs and their fat content. Both Coastal and Interior peoples went into the mountains every fall to hunt them. Some First Nations continue to hunt marmots. See Appendix 1, First Peoples and Marmots of British Columbia, for a detailed overview of the role of marmots in Indigenous societies.

Deadfall traps and snares of various sizes were used for catching most species of mammals as well as birds. There are several types and sizes of artifacts in this general category of trap devices that were used by the Tlingit and their inland relatives for trapping mainly marmots and ground squirrels.

Figure 1. Ink Drawing of Vancouver Island Marmot. (Grant Keddie)

Small deadfall trap assemblages have ended up in museums, but it is the carved trigger mechanism of this mainly wooden trap device, especially those made of whale bone, that have been acquired for museum collections in the past. These are generally called marmot trigger sticks (Figure 2). The larger type would more appropriately be called marmot snare stakes. These are composed of a stake or peg pounded into the ground near a marmot den with an attached quill or leather noose. The latter are assumed to be larger than trigger sticks.

Figure 2. Ethnology Collection. Whale Bone Marmot Trap Trigger Sticks: #’s 4127; 18156 and 18157.

There is often confusion in the ethnographic and historic literature as to which type is being referred to. If they are called “trap sticks” it is not clear if they were the trigger mechanism of a deadfall trap or a stake with a noose stuck in the ground near a marmot hole. Both trap triggers and trap stakes were often carved from whale bone and had a carved design at one end.

A large number of those in North American Museums were collected by one person, Lt. George T. Emmons, from 1869-1894. Of the twenty examples in the American Museum of Natural History, all range in length from 24.3 to 30.3cm with one exception at 13.3cm (Cat. No. E/324 from Wrangell Island). The three examples from the RBCM collection range in length from c. 19.3 to 23.5cm. I am referring to these as trap triggers. There is no clear size separation in the broader museum examples between what can be called trap triggers and trap stakes. Museum specimens that still have a noose attached to them can be assumed to be trap stakes for sticking in the ground and not trap triggers. A 13cm whalebone stick would be a trigger, as it would not be long enough to hold firmly in the ground for catching small rodents.

Designs and their Purpose

Both deadfall trigger sticks and trap stakes have similar animal designs on one end. Both are curved down to a pointed end. Designs in museum collections include whole marmots; human heads with hats, marmot helmets, or below a wolf head; humans with fish or marmots on their heads; birds of prey eating small mammals; a fish on the top of a bird head or marmot head; a bird coming out of the mouth of a fish or a pair of small mammal heads.

Some of the symbolism may be related to traditions of the hunting families. The theme of the large predator bird eating a rodent is a common one. Thunderbird is frequently seen on wooden poles on the northern coast. On the poles of the family of Kweeyaiht at Kispiox, there is a depiction of a “Thunderbird holding a ground hog in his claws”. The Thunderbird or Mountain eagle frequently appears as a crest among members of the Sky clan (Barbeau 1929:88-91). Some family stories indicate that they had close associations with marmots as told in the story of The Man Who Became a Marmot (Teit 1921).

The designs on the stakes and triggers were used to entice the marmots based on the belief that they had special powers. Among the Tlingit: “Each boy was expected to learn the story of Kayak, the hero hunter, who did so much to free the world from monsters, and who also taught the people how to make carved halibut hooks, carved salmon spears and carved traps for catching game. He taught just how to carve so that some spiritual power would come and inhabit the hook or trap and thus make it more effective to attract the game to it” (Corser 1920:53). Anthropologist Fredericka de Laguna noted from Indigenous collaborators that for marmots the “magically effective designs or figures” used were “not considered necessary in trapping other animals” (de Laguna 1991:136).

The Ethnology collection

In the ethnology collection of the Royal B.C. Museum we have three carved whale bone trap triggers (Figure 2). These triggers are all made of whale bone. The carved ends depict (bottom) a predator bird eating a small animal; a bird coming out of the mouth of a fish (top); and two animal heads (one broken) which represent marmots (middle).

RBCM #4127. Whale bone. The carved top has a 6cm long figure of a bird coming out of a fish head. The total length of the artifact is 12cm, but a large portion of the bottom is missing The broken lower portion is only 6cm long, but its estimated original length is 20cm based on having similar proportions to stake #18157. The top of the long round bottom portion below the carved figure is 1.3cm in diameter. This Tlingit artifact was originally in the collection of William Tolmie of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The on old paper tag attached had, “Carved bone from Juneau S. E. Alaska” – “382”, written on it. It was on a for sale list produced by his daughter in 1927 as #49. “Carved bone (382) birds – part of Marmot trap. Juneau Al.”. It was likely collected by Tolmie in the late 19th century.

RBCM #18156. Whale bone. The carved 5.2cm x 3.5cm top has two marmot heads, one above the other. The total length of the artifact is 18.5cm, but a portion of the bottom is missing. The round top of the bottom portion below the carved figure is 1.3cm in diameter. The broken bottom portion is (13.3 cm) long. Its estimated original length is 19.3-20.3cm. The bottom portion shows extensive rodent chewing on one side. This, as well as artifact RBCM #18157, were both purchased in 1983. They once: “Belonged to Ernest V. Steele a blacksmith in the Omineca area in the early 1900’s. His brother William was a trapper in the same area”.

RBCM # 18157. Whale bone. The 5cm x 4cm carved top is of a predatory bird eating a small animal. The total length of the artifact is (23.5cm). The nearly complete bottom portion is (19.5cm), with the original length being c. 21cm. The top of the oval shaped bottom portion below the carved figure is 1.2cm X1.7cm (see information on RBCM #18156).

Figure 3. Close up of marmot head design on artifact #18156.
Figure 4. Close up of the carved end of Artifact # RBCM 4127. Bird head sticking out of fish mouth.
Figure 5. Close up of the carved end of Artifact RBCM 18157.

How did the Trap Triggers work?

These triggers helped to support a central post which held up heavy logs. The point of the trigger was delicately set into a notch. A trip wire of twisted rawhide looped between the trigger and the support post. When the marmot tripped on the rawhide cord the trigger was released causing the post to collapse and drop the heavy logs on to the marmot.

Figure 6. Drawing showing the use of the Deadfall Trap Trigger stick


1. Most of the weight of the deadfall logs “E” is supported by the Fall stick “D” which rests on and holds down the Trigger stick “C’.

2. The upper end of the Spring stick “B” is tied with a lope of rawhide “F” to the Fall stick “D”. By having the tip of the Spring stick “B” secured in a notch near the end of the Trigger Stick “C”, the load of the deadfall is kept in balance.

3. The marmot comes out of its hole between the Fall stick “D” and the Spring stick “B”.

4. The marmot steps on the rawhide trip cord “A” – which pulls on the Spring stick “B”. This pulling causes the tip of the Spring stick to slip out of the notch near the end of the trigger stick “C”.

5. When the Spring stick “B” is no longer held by the trigger stick “C”, the fall stick “D” is thrown off balance, causing the deadfall logs to fall on the marmot.

Account of Trap Stakes in Action

Schwatka provided a firsthand account of marmot hunting in Tagish territory in the Narns- Bennet Lake area of northern B.C. while they were camped near a lake caribou crossing:

“Ouite a number of marmots were seen by our Indians, and the hillsides were dotted with their holes. The Indians catch them for fur and food … by means of running nooses over their holes, which choke the little animal to death as he tries to quit his underground home. A finely split raven quill, running the whole length of the feather, is used for the noose proper and the instant this is sprung it closes by its own flexibility. The rest is a sinew string tied to a bush near the hole if one be convenient, otherwise to a peg driven in the ground. Sometimes they employ a little of the large amount of leisure time they have on their hands in cutting these pegs into fanciful and totemic designs, although the Sticks .. are usually much inferior to the Chilkats in these displays, and the illustrations give on page 112 are characteristic rather of the latter tribe that the former. Nearly all the blankets of this Tahk-heesh tribe of Indians are made from these marmot skins, and they are exceedingly light considering their warmth“ (Schwatka 1894).

The drawing from Schwatka is reproduced here in figure 7. These are trap stakes and not trap triggers – as they have nooses attached to them. The trap stake on the right with the marmot carving on top is now in the Metropolitan Museum as No. 1979.206.899. It is 26.2cm long. A very similar one is now in the American Museum of Natural History as Catalogue No. 19/562 recorded as “Tlingit Auk”. It is 28.2cm long. It was collected by Lt. George T. Emmons somewhere in the period from 1869-1890. Emmons collected most of the marmot trap triggers and stakes in North American Museums. The stake on the left side of Schwatka’s drawing was in a private collection and is currently being sold in an auction in the United Kingdom with the incorrect function listed as “salmon trap stake or trigger” (see figure 7a).

Figure 7 . Chilkat Style Trap stakes. (After Schwatka 1894:112).
Figure 7a. Modern Photograph of the trap stick shown in Schwatka’s 1894 drawing.

Appendix 1.




During the visits of fur trader John Meares to the Northwest coast of America between 1786 and 1788, he observed that the skins of marmots occurred in “great quantities” (Meares 1790:2).

Ethnographer Philip Drucker, in speaking of the Northwest coast in general, notes that: “The marmot… furnished a light but finely furred pelt, prized throughout the area for clothing. In days before European blankets, these hides were one of the chief articles used in potlatches. Marmots were plentiful in many localities in the higher mountains. The grounds were usually privately owned, and huts or cabins were built on them. The hunters with their families went up in the fall when the fur had set but before time for the marmot to hibernate. The season was a short but rich one, for the animals were easy to catch, and the hunting parties came out with quantities of valuable furs.” (Drucker 1950:246)

Figure 8. Vancouver Island Marmot photographed along the trail up Green Mountain. Grant Keddie August 7, 1995.

Regional Overview

I provide here an overview of select sources to give the bigger picture of the role of marmots in the Indigenous Cultures of British Columbia.


On the northern coast wealth was directly measured in marmot skins among the Tlingit and the Gitksan of the upper Skeena River (Drucker 1950:233). Drucker notes that the: “Skins of the whistling marmot were regarded as very valuable, particularly among Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and the northern Kwakiutl divisions. It seems that anciently a robe made by sewing together many of the small soft-furred hides was about equal in value to the sea-otter robe (Drucker 1955:39).”

Along the Skeena River area before European trade blankets were introduced, “caribou and groundhog skins were the standards by which the values of other articles were compared. Bundles of forty caribou skins, and later blankets, were used for the larger potlatch gifts” (Garfield, 1939:329). It would appear that the large number of marmot skins allowed their use as a kind of small change in the trade economy. One large caribou skin exchanged for 40 marmot skins or a small caribou skin for 30 marmot skins. Forty marmot skins were traded for one large box of olachen grease; ten skins for one large hemlock bark cake or a box of pressed seaweed cakes. In comparison, only one seaweed cake could be obtained for a martin or beaver skin (Garfield, 1939:329-30).

In 1822 the chief trader William Brown observed that the Carrier of Babine Lake gave the visiting Gitksan traders marmot skin robes and dressed skins when their other furs did not equal the value of the coastal goods brought by the Gitksan (Brown 1822).

Marmot skins were distributed by wealthy families at important events. To announce the birth of a child of a chief, marmot skins were “distributed to every lineage head in the village” and when a chief died marmot skins were “carried by relatives to every dwelling in the tribe to which the deceased belonged. One was given to everyone, man, women or child” (Garfield, 1939:221, 239).

Among the Gitksan of the upper Skeena River area a secondary crest was a “white groundhog”. This was a headress made of the whole skin with head and paws of the marmot or a headress and a robe. Among the coast Tsimshian, of the Lower Skeena river area, was a crest known as “garment of groundhogs” used as a robe (Beynon n.d.:432, 452).

The significance of marmots is reflected in the naming of moons. The Yakutat Tlingit of Southern Alaska refer to September as the “digging moon” when marmots “put up food for the winter” (de Laguna 1972:801).

To the Kispiox Gitksan, September is the “marmot hunting moon” when marmots were hunted on the upper Skeena river (Drucker 1950:271). Today marmots are not present in most of the traditional territory of the Nishga, Coast Tsimshian and Southern Tsimshian and are not found on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands).

It is therefore of interest that the Kitkatla or Hartley bay Tsimshian of Dolphin Island and the Gilutsau and Kitsumkalum Tsimshian speakers of the lower Skeena River are reported to have hunted marmot (Drucker:174; McDonald, 1985). These people either moved long distances up the Skeena River to hunt with relatives in other groups or marmots were eliminated from some of their traditional territory during the fur trade period.

At Kitselas Canyon, 120km up the Skeena River, marmot remains were recovered from the Gitaus site in the Gitaus phase dating between 4300 B.P. and 3600 B.P. (Allaire 1979).


The Tsetsaut in the upper Portland Canal region had territory once stretching from the southern headwaters of the Stikine to the headwaters of the Nass. One of these groups displaced from the large flat area at the headwaters of the Nass River – that was heavily populated by marmots – were the “Tse etseta ‘people of the adult marmot headgear’”(Duff 1981:444-5). A Tsetsaut Levi Dandjalee told Boas that “before our times the country was inhabited first by the ts’ak’e’, who wore marmot-skins; later on, by the futvud’ie’, who wore bear-skins”, but these people spoke the Tsetsaut language (Duff, 1981:455). ”Their principal food was the marmot, though they also relied on mountain goat, bear, and porcupine. .. .For both sexes traditional clothing consisted of pants of cured skins and thigh-high marmot skin ‘boots’ (probably the Athapaskan all­in-one moccasin legging). Mittens, jackets, short coats, robes, and belts, all of skins, complete the costume . For taking marmots, deadfalls were commonly used” (Duff 1981:456).


The Russian trader Khlebnikov, writing in 1820 about the marmot pelts the Tlingit supplied to the Russian trade, mentions the:

“tsukli, the familiar pelts of marmots from the Charlotte Islands, which are very much liked by the native inhabitants of North America. The Kolosh [Tlingit] receive about 30 rubles per 100 of these pelts.” (Dmytrshyn and Crownhart-Vaughan 1976:70).

There is no evidence, at present, that marmots were once present on Haida Gwaaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), it is most likely that this statement of Khlebnikov indicates that the Haida were the middlemen in trading marmot skins obtained from other groups on the mainland.


On the central coast, in Bella Coola territory, marmot skin blankets are mentioned in traditional stories as being given as a reward for assistance and as being used by the hero of an event (McIlwraith 1948:1:305; Vol. 2:487). Mackenzie reports the taking of marmot furs on July 17, 1793:

“we descended into a beautiful valley, watered by a small river [Kohasganko River]. …we came to the termination of it, …and began to ascend. We now perceived many ground hogs, and heard them whistle in every direction. The Indians went in pursuit of them, and soon joined us with a female and her litter, almost grown to their full size. They stripped off their skins, and gave the carcases to my people”. [Rainbow range between Dean and Bella Coola River]. (Lamb 1957:211).

The Oowekeeno, Bella Bella, Haihais, Haisla and Bella Coola, all hunted marmot with deadfalls (Drucker 1950:174).


On the southern coast Peter Puget documented the use of Marmot in 1792. While visiting a village on Eld Inlet, Northwest of Olympia Washington, Puget mentions that: “The Natives had but two sea otter skins which were purchased & a variety of marmot, rabbit, racoon, deer & bear skins were also procured” (Bern, 1939:27). On April 8th, 1825 while at Baker’s Bay near the Columbia River John Scouler noted the existence of “a robe made of the skins of a species of marmot” (Blackwood, 1826:378). These first documents are probably in reference to Marmots of the Olympic peninsula. On the west side of the Olympic peninsula the Quinault and Qeets hunted marmot from June to September (Singh 1966:67).

Ethnologist Ronald Olsen was told by Quinault elders, on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula, that of all the furs sewn to make robes, the marmot was the favorite (Olsen 1936:57). The Marmot or kwukwu’k were “usually sought during the season of elk hunting in the mountains. They were easy to kill. Their skins were much used in the manufacture of bed blankets. Small shoulder robes of four to six skins of the animal were sometimes made. A single skin made a handy seat when one had to sit in a cold or damp spot. The flesh of the marmot was regarded as excellent and well-flavoured meat because they eat grass” (Olsen 1936:43). The Quinault Bob Pope (born c. 1835) and others “had pet marmots, but people grew tired of their infernal and eternal whistling so let them go” (Olsen 1936:137).

In referring to the natives of Puget Sound in the 1880s Myron Eells records that they made robes of “the skins of the deer, elk, bear, whistling marmot, and wild cat” (Castile 1985:122). A Chinook story is recorded which includes the trading of twined willow bark rope from Shoalwater Bay to Chehalis to “exchange it for ground-hog blankets” (Boas 1894:220).

In 1826 David Douglas refers to “The ground rat, or a species of Arctomys, the skin of which the Chenooks and other tribes of Indians near the coast make their robes, I have been unable to procure. They are plentiful in the upper parts of the Cow-a-lidsk River” (Douglas 1914:156).

Among the Twana a man named “Tyee Charley” got his medicine power in the 1840’s when encountering a marmot on a spirit quest to Mt. Elinor on the east side of the Olympic peninsula (Elmendorf 1992:212). In July of 1858, Mrs. Manson, while camped on Manson’s Mountain near Hope, reported that their cook “went out hunting and brought back two marmots” (Lugrin 1928:113).


The Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis)is recognised by Alexander C. Anderson of the Hudson’s Bay Company in his notes written between 1834 and 1867: “The skins of the marmot sewed together make a light warm robe. The rocky mountain marmot of the mainland are generally grey in colour whilst the marmot of Vancouver Island and some of the Northern mountains are black or very dark brown.

Robes made of alternate grey and black skins are very effective and valued accordingly” (Anderson 1920). While in Kyuquot territory at Nootka Sound in 1786, Alexander Walker observed marmot skins, but these may not necessarily be products of Vancouver Island. Furs of mainland animals such as fox and rabbits were also observed (Fisher 1982).

Anderson talks in general about aboriginal peoples in winter digging up the “mountain marmot”. He mentions that: “From fifteen to twenty occupying a lair and being in good condition both as regards the flesh and fur are quite a prize” (Anderson 1920). It is uncertain which species Anderson is talking about but it is not likely that he is referring to Vancouver Island marmot. In 1867 he refers to the “Rocky Mountain Marmot” which he notes “resembles closely in its habits the Alpine variety, but is larger” (Anderson, 1867:81).


George Louie, of the Ahousat First Nation, provided me with the anglicised version of the local southern Nuu-chah-nulth name for the marmot, which is Shee-shee teelth. The literal interpretation has not been ascertained but it is clear that the Shee-shee part is an onomatopoeia for one of the calls made by these marmots – namely the chirping sound that is repeated at intervals.

George Hamilton reported to ethnologist Philip Drucker that the Opetchesaht of the Port Alberni area hunted marmots with deadfalls (Drucker 1950:211). Luke Swan of Hotspring Cove and Ahousat, who was born in 1893, recorded information in his native language on the ownership of resources in Manhousat territory. The Manhousat lived to the north and west of the Ahousat before merging with them in historic times. George Louie translated a tape which notes that only one chief owned the high forested areas along the mountains which included the homes of the fur bearing animals such as the wolf, bear, and elk but implied that “no one” had ownership rights over the Marmots. This statement shows recognition of the presents of Marmots but may reflect knowledge from a time period in which marmots were no longer hunted.

Philip Drucker mentions that the Gold River Muchalat were one of the smaller groups of Nuu-chah-nulth who depended more on land based resources. They alone of the northern groups ate grouse and also beaver and “an animal that sounds, from modern vague descriptions, like marmot.”(Drucker 1951,p.36; p.61).

Marmot furs were not traded on the northern and central coast at Hudson’s Bay Company forts from 1828 to 1855. A change occurred in 1856 when 575 marmot furs were taken at Fort Simpson and another 1337 the following year. The steamer Beaver trading along the coast collected 1032 marmot furs in 1856 and 2188 marmot furs the next year. At Fort Rupert on the N.E. coast of Vancouver Island 166 marmot furs were acquired in 1857. This represents a total of 5298 marmots taken in a two-year period. No marmot furs were acquired in these years at Fort McLoughlin or Fort Victoria.


The best information regarding the hunting of the Vancouver Island marmot is in the archaeological record. Marmot remains were found at the old native village now known as the Shoemaker bay site (DhSe2) in the upper Alberni Inlet (McMillan and St. Claire 1975a, 1975b, 1982; Field and Laqueur 1975; Calvert and Crockford 1982). In the upper part of the Shoemaker site, which dates from about 500 A.D., 24 marmot bone elements were found distributed both horizontally and vertically within the deposits. This would indicate that marmots were utilised at least sporadically throughout the last 1400 years.


Four marmot-hunting sites have been located in high mountain areas where the Vancouver Island marmot is now extinct.

In 1987, a collection of about 300 marmot bones representing a minimum of 13 animals was found in a cave in Sutton pass on the Clayoquot Plateau at an elevation of 1220m (Nagorsen 1989). These were dated to between B.C. 807 to B.C. 600 (Beukens 1987, 1989). Many of the remains show evidence of butcher marks and are clear proof of aboriginal use of this resource in the Clayoquot area about 2500 years ago.

In 1992, a cave containing large concentrations of the bones of a minimum of 81 marmots (as well as small numbers of deer, bear, martin and blue grouse) were found at an elevation of about 1220m on Mariner Mountain at the south end of Strathcona Park (Keddie and Nagorson 1993). This location is above the headwaters of the Bedwell River in the historic territory of the Owinmitisaht group of Nu-chan-nulth people who eventually amalgamated with the Ahousat.

Many of the bones show skinning and butchering cut marks. It appears that the marmots were skinned for their furs and the bulk of their body fat taken away attached to the backbone and ribs – most of which are missing from the sample.

The bones were associated with four artifacts. Fragments of a Mytilus californianus shell were possibly part of a knife used in the process of removing or scraping the hides. A green stone flake with a sharp edge was likely used to skin and butcher the animals. However, many of the cut marks are made by a very thin and sharp blade. There is an overhang of bone on one side of many cuts. This is suggestive of the use of a finely sharpened iron blade. A sandstone abrading stone may have been used for sharpening knives made of different raw materials. A tree branch knot was burnt at one end suggesting use as a torch.

Six bone samples from five separate bone concentration areas provided radiocarbon estimates with a time range of 1022 A.D. to 1211 A.D. (971 to 782 years ago), or representing a maximum period of 189 years. This strongly suggests a relatively short time span during which the marmots were hunted and deposited in this cave.

A second site in Strathcona Provincial Park on the S.E. side of the Golden Hind Mountain is indicated by the presents of marmot bones from 4 individuals in a rock shelter. One bone that exhibited evidence of cut marks dated to 1225 A.D.

In 1993, a marmot hunting rock shelter was located at the 1185m level on the north side of Limestone Mountain which is located between central Alberni Inlet and the headwaters of the Nitinat River. A bone sample recovered from an alcove in the shelter included remains from a minimum of 52 marmots along with some bear, deer, two martin and a blue grouse. The site was used for a short period of time judging from the dates of 990 A.D. and 1015 A.D. on bones from the bottom and top of the litter mat – which contained them.


The Vancouver Island marmot was used as a source of furs and food by at least some native groups at intervals over the last 2600 years. The distribution of the species in prehistoric times was far beyond that of its present habitat. The effect of hunting on the distribution of this species over long periods in prehistoric times and the possible effects of intensified hunting for pelts to be exchanged in the European trade system in historic times remains to be determined by archaeological evidence and a more detailed examination of fur trade records.

The fur trade records show that as the Hudson Bay Company became more established in local areas the furs of a greater variety of species were traded. The scale of harvesting of smaller species of animals was greatly increased when animals began to be hunted more for their exchange value in European trade goods (Hammond 1988). If this was the case with the Vancouver Island marmot its numbers may have been reduced to a critical point where overhunted areas were no longer re-colonised as they may once have been with larger populations and more closely spaced colonies.

Another likely cause for the elimination of the marmot from some areas of the island may have been a result of more recent hunting by prospectors or minors using the animals as a food source or the shooting for “sport” by hunters. The answer to the later question may yet be determined by interviews with long term residents of the region and archaeological examination of bullet cartridge distribution and bones in areas where marmots are know to have disappeared in more recent times.

The effect of changing environments undoubtedly had a broad effect on the distribution of marmots over time and possible a serious effect in some areas during short periods of more dramatic local change. The marmots at three of these sites were hunted in the warm period before the Little Ice Age that began about 1300 A.D. If marmot-hunting sites are not found after 1300 A.D. in some areas this would strongly suggest that the cooling climate may have been responsible for eliminating Marmot habitat. Further recovery of archaeological and paleontological remains of marmots will undoubtedly show a more complex picture of marmot history than we can now imagine.

Northern Interior

In September, the middle Taku River Inland Tlingit: “after several weeks of berrying, and upland hunts for ground squirrels, groundhogs, and big game, began to gather in settlements near their supplies of stored salmon” (McClellan, 1981:472).

The Tagish living on the headwaters of the Liard River in the Yukon and N. B.C. – “By late summer, families began to move upland in groups of two or three households to hunt groundhogs (woodchucks, Marmota monax), caribou, moose, and sheep. They cached the dried meat in convenient spots to which the younger men could return for supplies in winter or to which the families themselves could move”(McClellan, 1981:483).


Honigmann used the term’s “ground hog” and “gopher (marmot)” (1954:14;146).

Sinew thread for traps is from the backbone of caribou or in emergencies tendons of Mt. Sheep and goats (p. 29). In (Honigmann 1981:444) he uses ‘gophers’ and ‘groundhogs’(marmots)”as some of the animals that were hunted “in late summer, when game fattened, hunters and their families moved into the mountains to hunt goats, sheep, woodland caribou, and… ” (above)

“Sleepers lay covered by robes of woven rabbit or ground-hog skins or blankets containing a number of beaver and marten pelts sewn together.” (Upper Liard Kaska) (Honigmann, 1954:60). “People lived on a carpet of spruce brush and at night covered themselves with robes of sewn marten and ground-hog pelts or plaited rabbbit-skin.” (Dease River Kaska) (Honigmann, 1954:62). “During cold weather fur robes supplemented tanned-skin garments. These had been tanned by women workers or else been plaited from strips of rabbit, ground-hog, and gopher skins without the aid of a frame.” (Upper Liard Kaska) (Honigmann, 1954:63). “Ground-hog skin sewn to the front of a man’s winter parka probably served both for warmth and adornment”. (U. L. Kaska, Honigmann, 1954:65). “In winter men and women added coats of ground-hog, fox, sheep, and other skins to the previously mentioned garments. People avoided fur when traveling because they feared perspiration and dangerous chilling. Woven-skin clothes originated from the pelts of ground-hogs and squirrels, the lines cut from the skins of those animals exceeding the strength of rabbit fur.” (Ibid p 67). “The simp[lest type of headgear for both sexes consisted of an approximately triangular piece of tanned skin that was lined with muskrat or ground hog fur. In wearing these the fur rested next to the head. The lower edges tied beneath the wearer’s chin this covering the ears and cheeks.” (Dease River Kaska, Honigmann, 1954:68). “Hunters knew specific, and presumably lucky, moose, ground hog, caribou, and beaver songs. All chants were generally wordless and in essence consisted of a few syllables repeated over and over in a minor key.” Dease River Kaska, Honigmann, 1954:73).

Upper Liard Kaska – quoting (Field, Unpublished manuscript [1913]) – Pelley River people – moved into ‘a good game country about the end of August when all game is fat, to put up a cache of dry meat for the winter months.’ In fall women busied themselves drying groundhog and gopher.” (H. p. 46). Tselona Kaska – animals eaten “ground hog”. “Ground hog, the informant pointed out, furnished a far more important source of food in the aboriginal period than did the rabbit. Women preserved a large number of ground hog from the fall for winter consumption.” (H. p. 45).

Upper Liard Kaska – “Taku people used to meet the Kaska at a Groundhog Lake near the headwaters of the Rancheria River. Here the Kaska went in autumn to hunt groundhog.” (H. p. 22).

Upper Liard Kaska – The translation of the name of the Kaska name – “?ustelisa” for October is “female ground hog moon” (Honigmann 1954:32). Ground hog snares featured a rock toggle and required two-strand twisted babiche. The family provided itself with a number of six- or seven-foot long forked poles in the fall and packed these above the timberline. The trapper firmly planted one such pole for each snare in a rock cairn near a ground hog den. On either side of the pole ran a small fence about a foot high. After forming the snare loop between these fences, the snare line was bent and knotted around a small trigger stick [see his fig. 3. p.34] before continuing through the fork of the pole. Halfway below the fork the line was weighted with a 20-pound rock. The trigger stick was fitted under a convenient knob or protuberance on the upright pole, the toggle’s weight serving to keep it fixed until an animal entered the snare and dislodged the stick, whereupon the rock fell to the ground. The weight of the falling toggle lifted the animal off the earth. In timbered areas lifting-pole snares like those frequently used for rabbits were also set for ground hog. In fact, the rock toggle appears to represent an adaptation of the lifting-pole principle to treeless country. Men, boys, and women built ground hog snares.” (Honigmann 1954:33). “ground hog were also hunted with deadfalls”.. “Ground-hog deadfalls also followed the platform pattern, the 14-inch Samson post consisting of a bent alder limb or crooked spruce root”. (H. p.34).

“After gutting a gopher, a person placed a stick reaching from the head to the hind quarter in the body cavity and allowed the carcass to dry in the sun. A light pounding softened dehydrated meat [meat in general here] before it was stored in a skin bag. From dried meat came pemmican, the flesh being heavily pounded and mixed with fresh berries on a sheet of babiche. After adding melted grease the product was stored in untanned groundhog skins or in a casing of cleaned intestines.” (H. p. 40).

Sekani – In cold weather they wore “a rectangular robe of marmot or hare skins, fastened on one shoulder and cinched with a belt”(Denniston, 1981:437) “The hunter who killed an animal useful for food would not even retain its hide, but presented it so some other man in the camp, lest he should be accused of unsociability and niggardliness. The only exception was the skin of the groundhog, because it had little or no value”(Jenness, 1937:44). A baby was “wrapped in a bag of groundhog or rabbit fur, was carried on its mothers back”. (Jenness, 1937:54-5). Up until the 1880s coffins carved out of a large spruce and set in tree branches sometimes had a lid cover of “groundhog robes” instead of a board (Jenness, 1937:59).

Among the Sekani peoples the hoary marmot was also killed with “sticks, after smoking them out of their holes or flooding them out by diverting a stream; and if the ground hogs retreated into crannies among the rocks they twisted long sticks in their fur and pulled them out into the open” (Jenness 1937).

“Their dress consists of robes made of the skins of the beaver, the ground hog, and the reindeer, dressed in the hair, and of the mooseskin without it. All of them are ornamented with a fringe, while some of them have tassels hanging down the seams; those of the ground hog are decorated on the fur side with the tails of the animals, which they do not separate from them. Their garments they tie over the shoulders, and fasten them around the middle with a belt of green skin, which is as stiff as horn”. (MacKenzie, June 10, 1793:122).

Observed in cache at Portage lake between Parsnip River and James creek above MacGregor river – “a kind of wooden trap, in which, as our guide informed me, the ground hog is taken.” (MacKenzie, June 12, 1793:130)

“In cold weather both sexes threw over the shirt a rectangular robe (tsede’) of groundhog or woven rabbit skins, fastening it over one shoulder and drawing it in at the waist with a belt. Some of the best hunters had robes of marten fur, but they disappeared as soon as marten fur became commercially valuable. The groundhog robe, though no longer worn on the person, survives as a sleeping robe or covering for a bed. An average specimen 5 feet by 6 feet … contains about twenty-four skins arranged in parallel rows, trimmed to fit and sometimes roughly matched for colour.” … “In winter both sexes wore round caps (tsa”) of various furs, beaver, marten, fisher, groundhog, etc.” (Jenness 1937:30).

Central Interior

In the early 1800s, Daniel Williams Harmon reports “There is a small animal found only on the Rocky Mountain, denominated, by the Natives, Quis-qui-su, or whistlers, from the noise which they frequently make”. (Lamb, 1957:266).

The Nak’azdli Carrier chief named Kwah, from the Stuart Lake area offered “a marmot robe and a beautiful necklace of dentalium shells” as an appeasement gift (Morice 1904:28). In an 1836 food provisions list from New Caledonia, Peter Ogden noted “8 marmots” (Morice 1904:173). In 1870, when Father McGuckin went to visit the Sekanais of Bear Lake, he “crossed over the snow-capped mountains which lie between the Skeena and Fort Connolly, living on marmot and dried salmon” (Morice 1904:333).

Simon Fraser’s trip to the confluence of the Stuart and Nechaco Rivers in June 1806 where they met 30 men “arrayed in robes of beaver, lynx, and marmot skins.” (Morice 1904:60).

On June 12, 1793 Alexander MacKenzie, while on Portage Lake between Parsnip River and James Creek above McGregor River, saw an aboriginal cache with “a kind of wooden trap, in which, as our guide informed me, the ground hog is taken.” (Lamb, 1960:130).

Driftwood Valley Mountains – Stanwell-Fletcher report that Marmota monax petrensis was rare during 1937-41 but was told by aboriginal informants that they were common previous to this time. The Marmota caligata oxytona was reported as common during the former period.

Southern Interior

On June 18, 1808 while at a Nlaka’pumux village on the Fraser River – one mile north of the Stein River where there were a mixture of Lillooet and Thompson peoples – Simon Fraser and his men were given a marmot to eat (Lamb 1960:86).

In regard to the trading region around Fort Alexandria in the central interior of B.C. – “The marmot … affords an exquisite repast and excellent covering made into Robes” (McGillivray 1827).

Okanagon (Teit 1930)- “Every one had one or more robes to wear, as conditions required, and to sleep in. Probably the most common robes were those made of skins of deer, fawn, antelope, buffalo, beaver, otter, marmot, coyote, and lynx, all dressed in the hair. Robes of twisted strips of rabbit skin were made and worn by all the tribes. .Most cloaks and capes were made of skins of small animals .marmot”. .The principal smaller kinds of game hunted for food were rabbits, marmots, and beaver.” (Teit 1930:230-31).

Tete Jaune Cache to Jasper area – At Tete Jaune Cache July 17, 1863 – “From these Indians also, Milton, .obtained a couple of marmot robes” (Milton and Cheadle 1865:267). “They were clothed merely in a shirt and marmot robe, their legs and feet being naked, .These Shushwaps of the Rocky Mountains inhabit the country in the neighbourhood of Jasper House, and as far as Tete Jaune Cache on the western slope. They are a branch of the great Shuswap nation, who dwell near the Shuswap Lake and grand fork of the Thompson River in British Columbia. Separated from the main body of their tribe by 300 or 400 miles of almost impenetrable forest, they hold but little communication with them. Occasionally a Rocky Mountain Shuswap makes the long and difficult journey to Kamloops on the Thompson, to seek a wife. Of those we met, only one had ever seen this place. This was an old woman of Tete Jaune Cache, a native of Kamloops, who had married a Shuswap of the mountains, and she had never re­visited the home of her youth.

When first discovered by the pioneers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the only clothing used by this singular people was a small robe of the skin of the mountain marmot.” (Milton and Cheadle 1865:241) They sleep at night “wrapped in a marmot robe” … “They live by hunting the bighorns, mountain goats, and marmots”… The Shuswaps of Jasper House formerly numbered about thirty families, but are now reduced to as many individuals.” (Milton and Cheadle 1865:242).

The Stein River was a ‘noted hunting area where mountain goat, deer, bear and marmots (“groundhogs”) could be found. .Whistlers, also called hoary marmots, but commonly referred to as ‘groundhogs’, were shot at Mount Roach and Akasik Mountain [according to Andrew Johnny] where they live in burrows in sandy sidehills [according to Louis Philips]”. [S. of Stein River. Mount Roach is S. E. of Stryen Creek and Akasik Mountain between Earl Creek and Stryen Creek].


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Author: Grant Keddie

Curator of Archaeology, Royal British Columbia Museum, 1972-2022,