Lot 77
  • 77

Tlingit Steel and Horn Dagger

25,000 - 35,000 USD
bidding is closed



Heye Foundation, Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC, 4/3125

Sotheby's Parke-Bernet New York, January 1970, Lot 19

Catalogue Note

From a written assessment on this piece by Steven C. Brown: "Tlingit daggers were made in two main types. Perhaps the oldest type was made with a one-piece, double-ended blade. In these the primary, double-edged blade was below the grip, and a much shorter blade of the same shape made up the pommel of the weapon above the grip. These would have been formidable weapons in hand-to-hand combat, able to do damage to an opponent both coming and going. The second type, which was more common in the historic period, was made of a blade with a decorative pommel above the grip, usually depicting a clan emblem or income cases a revered ancestor. Within this general type are two sub-categories. In one, the blade and pommel are both made of one piece of metal, usually steel but sometimes copper, and the pommel area is cut in a silhouette, hot-chased to create dimension in the design, and engraved for detail. This type probably evolved from the double-ended, functional style of pommel. In the second sub-style, the blade can be of either steel or the much less common copper, and the pommel is a separate piece of material, to which the tang of the blade is attached by overlapping, and the two are wrapped together to form the grip. The materials of which these pommels were made could be various types of wood, of which walnut was common, sourced from Euro-American gunstocks, and also Pacific yew. The pommel could also be of bone or ivory, or, as in the case of the subject dagger, a piece of mountain sheep horn. Wood, bone, ivory, and horn pommels were often, like this example, inlaid with pieces of abalone shell. Carved in these kinds of workable materials, sculptural form became the emphasis of their makers. Some of these sculptural pommels were singular images, like this one, while others were composed of double or multiple images, compactly formed into a tightly knit design.

This superbly sculptured pommel represents a humanoid-animal visage, a kind of transfiguration taking place within the carving. On top of the head, it appears as though the image once had upright, bear-like ears that have been shaved down due perhaps to ancient damage. These were likely not very tall to begin with, to keep them from being too delicate, but for some reason they were cut down completely. The large nose has the feel of a mammalian snout, rather than a merely human nose, and the engraved abalone pieces in the mouth indicate large teeth. At one time, it appears as though the eyebrows were once overlaid with copper sheet, and now only the holes for three small attachment pins remain. The large eyes, typical of northern Tlingit sculptural style, are also inlaid with abalone shell, and their lower rims are deeply set into the eyesockets. The broad lips are firmly defined, and a bulging cheek form bends around the eyesocket to form the temples at the back of the head. The originally pale-colored dall sheep horn has taken on a deep, warm honey color over time, and has been smoothly polished by nearly two centuries of handling.

The grip area is wrapped with leather thong, and has absorbed a lot of color and oils from handling. A brass bolster has been nicely fitted on the tang of the blade, and forms a protection for the user's hand. The blade is forged in the Native Northwest Coast form, with twin single bevels, a flat or slightly concave back, and a narrow, flat ridge down the center of the blade. Some daggers were made with recycled Euro-American blades, cut down from the length of a sword, bayonet, or a large knife. Native metalworkers also forged their own blades, which were often extensively cold-worked, as shown by modern analysis. In some instances, blades were forged on order for Native people by Euro-American blacksmiths, such as in the case of John Jewitt, armorer aboard the ill-fated American trading-ship Boston anchored at the village of Yuquot, Vancouver Island. The ship and its crew was destroyed in revenge for a slight against the Mowachaht chief Maquinna, who spared the life of Jewitt because of his iron-working skills. These he practiced on their behalf for two years, making knives, daggers, whale harpoons and lances, before he was able to escape and make his way back to Euro-American society.

The presence of steel as well as copper knives and daggers was noted among Northwest Coast Native peoples at the time of the first explorers in the late eighteenth century. Native placer copper was traded from deposits in the Copper River area of south central Alaska, and had been worked into tools and ornaments over a long period. All the coastal peoples had names for iron or steel in their languages, indicating an extended familiarity with this material as well. The earliest record of steel blades on the coast comes from the Ozette archaeological site on the Washington coast, where 37 steel-bladed tools and but one beaver-tooth knife were found, indicating the ubiquitousness of the material. Prior to the advent of Euro-American trade, iron and steel would have arrived either via Native trade north from California and Mexico, or in the form of ship's fittings in Asian wrecks that came ashore on the Pacific coast. Some such shipwrecks arrived as weather-beaten fragments of Chinese or Japanese vessels, while others arrived essentially intact, though dismasted and without their steering rudders, blown out to sea by typhoons along the Japanese coast and carried east by the prevailing currents. In some cases even some crewmembers survived, to be taken in by the resident populations*. In addition to ship's fittings, woodworking tools were usually aboard these vessels for maintenance and minor repairs, and were also carried on some sailings as cargo. All of these materials and tools would have had a great impact on Native society and technology.

Daggers were carried in leather sheaths hung from the neck or shoulder and were used as personal weapons by Native men. Their use had become widespread in the early historic period and continued into the late nineteenth century, as noted by several observers at the time. Some daggers attained the status of clan heirloom objects, and were passed down through generations of clan caretakers along with the stories of their origin and history. Perhaps the most famous Native metalsmith was a woman from the Haines/Chilkoot area named Sayeina.aat. She is said to have forged one-piece decorated daggers from iron that 'fell from the sky', or what science would describe as a meteorite. One of these is known by the name Ixde Xook Gwala, the 'Shaman's Thrust'. A copy of this original dagger is in the Seattle Art Museum and is illustrated in "The Spirit Within: The John H. Hauberg Collection at the Seattle Art Museum", Brown, 1995, Catalog #7, pgs. 41-42."