Culture/People: Penobscot or Passamaquoddy (attrib.)
Place: Maine, Northeast United States
Media: Wood, metal, glass, newspaper, and copper wire
Dims: 4 x 1.75 x 9 in. (10.6 x 4.445 x 22.86 cm).
Date: c. 1930s
Description: Crooked knives have remained central tools to the tribes of the Northeastern Woodlands and Great Lakes regions for centuries. These versatile knives are striking both in their angled blade form and in their function as drawknives, which the carver holds palm up with the thumb extending away from the blade and pulls toward the body as opposed to pushing away in a typical whittling motion. Used to craft countless objects, including splint baskets, birchbark canoes, rawhide thongs, ceremonial carvings, hunting spears, bowls, ladles, and even peeling everyday foods, these knives are, at their core, the ultimate utilitarian tool.
In pre-contact Northeastern communities, crooked knives were initially made from beaver incisors left intact in a portion of the animal’s mandible or beaver or porcupine incisors attached to either bone or wooden handles. Since the 1700s, crooked knife blades have been made from steel rather than bone or teeth. Often old straight razors, steel files, trap springs, or other expended knives would be fashioned into the distinctive curved and beveled blades. Eventually, companies such as the Hudson Bay Company began to sell prefabricated crooked knife blades. The blades are attached to the handles with a similarly wide and resourceful list of materials including sinew, twine, old copper wire, or metal sleeves.
While each knife maintains the standard model of a carved wooden handle with a typically recycled steel blade attached with twine or wire at a slight angle from the base, such crooked knives transcend the purely functional through their individualism. The carved wooden handles of these knives represent their creators and owners at nearly every level. Each knife is unlike any other, carved to fit the hand and the identity of their maker and incorporating imagery and materials that directly express cultural and personal creative exchange. Such knives were never intended for anything other than daily use, as evidenced in the heavy wear and deep patina brought on through the continuous pressure of hand on wood. Yet, they show careful attention and appreciation for the importance of visual and textural embellishment.
In more recent years, crooked knives have become somewhat less common. Blades made specifically for crooked knives are no longer sold. However, that does not mean that Indigenous artists and makers are not still creating and using the knives, particularly in the production of art. Their incredible versatility and functionality can be seen in the wide variety of objects for which the crooked knife is the perfect tool. This 1971 documentary film created for Canadian TV, entitled “César et son canot d’écorce (Cesar and his birchbark canoe),” shows a crooked knife in use in the hands of César Newashish (Attikamek) as he crafts a birchbark canoe—from harvest to launch. In a more recent video from the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Language Portal, “I Could Paddle All Day – White Ash and Crooked-Knife”, Frank Tomah (Passamaquoddy) and David Sockabasin (Passamaquoddy) work on the carving of a white ash paddle and discuss the tools and process in Passamaquoddy. In each of these passages, we can see how the knife is held and used, which might come as a surprise for those who are not familiar with crooked knives.
The Coe holds over a dozen different crooked knives in its collection dating from the late 1700s to the late 1980s. Each knife has its own personality, reflecting, quite literally, the hand of their maker. The fact that you can hold one of these knives in your hand, resting your thumb and fingers just so, and suddenly touch the past is incredibly powerful. And to see the aesthetic choices made by a particular carver in constructing their own tool, what they wanted to look at and feel as they carefully worked away on their projects only brings more meaning to that interaction. You can even tell whether the carver was right or left-handed, depending on the direction of the blade.
This particular knife is by far the most charming in the collection—not only is the handle carved with a delicate scroll, embedded on the front of the handle is an image framed under an aged piece of glass. Presented there, for the eyes of the maker to contemplate during work, is a newspaper cutout of the actress Joan Blondell. Blondell, who starred alongside James Cagney in numerous films and Broadway shows, was a classic “blonde bombshell” of the 1930s and ‘40s. In the photo, Blondell is captured glancing coyly backward over her shoulder, beaming a smile out for her beholder. It is definitely an inviting image, and its presence here on this crooked knife calls to mind the intimacy of work, with a touch of lightheartedness and humor alongside. The repurposed copper wire contrasts the aged hue of the wood and steel, all of which shows not just age but hours and hours of use.
RTC No: NA0330F
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011
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