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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Chief's Club
Caribou Antler, 20½" Length, c.1780-1810
Tsimshian Chief's Club
Tsimshian Chief's Club

Northwest Coast artisans created fearsome weapons with the same sense of beauty and refinement that they incorporated into the most delicate amulet or rattle.

One such beautifully crafted object of power is this consummately decorated club carved from caribou antler. Clubs in this form, often referred to as ‘slave killers’ in the ethnographic literature, were most often if not always made by Tsimshian artists, and were carved for chiefs and clan leaders not only as weapons, but also as emblems of their chiefly status and power.

Northern caribou, also known as reindeer in the Eurasian Arctic, produce a stout set of antlers, losing them yearly following the mating season. Elk, which are known in some areas of the coast, also produce large sets of antlers that may have been used for clubs of this kind.

Only a relatively small group of antler clubs is known to exist, numbering around sixteen examples, which are scattered through the museums and a few private collections of the world. Of them all, the expanse of decorated surface and the degree of refinement in this outstanding club surpass any others.

This club features the sensitively carved head of a bird, possibly an eagle, canted slightly to the right as if the creature was turning to see something off to the side. The neck feathers, body, wings, feet, and tail are masterfully composed in the early nineteenth-century style of formlines and cover the surface of the antler all the way to the end of the handle. Other clubs include two-dimensional representation of the limbs and/or feet of the crest image relief-carved along the cylindrical surfaces of the antler, but all the others known save this one have no carving on the grip area itself. These features alone would set this club apart, but the carver has gone a step further in his enhancement of this weapon.

About halfway up the top length of the club is the head of a small bird, whose body, wings, and tail extend down toward handle. The rounded, bulging belly of this small bird, probably a fledgling, is carved from the remaining base of a branching tine that is most often cut off and completely smoothed down in other clubs.

Of all other known examples, only two have retained the base of this extra branch or tine. One, in the University Museum in Philadelphia, retains the tine-base but has nothing carved upon it. The carver of another example utilized the extra volume of the cut-off tine’s base to sculpt the head and body of a reclining human figure. Neither of these, however, exhibits the degree of graceful adaptation seen here in the sculpture of the subsidiary bird, and the distribution of the fledgling’s wings and body right across the surface of the carved forms of the primary eagle image. The fledgling’s feet are shown drawn up close to its belly, grasping the lower jaw of an upside-down face that represents the bird’s own tail. The tail feathers extend from the top of this tail-face toward the club handle.

The highly gifted and experienced artist who made this club also made an earlier one, which was collected in 1863 by the Anglican missionary Rev. Robert Dundas at Old Metlakatla, British Columbia. That club features the same accomplished early style of two-dimensional design work, recognizable as being composed and executed by the same hands, with smoothly rounded elements and comparatively small carved-out areas. That club exhibits a bear or wolf’s head at the striking point, with its body covering the club surface down to but not including the grip area. Until the subject club emerged from obscurity in 2010, the Dundas club (now in the Art Gallery of Ontario, illustrated in Tsimshian Treasures, the Journey of the Dundas Collection) had been considered by many to be the paramount example of its type. If it had to be deposed from that perch by another carved club, it seems appropriate that it would be this piece, a stellar example of the same artist’s work.

Provenance: Dr. Lucius Duncan Bulkley