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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Tlingit (Attributed to Saaeina.aat)
Killer Whale Dagger
Steel, Leather & Fabric, 21¾” Length, c.1780-1810
Tlingit Killer Whale Dagger

Steel and copper fighting knives were common accessories for Tlingit men in the nineteenth century, as interclan feuds and warfare were common and often deadly. The development and creation of highly embellished steel daggers to fill this need appears to have reached its zenith among in Southeast Alaska in the early nineteenth century. Many outstanding examples in museums and private collections collected in that era illustrate the extraordinary levels of skill and refinement that were reached by Tlingit metalsmiths.

The piece's unusual blade shape features beautifully curving edges and a center hollow defined by raised ridges that parallel them. The pommel is formed by a large section of steel hammered out wider than the blade and depicts two whale head profiles surmounted by a single tall dorsal fin.
The whale heads are embellished with hollowed areas and raised lines that define round eyes and eye sockets, oval nostrils and a mouth defined by tiny holes drilled in graduated sizes to indicate spaces between the whale's teeth.

The pommel's sculptural features suggest that the lines and hollows were created by a combination of hot chasing and engraving, using steel tools or stone punches of varying shape and size to indent the background and raise the ridges and lines to create the whale design.

The dorsal fin is integrated into the profile head composition by means of a raised ridge that parallels the shape of the fin and smoothly connects to a raised line defining the top of the heads. This fin, with its angular U-shape, is an archaic style, and has two small holes that pierce the hollowed center of the fin.

The clear design and refinement of the weapon's form as well as the design and execution of the pommel mark this as a truly outstanding early work.