Return to Main Home Animation Go To: Book1 / Northwest Coast Go to: Book 2 / Arctic Go to: Book3 / Woodlands Download PDF of Book 1, Northwest Coast
The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Shaman’s Atlatl
Hardwood, Shell & Trade Beads, 15 ½” Length, c.1750-1800
Tlingit Shaman’s Atlatl

The Northwest Coast artist’s predilection for fully embellishing the forms of functional objects is well represented in this spectacular early work. Atlatl (a term from Nahuatl, the Aztec language), is the name given to what is sometimes referred to as a ‘spear-thrower’, an implement used in launching a spear-like dart or arrow with additional leverage and considerably more force than could be brought to bear with a hunter’s arm alone.

The atlatl fell out of use when the development of the bow and arrow spread throughout the globe. The Tlingit people adapted the bow early in their cultural development, so no examples of atlatls or their projectiles have been found, with the exception of this piece and perhaps a other dozen ritual pieces. Widely diverse in carving styles, these pieces share a single characteristic: they are all non-functional. The position of the fingerhole relative to the grip is such that a hunter could not comfortably operate the device as an effective spear thrower and the nature of the imagery suggests that they were employed as "spiritual weapons," used to battle malevolent spirits and witches who were thought to cause disease in shaman's patients.

No two Tlingit atlatls show much representational similarity from one to another, though more than one example appears to have been made by the same carver. The entire range of carver’s styles and imagery seen in this relatively small group of objects is truly remarkable.

The carver of this exceptional atlatl did his work with remarkable skill and refinement. The dense wood allows many small details, such as the front and rear paws of the humanoid bear at the top of the tool. The toes of the adjacent otter are similarly detailed and both figures share crescent-shaped cuts in the wood. Small glass beads are inset in the otter’s eyes, a subtle and highly effective embellishment.

All the sculpture in this work is roundly defined and deeply modeled, with evident signs of a master’s experienced hand. This highly individualized style of work can be seen in several other existing atlatls, of which this is the most elaborate

The figures include a humanoid bear at the top end, with another being riding on his back and grasping his shoulders. Beneath the bear’s jaw the trachea is exposed above the tip of the atlatl’s working side. The secondary creature above appears to be an emaciated otter, with representations of vertebrae along its back and its long tail stretched along the back ridge of the atlatl. On each side of the weapon, below the otter’s tail, a formline face of unknown identity is relief-carved in an archaic style. The bird’s wings are wrapped around in front of its body, and archaic-style formline patterns cover their surface.

The bird’s feet clasp a small creature that arches over the finger hole, possibly another long-tailed land otter. Below the finger hole, a totemic bear stands with bent knees, grasping a small human figure before it. The bear’s large brow and ears flank the finger hole, and the man’s head is perched just below the bear’s large rounded snout. His face has the mouth drawn back into a grin, and the eyes are closed as if in trance. The man’s arms are flung back below the bear’s lower jaw, and his knees protrude just below the bear’s encircling forepaws. The bear’s feet stand upon the head of a spirit image that has bulging, closed-slit eyes, a short snout, and skeletal pectoral fins or flippers. The fine detail of the bony fins echoes the similar refinement of the humanoid bear’s paws above. The lower jaw of the spirit image appears to have gone missing at some distant point in time. On the front face of the tool, on each side of the dart hollow, the flat edges of the hollow are grooved with fine knife cuts from end to end.

On the reverse side of the atalatl, one sees the back and rear end of the bear, its legs bent forward from the ankles. The carver evidently had a sense of humor, something not often so overtly expressed in Northwest Coast art.

Exhibited: Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme
Pinacothèque de Paris, 2008