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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Line Serving Spool
Yew, 13” Length, c.1700 (or earlier)
Line Serving Spool
Line Serving Spool

The Nuu-chah-nulth people live on the west coast of Vancouver Island and face the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. Their relatives, the Makah or Qwidicci’aht, live on the northern tip of the Pacific coast of Washington State.

Both groups were whalers, hunting both grays and humpbacks in the early spring when the mammals migrated north to the feeding grounds of Alaska. Eight crewmen in a 35-foot sculpted canoe paddled in search of the creatures, using a variety of specialized equipment for this greatly valued and dangerous task. They were armed with an eighteen-foot harpoon shaft, tipped with a point made of elk antler barbs with a sharp blade of mussel shell, and killing lances for dispatching the whale after it was harpooned. Long harpoon lines made of twisted cedar branches (known as withes) connected the harpoon head to a set of four sealskin floats, designed to slow the progress of the whale and keep it afloat. Sometimes more than one harpoon pierced the whale, and a long time passed before it was sufficiently exhausted to approach closely for the final dispatch.

The whale was then towed back to the village beach, where it was floated up on the high tide, to be flensed of its blubber and meat, which would feed and nourish the tribe for many weeks or months. The bones and baleen (the whale’s food-filtering features), were cleaned and saved for use in special applications, including tools and weapons carved from the dense, hefty sections of bone. Whaling was also a spiritual occupation, undertaken for the survival of their world and respected for the physical strength and power, in teamwork, that such a monumental task required.

The making of the harpoon line was a refined and specialized task. The main float-line of cedar withes was long and large, two inches and more in diameter. This was attached to the harpoon head by a smaller lanyard, made of whale sinew wrapped tightly over its full length (about ten or more feet) with a small cord of spun nettle fiber. The whole was wrapped (called ‘serving’ in English) with a long, narrow strip of smooth and shiny cherry bark, which made a strong and abrasion-resistant line three-quarters of an inch or more in diameter.

The task of serving the sinew line with nettle cord was made easier by the use of a special long spool, like the one shown here. The space between the two heads of this implement was entirely filled with tightly wound nettle cord before use. The fine, strong cord was applied to the harpoon lanyard by rotating the spool snugly around the lanyard, laying the nettle cord tightly around the surface of the lanyard turn by turn over its entire length.

The carved embellishments of this spool are in the form of human heads facing outward. These beautiful and greatly refined sculptures most likely represent revered ancestors who were the greatest whalers of a family line, and their spirits were being called upon for assistance in each new whaling endeavor.

The sculpture of these magnificent faces is very archaic in style, closely related to the style of carvings recovered from the Ozette archaeological site south of Cape Flattery, Washington, where parts of five houses in the village were inundated by a huge mudslide between 300-500 years ago. The anaerobic mud preserved the collapsed structures and the contents of those houses, and in the 1970s thousands of objects and artifacts were excavated from the site. Every kind of board, tool, weapon, carving, weaving, and container was recovered from the ancient mud, including some examples of objects that had not survived or been seen in more recent historic times. A small number of serving spools were recovered at Ozette, but none with quite the sculptural depth and refinement of this exceptional example.

Objects such as this important work were handed down through the generations, revered both for their age and history. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this spool may therefore date back into the time of Ozette before the slide, created in one or another contemporary Nuu-chah-nulth or Makah village of the day.