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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Soapberry Spoon
Alder or Birch, 15½" Length, c.1840-1860

Soapberry Spoon
Soapberry Mouse

Soapberries are small round berries that ripen in early summer in the mainland river valleys and dry habitats at the entrance to Puget Sound and the Gulf of Georgia.

When mixed with a more or less equal amount of water, a small handful of berries can be whipped into a large amount of egg-white-like foam. It has a naturally bittersweet taste that can be sweetened with honey. Soapberry froth was and is often served at feasts and potlatches, originally from carved wooden bowls distributed to groups of guests who ply the foam with their individual paddles.

The foam is sometimes referred to as ‘Indian ice cream’, and is eaten with flat-bladed, paddle-like ‘spoons’ that are made specifically for this purpose. The blades of the spoons are frequently decorated with two-dimensional designs, either relief-carved or painted (usually not both). Designs seen on soapberry spoons are usually unique and may represent clan crest designs or family identifiers. The spoons were sometimes made in matching sets with a special basket or bent-corner container to store them in.

The handle of the spoon was usually a plain, straight cylindrical form, but in rare instances, such as this piece, a sculptural figure was incorporated into the form of the handle. In this exceptional spoon, a small beaver peers down the length of the blade, its paws drawn up to grasp the end of the blade on either side of the handle. The beaver’s tail is draped down the back of the handle and blade. The animal is so skillfully carved that the creature radiates a delightful energy and mischievousness that could only come from long familiarity and observation.

The sculptural style in the face indicates a Tsimshian artist, and the roundness of the medium-weight formlines on the blade, which compose an abstract, minimalist design of a bird, are typical of early nineteenth-century Tsimshian style.

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