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Caribou antler club with superb surface relief carving and abalone shell inlay - Donald Ellis Gallery
Caribou antler club carved with a bird’s head and abalone shell inlay - Donald Ellis Gallery

Antler Club

Coast Tsimshian
Northern British Columbia

18th century

caribou antler, abalone shell

width: 13 ½"

Inventory # CN3256


acquired by the Thomson Collection now at the Art Gallery of Ontario


The Raven Clan, Village of Kitkatla, BC
Howard Roloff, Victoria, BC
Eugene Chesrow, Chicago, IL


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2005, pg. 6-7                                        


University Museum, Philadelphia, No. NA 3315 – See: Native American Heritage, Mauer, Art Institute of Chicago, 1977, pl. 479

The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, Cat. No. 62 – See: The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, Volume II, Hooper, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1997, pg. 262

The Eugene and Claire Thaw Collection, Cooperstown, New York, No. T171 – See: Art of the North American Indians: The Thaw Collection, Coe, Brydon and Vincent, University of Washington Press, 2000, pg. 355 

Museum Fur Volkerkunde, Berlin – See: Native Arts of North America, Feest, Thames and Hudson, London, 1980, pl 183

Museum voor Land, Rotterdam, Holland, No. 34793 – See: Donnervogel und Raubwal, Haberland, Hamburgisches Museum fur Volkerkunde und Christian Verlag, Hamburg, 1979, pl. F-14

Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, No. A2606 – See: Indian Masterpieces From the Walter and Marianne Koerner Collection, University of British Columbia Press, 1975, fig. 24

Canadian Museum of Civilization, No. GbTo-31:211 – See: Crossroads of Continents, Fitzhugh and Crowell, Smithsonian Institute Press, 1988, pl. 169

The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas, No. x 140 – See: Spirits in the Water: Native Art Collected On Expeditions to Alaska and British Columbia, 1774 – 1910, Brown, University of Washington Press, 2000, pl. 142

In the period before European contact, Tsimshian clan leaders and artists developed a unique style of hand club which succeeding generations continued to produce into the early 19th century. These impressive objects most likely served as war clubs, as hand fighting between armored combatants was the typical style of warfare on the Northwest Coast well into the historic period. Some were said to have been employed to dispatch slaves owned by clan leaders as sacrifices at the time of totem pole raisings and house dedications, however, there is little documented evidence of this. Over time, weapons and other implements of war such as helmets often became clan emblem objects, assuming uses that were more ceremonial and heraldic in nature.

Carved from elk, and in the case of the important example seen here, caribou antler, the form of these clubs closely follows that of the parent material. While some surviving examples are undecorated, others are highly embellished with surface relief carving, and occasionally, inlaid abalone shell. Several appear to have been fitted with stone or metal blades at one time.

The flat design of this superb object is skillfully carved, and the ingeniously formed bird’s head, with its abbreviated beak, is rendered so that it cants slightly, lending a sense of movement and liveliness to the sculpture. A series of shell-inlaid diamond shapes flow down the figure’s throat, perhaps representing the trachea of the bird, a feature often seen in early carved objects of the Northwest Coast.

It is believed that less than a dozen of these extremely rare clubs have survived, and are now found predominantly in museum collections in Europe and Canada. While difficult to accurately date, the oral tradition of this noble club suggests an origin several centuries ago. The exquisitely worn and polished surface gives testimony to the many years of handling and use this powerful, venerable object has endured. 

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