Highly decorated clubs made from the strong, stout antlers of inland caribou were a specialty of Tsimshian artists over a period of many centuries. These impressive weapons, sometimes referred to as “slave killers”, were the prized possessions of Tsimshian chiefs. The existence of antler clubs on the Northwest Coast appears to date to ancient times. A scaled-down version of one of these clubs was excavated near Prince Rupert harbor on the northern British Columbia coast, and has been dated between 100-250 A.D. (see: Macdonald, George, F. Prehistoric Art of the Northern Northwest Coast. Pgs. 99-120 in Indian Art Traditions of the Northwest Coast. Carlson, Roy, L. (ed.). Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, Archaeology Press., pg. 112). Antler clubs were also made by Athabaskan peoples of the northern British Columbia interior, though they were usually not as large, and not decorated in the signature Northwest Coast style of formline design evident here.
The form of these clubs follows the characteristics of the antler, utilizing a section of its length that includes appropriately positioned tines from which the features of the clubs are carved. This usually includes a snout or beak on the end of the club, a handle section at the opposite end, and a “business end” or contact-point about two-thirds of the way up from the tip of the handle, where the base of a large tine forms a stout protrusion. In some examples, evidence of a once-present metal point or blade appears at the end of this contact arm, a feature that would increase the fearsomeness of an already formidable weapon.
This extraordinary antler club appears to be the finest surviving example of its type. Few of the extant clubs exhibit the level of design composition and execution appearing in this sculpture. The most unusual feature of this club, beyond the uncommonly fine appearance of the overall composition, is the development of a small subsidiary figure sculpted from the base of a third tine just above the grip area. The bulging belly of this figure suggests a baby bird, possibly a raven. Out of fifteen known examples of this club type, only one other exhibits a protruding subsidiary figure, in that case, a human image. (see: Royal Scottish Museum 1951.215., Burke videodisk #37536). In all other examples, any tine in that position was simply cut off and the area smoothed and faired into the rest of the shaft.
The character of the design work on this club falls securely into the early archaic style. The major formlines are broad, inner ovoids are relatively large, and the carved-out areas are minimal in relation to the total surface area. Often misidentified as exclusively Tlingit in origin, this style of work dates to the 18th century and earlier, and was employed by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and likely neighboring groups such as the Haisla and Heiltsuk. After the advent of Euro-American contact, Northwest Coast design evolved rapidly, and the styles of northern First Peoples diverged greatly from the traditions of their earlier roots. Tsimshian design work in particular evolved into a style that emphasized the thinning of major formlines and the broadening of carved-out areas, which became conventionalized in the designs on chests, boxes, house fronts and interior screens from the second quarter of the 19th century.
The composition and distribution of the bird images on this club are exquisitely executed, the forms flowing gracefully around and along the surface of the club from one end to the other. Only one other of the extant examples is fully covered with design work in this way, and that example shows hints of possible influence from this magnificent object (see: Vincent 2000, pg. 355). The bird head at the tip of this club is carved in a mask-like form, with its neck feathers relief-carved in a naturalistic style. The bird’s wing design begins with a wide ovoid shoulder joint in line with the striking arm, onto which the formline wing structure extends out to the contact point. Down at the grip area, another large ovoid defines the tail joint, and the tail feathers flow down to the end of the handle. Just above the tail joint, the bird’s coiled talons repose, and the leg and other body forms connect between there and the wing. The small subsidiary bird is masterfully composed so that its form lies over and across the underlying formline work like a wholly separate image that was applied to a finished club. The wings and tail cross over and obscure relief-carved formlines beneath them, a characteristic that is very seldom seen in Northwest Coast art. The small bird’s tail is developed into a mask or totem pole-like face, and the bird’s legs arch over to disappear into its mouth. The wings are formed by the long narrow ovoids on each side of the bulging breast and a long triangular primary-feather extension that reaches down alongside incised S-shapes representing secondary wing feathers.
The precise imagery and refined composition in this club indicate an artist of great experience and a true mastery of the early Northwest Coast design tradition. Perhaps it’s not surprising that there would be another example of his work among the known clubs of this type: the oldest club of three from the highly important Dundas Collection of Northwest Coast Art (see: Ellis 2007, pgs. 80-81). The scale and proportions of individual design forms, the depth and characteristics of the relief carving techniques, and the choices of design elements all point to a single individual that created both of these remarkable sculptures. In terms of compositional styles, it seems most likely that the subject club was made sometime after the Dundas example. The way the two-dimensional forms cover the entire surface of the subject club, and the incorporation of the small image carved from the third tine both suggest that the experience of the Dundas club was the foundation on which the subject example was created. With these two outstanding heirloom symbols of chiefly status and power in existence in this region since at least the early 19th century, it’s not surprising that their compositional artistry and refined execution would have inspired and influenced succeeding generations of Northwest Coast artists in the creation of these majestic, fearsome objects.