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Magnificent steel dagger of two killer whales joint by a single dorsal fin - Donald Ellis Gallery

Killer Whale Dagger

attributed to Saayina.aat
Southeast Alaska

ca. 1750–80

steel, cloth

height: 18"

Inventory # N3759



Private collection, Belgium
Donald Ellis Gallery, Dundas, ON
George Terasaki, New York, NY


Fundacion “la Caixa”, Barcelona, Spain, October 6, 1999 - January 6, 2000
Fundacion “la Caixa”, Madrid, Spain, February 2, 2000 - April 2, 2000
The Menil Collection, Houston, TX, April 28, 2000 - August 6, 2000


Spirits of the Water: Native Art Collected on Expeditions to Alaska and British Columbia 1774–1910, Brown, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2000, pg. 180, pl. 150
Transfigurations: North Pacific Coast Art, George Terasaki Collector, Brown, Seattle, Marquand Books, 2006, pl. 18
Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2012, pl. 49

Related Examples

For a dagger by the same artist see inventory number N1876, published in Bernstein, Bruce and McMaster, Gerald (eds). First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004, pg. 221 and also in Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 1999, pg. 13 and front cover

For later copies of both of these daggers see: Brown 1995, pgs. 41 and 43, pls. 6 and 7

Tlingit metal smiths (and woodworkers) created a wide variety of fighting daggers that were once carried by most adult males on a daily basis (Emmons, George Thornton. The Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991). Beautifully forged steel daggers made with an abbreviated reflection of the long blade at the pommel end (designed for double-ended, close-quarters fighting) were not uncommon, and many others were made with wood or sheep-horn pommels carved to represent crest animal images. The latter type employed either Native-forged blades or recycled Euro-American sword or knife blades at the business end. Native-forged blades are said to have been made of drift iron (from shipwrecks), preformed Euro-American blades or tools (such as files), and from meteoric sources. Stylistic indications suggest that a very few highly accomplished metalsmiths created all-steel daggers with deep-relief crest images at the pommel, of which this is a particularly early and refined example.

The closest stylistic relative to this fine dagger appears to be one by the Tlingit name of Ixt’I Xook Gwalaa, or Emaciated Shaman Dagger, which originated among the Lukaax.adi clan of the Chilkoot Tlingit, near present-day Haines, Alaska. (The dagger is now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, illustrated in The Spirit Within, fig. 7, page 42 [#91.1.75]). That dagger is said to have been made of meteoric iron by a female blacksmith with the name of Saayina.aat, sometime near the middle eighteenth century. Several visual characteristics connect that dagger with this example. These include the overall shape of the blade-a silhouette that incorporates both convex and concave curves-(which is more elongated in the Chilkoot dagger), very similar formation of the two raised ridges that parallel the blade’s edge, the metallurgic structure of the steel surface (evidence of forging techniques), and the use of drilled holes to represent the spaces between the teeth of the respective crest emblem images (which are very different).

Ichnographically, the nearest relative to this dagger is one known by the Tlingit name of Keet Gwala, or Killer Whale Dagger. That very large dagger is the property of the Dakl’aweidi clan of Angoon village, Alaska. (It is also illustrated in Brown, Steven C. The Spirit Within. New York: Rizzoli, 1995, fig. 6, page 40). Clearly made by a different metalsmith than this dagger, the two nonetheless share the same crest emblem image - that of two killer whale heads back to back, surmounted by a single large dorsal fin. The dorsal-fin shape is somewhat analogous to the pommel-point seen on the double-bladed daggers of steel, in that it echoes the shaping of the blade edge and its characteristic raised ridges, though the fin has a rounded end.

This version of the image features two small holes piercing the dorsal fin, and an elegantly simple graphic rendering of the killer whale heads. A mirror-image pattern of ridges defines the circular eyes and the eye sockets, the oval “nostrils” and the edges of the mouth. These lines blend smoothly with those that are the backbone of the dorsal fin. On the Dakl’aweidi dagger, similar forging, chasing, and engraving techniques produced a more detailed pair of whale-head images in the style of the early nineteenth century formline tradition. A single large hole pierces this dorsal fin, and three tapered grooves separate four ridges that run nearly the full length of the blade. A plain copper overlay is tightly formed about the grip, pommel base, and the upper end of the blade.

By appearances, it can be suggested that the Dakl’aweidi dagger is a later version of the double-whale image, and may have been made as a successor to this example, so stylistically akin to the Chilkoot dagger by Saayina.aat. Oral history of the Dakl’aweidi dagger says that it was made of material that “fell from the sky.” When tested by scientific techniques, that dagger was determined not to be of meteoric origin. (Hauberg collection notes, Seattle Art Museum). Perhaps this version, made a generation or earlier, was created by Saayina.aat from the same celestial debris as the Chilkoot Shaman dagger.

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