The crooked knife, also known as the drawknife or muuhkutaakan in Cree, was revolutionized by the European introduction of iron. However, prior to that its origins reach as far back as the Stone Age.
According to author Russell Jalbert, who – along with his son Ned – wrote Mocotaugan: The Story and Art of the Crooked Knife, the knife was a common tool for most Indigenous peoples across North America even though many considered it a Woodland Native artifact.
“The toward-the-body motion that is unique to the crooked knife started back in the Stone Age and it came over the Bering land bridge after the last Ice Age” said Jalbert during a recent phone interview.
Jalbert’s interest in the Native artifact stems from his son’s collection, which is one of the most extensive collections of antique crooked knives in the world.
Through their research the Jalberts discovered that though the drawknife characteristic disappeared among ail of the other Aboriginals except the Inuit of Alaska and Natives throughout the north of the continent. They were common to inhabitants from Alaska to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and down the east coast to North Carolina. Their museum research even found examples of them as far south as Florida.
“One of the most original contributions that we made in our research on this was that we were able to trace the development of the knife from where it started as a flat, football-shaped stone to that stone attached to a knife blade. And, after that the next step was improving the quality of the blade from the first found stones to crafted flint and similar materials which would yield a sharper edge,” explained Jalbert.
When researching the knives the Jalberts also found evidence of unique early versions made with beaver teeth.
The knives did not evolve until European fishermen arrived on the
shores of North America. The fishermen would trade with the Natives, who quickly learned the possibilities of iron and adapted it to their own needs.
The addition of the curved tip to the crooked knife only came about after the introduction of iron.
“The vast majority of blades were made by Natives with recycled metal of any kind, spoke rings from wagon wheels, old pots, old files. Anything they could get their hands on was adapted into making blades,” stated Jalbert.
So popular were these utilitarian knives as they were used for everything from carving cups and bowls to ceremonial items to treating skins and hides, the European eventually caught onto them.
The Hudson’s Bay Company, once learning the value of the knife, began having them made in Sheffield, England and selling them under the moniker of mocotaugan, the Algonquin word for the crooked knife.
According to the book, “This spelling first appeared in 1748 on a Hudson’s Bay Company list of trade goods, 60 years after the HBC set up its first trading post at Rupert House. Also, mocotaugan was the first word used to identify the knife in a major institutional setting, the British Museum, about 1836.”
According to Jalbert, there are numerous sizes for the crooked knives as they were crafted for different uses.
“The typical knife was formed as a toward-the-body tool and the blade was about four inches long and turned up at the tip, it was something like a ski,” said Jalbert.
Jalbert recalled coming across one knife in a Florida museum that was curled up into three quarters of a circle like a button hook.
Though it might have been as common in the North, amongst the Woodland Natives, crooked knives featured elaborately decorated handles. The arrival of the European had a marked influence on the embellishment of these knives. Prior to the arrival, the artistic carvings were more reflective of Aboriginal culture.
According to the book, “Many embellished mocotaugans include design elements that can be traced to England, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland and the several Scandinavian countries. Typical of these borrowed elements are the fleur-de-lis, the shamrock and floral patterns. After the Dominion of Canada was founded in 1876, Natives began to use the new nation’s emblem of the maple leaf.”
To find out more about the history and art of the crooked knife, sections of the book can be downloaded from the Jalberts’ website: www.mocotauganthebook.com