Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Knives of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Cutting tools are indispensable to primitive men, and the greatest ingenuity was exercised by the northern tribes in their manufacture. Every material capable of taking and retaining an edge was utilized - wood, reed, bone, antler, shell, stone, and metal. Teeth are nature's cutting tools and the teeth of animals (shark, beaver, etc.) were much employed by primitive men, as also were sharp bits of stone and splinters of wood and bone, the natural edges of which were artificially sharpened, and natural forms were modified to make them more effectual.   The uses of the knife are innumerable; it served in war and was indispensable in every branch of the arts of life, in acquiring raw materials, in preparing them for use, and in shaping whatever was made. Knives served also in symbolism and ceremony, and one of the most cherished symbols of rank and authority was the great stone knife chipped with consummate skill from obsidian or flint. According to Culin the stone knife is used among the Pueblos as a symbol of divinity, especially of the war gods, and is widely used in a healing ceremony called the "knife ceremony." Differentiation of use combined with differences in material to give variety to the blade and its hafting; the so-called ulu, or woman's knife of the [Inuit], employed in various culinary arts, differs from the man's knife, which is used in carving wood and for various other purposes (Mason); and the bone snow knife of the Arctic regions is a species by itself (Nelson). The copper knife is distinct from the stone knife, and the latter takes a multitude of forms, passing from the normal types in one direction into the club or mace, in another into the scraper, and in another into the dagger; and it blends with the arrowhead and the spearhead so fully that no definite line can be drawn between them save when the complete haft is in evidence. The flaked knife blade of flint is straight like a spearhead or is curved like a hook or sickle, and it is frequently bevelled on one or both edges. The ceremonial knife is often of large size and great beauty.


Two or three tribes of Indians, various clans, and some towns received their names from the knife, as Conshac ('reed knife'), a name for the Creeks; the town of Kusa among the Choctaw, and the Ntlakyapamuk of Thompsonr., Brit. Col.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., p. 249.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College