Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


Implements, Tools and Utensils Used by

the Indians of Canada



[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.]



Implements, Tools, Utensils. While a tool is that with which something is made, an implement that with which work is done, and a utensil that in or on which something is prepared or used up, they cannot always be distinguished among primitive peoples, who utilize one thing for many purposes. Many forms are discussed under Arts and Industries and in articles devoted to special activities. It must be borne in mind that all such devices were helpers of the skilful hand and a vast deal of excellent work was done with it alone.


The Indians of North America were in the stone age, and therefore every device with which the arts of life were carried on, whether implement, tool, or utensil, was in harmony with this grade of culture. The archaeologist finds of such objects in ancient remains and sites, either their substantial portions, or the perishable parts that have been accidentally preserved, or impressions of them left on pottery. By comparing these relics with implements, tools, and utensils found in actual use among the Indians one is able to partially reconstruct ancient industry and read far backward into history. The moment that the savages saw implements, tools, and utensils of metal in the hands of Europeans, they recognized the superiority of these and adopted them. It is interesting to note the modifications that were made in hafting and using, in order to adapt the new devices to old habits and customs. As of old, manual parts were still carved, painted, and hung with symbols, without which they were thought to be ineffectual.


The instruments of handicraft were of two classes - general, for common purposes, and special, for particular industries. The general implements, tools, and utensils may be described in detail (Holmes in Rep. Nat. Mus. 1901, 501. 1903):


Hammers. - These were made of stone or other hard substance, with or without handles. There were sledges, mauls, and pile-drivers for two or more men.


Knives. - These were made commonly of chipped or ground stone. Teeth, bone, shell, and wood were also used for the purpose (McGuire in Am. Anthrop ., IV, 1891).


Saws. - These were of serrated stones, shells, or other materials, and were worked by rubbing with the edge, often with the aid of sand with or without water.


Borers. - Many natural objects were used for making holes in hard and soft objects, either by pressure, striking, vibrating, or revolving. They were held directly in the hand or were hafted; were grasped by one hand or by both hands; held between the palms or were worked by means of a strap, bow or pump (McGuire in Rep. Nat. Mus . 1894, 623, 1896).


Axes. - The stone axe, rudely flaked or highly polished, plain or grooved, ranging in weight from a few ounces to many pounds in the ceremonial axe, was universal. It was held in the hand or attached in various ways to a handle by means of rawhide, but was never furnished with an eye for a helve. Other substances were occasionally used, as shell, iron ore, and copper, but the stone axe was the main reliance. The blade could be easily turned at right angles, and then the implement became an adze.


Scrapers. - The scraper was also a tool of wide dispersion. In shape it resembled a chisel blade with a bevelled edge. The rudest were sharp spells of siliceous stone, held in the hand with or without padding; others were of smooth materials set into handles or grips that snugly fitted the workman's hand. One variety was made for scraping hides, another for scraping wood.


Nippers. - These include all devices for holding tightly an object or holding parts together while being worked. Hinged varieties were not known, but the [Inuit], especially, had several inventions to do the work of clamps, pincers, tweezers, or the vise with the aid of wedges.


The simple mechanical powers, the wedge, the lever, and the inclined plane, were universally understood. The screw was employed but sparingly, if at all. The N.W. Coast tribes used rollers, skids, and parbuckles to move great house beams into place, and the Alaskan [Inuit], according Elliott, landed the walrus by means of a sliding tackle looped over pegs driven into cracks in the rocks and run through slits in the hide. The wheel and axle were entirely unknown, save in their most primitive form, the spindle. Power for doing work with the devices just described was derived from the muscle of the worker. The wind was utilized here and there, blowing upon a fixed mat erected for a sail, but nothing was known of shifting sails. The Indians made good use of fire in clearing ground for planting, in felling trees, excavating canoes, and making pitch and glue. Bellows were not used, but the blow-tube existed. Water wheels were unknown, and in the matter of using nature's forces for work northern America was in a primitive state of culture. The special implements, tools, and utensils employed in the various aboriginal industries are enumerated below. They are also treated more fully in separate articles.


Agriculture. - Digging sticks, hardened in fire and sharpened, and often weighted; dibbles, hoes, scarecrows, harvesting devices, husking pegs, granaries, and caches were common. For harvesting both wild and cultivated produce various tribes had tongs for picking the cactus fruit, stone implements for opening hulls or shells, baskets for gathering, carrying and storing, poles for reaching fruit, harvesting apparatus for grass seed, wild rice, camas, wokas, coonti, maize, etc.


Bark work. - Peelers, shredders, twisters, sewing tools, pitching tools.


Boat building. - Axes, adzes, saws, borers, hammers, knives, pitch and paint brushes, and fire.


Carrying. - Packing baskets, hide cases, walking sticks, special costumes, and a provision of compact food, as pemmican, dried fish, and crisp bread. The making up of burdens into neat loads for handling and for the back was understood and further completed by means of headbands, breast straps, and shoulder straps. The dog was here and there a pack beast, and harness was devised.


Cooking. - Besides open roasting, grilling frames of wood, and pits for baking and steaming, there were stone slabs for parching seeds and for baking bread; pottery and baskets for boiling (the latter by the help of heated stones), and soapstone utensils for preparing meat and other food.


Curing food. - Drying frames, smoking devices.


Fishing. - Besides fishing implements proper, the fisher's outfit included canoes, paddles, weirs, dams, anchor stones, etc.


Plastic Art. - In the technic of this industry belong all tools and implements used in quarrying clays and preparing them for the potter, all devices employed in building up, smoothing, polishing and decorating ware, and the apparatus for burning.


Quarrying, mining and stone working. - Digging sticks, mauls, hammers, edge tools for making lamps, and dishes and other receptacles of soap-stones, chipping and other shaping tools and implements, carrying apparatus, flakers, chippers, polishers.


Textile Industries. - All implements and tools needed in gathering roots, stems, and leaves as materials, and those used in preparing these for matting, bagging, basketry, blankets, robes, lacework, network, thread, string, and rope; finally, all inventions employed in manufacturing these products.


Whaling. - Suit of watertight clothing; kaiak and paddle; harpoon, with line; skin floats; lance.


Woodcraft. - Axe, knife, saw, adze, chisel, borers, rasps, polishers, paint brushes, rollers, moving and setting up devices.


For serving and consuming food, knives were necessary; spoons were fashioned of natural objects, especially of wood, horn, and gourd, but there were no forks or individual dishes or tables. Much food was consumed on the spot where it was found. The Indians had manifold apparatus for making, preserving, and using fire; for cooking, lighting, and heating. Shovels were used for baking bread. The outfit for harvesting and preparing acorns included gathering basket, for which the woman's hat was often used, carrying hamper, granary, hulling mill, mortar, hopper basket. meal mat, leaching pit, cooking basket, mush basket, and eating bowls. Milling implements in general included natural boulders and pebbles; mortars of wood, stone, bone, or hide; pestles of the same materials; metates of varying degrees of texture, with manos to correspond; baskets to serve as hoppers and to catch meal, and brooms. Hunters' implements included a vast number of accessory apparatus for making weapons effectual.


Devices for binding or permanently holding two parts together, pegs, lashings, and cement were used. In the absence of metal and rattan, rawhide, sinew, roots of evergreen trees, splits of tough wood, pitch; and animal glue performed the necessary function. In the aboriginal economy no great stones were moved, but large logs were sometimes transported many miles.


Metric devices of the North Americans were very crude compared with modern standards but were exactly adapted to their needs. A man fitted his boat and all its appurtenances to his body, just as he did his clothing. The hunter, basket-maker, potter, tent-maker, weighed and measured by means of the same standard. For securing uniform thickness the N. W. Coast tribes bored holes through hulls of dugouts, and ran slender plugs into them, which were used as gauges. Usually the parts of the body were the only gauges.


Straighteners were made of wood, stone, horn, or ivory for bending wood and other substances to shape. Digging sticks, dibbles, and the whole class of implements for making holes in the ground were used also for working in quarries, for getting worms and the like from the beach or the earth, and for digging roots for food or for textile and other industrial purposes. Tongs were employed in moving hot stones, in gathering cactus fruit, and in capturing snakes.


Dwellings were of such varying types and forms that their construction in different areas required the services of different kinds of work - that of the tentmaker, the joiner, the mason, or the snow worker, with their different implements, including shovels, axes, trowels, adzes, levers, parbuckles, etc. (see Architecture, Habitations). The joiner's outfit included many devices, from those for hafting to those for house building, tent framing, boat fitting, and the use of roots and thongs. Puncheons were hewn out, but there was no mortising. Hafting, the joining of the working part of a tool to the manual part, was accomplished variously by driving in, groove, splice, socket, tongue-and-groove, or mortising, and the fastening was done with pegs or lashing.


For the shaping arts, the working of stone, wood, and other hard substances, the apparatus varied with the material, and consisted of knives, hammers, wedges, saws, files, polishers, borers, adzes, and chisels, made out of materials beat suited always to their uses.


The propelling of all sorts of water craft was done by paddling, by poling, by dragging over mud, and by towing. No oars or rudders were used. Vessels were made watertight with pitch or by the swelling of the wood. The rope or rawhide line for dragging a canoe along shore is known as a cordelle, the French-Canadian term. Portage, the moving of a bark canoe from one body of water to another, was accomplished by carrying load and canoe separately, sliding the empty canoe over mud, or shooting rapids in it.


The making of snowshoes was an important occupation in the N., requiring great skill and manifold tools and devices. Ice and snow implements and utensils used in the higher latitudes include picks with ivory or stone blades, shovels with wooden blade and ivory edge, creepers for the boots, boat hooks for warding off and drawing canoes, sleds, and the indispensable snowshoes. The [Inuit] were ingenious in devising such implements. They had shovels with edges of walrus ivory, walking sticks for going over the snow, snow goggles, snowshoes, and snow trowels and knives for house-building; also ice picks and crowbars and hooks and scoops for cutting and moving ice.


See Arts and Industries, and the subjects cited there under; also the articles describing special types of implements, tools, and utensils, and the materials from which they are made.         


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., pp. 216-218.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College