Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Harpoons of the Canadian Indian



[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.]



Harpoons. Piercing and retrieving weapons with a moveable head-probably the most ingenious and complicated device invented by the North American aborigines. Before the natives came into contact with the whites, they made harpoons of wood, bone, walrus ivory, shell, stone, sinew, and hide. The several structural parts consisted of the shaft, foreshaft, loose shaft, ice pick, head, hinge, connecting line, assembling line, main line, hand rest, eyelet, float, and detachers. Besides these there were a multitude of accessories, such as stools, decoys, ice scoops, and canoes. The technic of every part represented the Indian's best skill in a number of handicrafts wood working, bone and ivory carving, chipping and grinding stone; shredding, twisting, and braiding sinew; and dressing hides or floats, canoes, and the toughest possible thongs or lines, and other parts.


There are two quite different varieties of harpoons, based on the shape of the head - the barbed harpoon and the toggle harpoon. The head of the barbed harpoon is attached to the shaft by means of a connecting line tied to the butt or tang of the head. The toggle head is attached to the line or sling by means of a hole bored through the body; the head is driven entirely into the animal, and, toggling under the skin, gives firm hold. These two types merge into each other, and some harpoons possess the characteristics of both.


The parts of a barbed harpoon are:


Head. - Of various materials, the specific characters being the same as those of barbed arrows; they differ in that the tang fits loosely into a socket and is roughened, notched, or pierced for the hingeing or connecting line.


Foreshaft. - That of the harpoon, as compared with the arrow, is heavier, and has a socket in front for the wedge-shaped, conical, or spindle-shaped tang of the head.


Shaft. - Length, from a few inches to many feet; thickness, from one-fourth of an inch to an inch or more; outer end spliced or socketed to the foreshaft; center of gravity furnished with hand rest; inner end pointed, pitted for hook of throwing stick, notched for a bowstring, with or without feathers, or furnished with ice pick.


Connecting line. - Of string or thong rudely tied to head and shaft or, in the finest specimens, attached at one end through a hole in the tang, the other end being bifurcated and fastened like a martingale to the ends of the shaft. When the animal is struck by the hurled harpoon the head is withdrawn, the foreshaft sinks by its gravity, and the shaft acts as a drag to impede the progress of the game (see Nat. Mus. Rep . 1900, pl. 11).


The parts of a toggle harpoon are:


Toggle head. - Consisting of body; blade of slate, chipped stone, ivory, or metal, usually fitted into a slit in front; line hole or opening through the body for the sling or leader of hide on which the toggle head hinges; line grooves channeled backward from the line hole to protect the leader; barbs projecting backward at the butt of the toggle head to catch into the flesh and make the head revolve 90 degrees, forming a T with the line; shaft socket, a conoid pit in the butt of the toggle head to receive front end of loose shaft; and leader or sling, not always separate, but when so, either spliced to the main line or joined by an ingenious detacher, which is sometimes prettily carved.


Loose shaft. - A spindle-shaped piece of ivory socketed to toggle head and foreshaft and attached as a hinge to the leader or the foreshaft. Its object is to catch the strain caused by convulsive movements in the game and to render certain the speedy detachment of the toggle head.


One of the most interesting studies in connection with harpoons is environment in relation to culture - the play between the needy and ingenious man and the resources of game, materials, and tools. In E. Greenland is found the hinged toggle by the side of old forms; in W. Greenland a great variety of types from the very primitive and coarse to those having feathers of ivory and the hooks on the shaft. In the latter area are also throwing sticks of two kinds. On the W. side of Davis strait harpoons are heavy and coarse, showing contact of the natives with whalers, especially the Ungava [Inuit] examples. There also are flat types suggestive of N. Asia . From the Mackenzie River country the harpoons are small and under the influence of the white trader. The h arpoons of the Pt. Barrow [Inuit] are exhaustively discussed by Murdoch and those from point Barrow southward by Nelson.


From mount St. Elias southward, within the timber belt where wood is easily obtainable, harpoon shafts are longer, but all the parts are educed to their simplest form. For example, the Ntlakyapamuk of British Columbia make the toggle heads of their two-pronged harpoons by neatly lashing the parts together and to the sennit leaders. The Makah of Washington formerly made the blade of the head from shell, but now use metal; the leader is tied to a large, painted float of sealskin, the shaft being free. The Quinaielt of Washington have the bifurcated shaft, but no float, The Naltunne of Oregon have a barbed harpoon, with prongs on the blade as well as on the shank, while their cousins, the Hupa of N. California make the toggle, as do the Vancouver tribes, by attaching the parts of the head to a strip of rawhide.


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. 193-194.







© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College