Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Bone-Work Among Native North Americans



[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 American 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.]



The use of bone and related materials, including antler, ivory, horn, whalebone, turtle-shell, and the teeth, hoofs, beaks, and claws of many creatures, was almost universal among Indian tribes. The hardness and toughness of these materials made them desirable for many kinds of implements and utensils, and their pleasing colour and capacity for high polish caused them to be valued for personal ornaments. Since both man and beasts of various kinds have an important place in aboriginal mythology, it is to be expected that in numerous instances their bones had a special sacred significance and use, as when, for example, the skulls and paws of small animals were used for mixing medicine,


Not uncommonly the small bones, teeth, and claws of various animals, the beaks of birds, etc., were strung as beads, were perforated or grooved to be hung as pendant ornaments or rattles, or were sewed on garments or other objects of use. These uses are illustrated in the necklaces of crab claws and the puffin beak ceremonial armlets of the [Inuit], by the bear-tooth necklaces of many of the tribes, by the ells-tooth embellishments of the buckskin costumes of the women among the Plains Indians, and by the small carved bone pendants attached to the edge of the garments of the ancient Beothuk (see Adornment). Teeth and small bones, such as the metacarpals of the deer, as well as worked bone discs and lozenges, were used as dice in playing games of chance and gaming sticks of many varieties were made of bone. In pre-colonial times bone had to be cut, carved, and engraved with implements of stone, such as knives, scrapers, saws, gravers, drills, and grinding stones, and with some of the tribes the primitive methods still prevail. Although indispensable to primitive tribes everywhere, this material occupies a place of exceptional importance in the far N. beyond the limits of forest growth, where the only available wood is brought oversea from distant shores by winds and currents. The [Inuit] have the bones of the whale, seal, walrus, bear, wolf, moose, reindeer, musk-ox, and a wild sheep, and the antlers of the moose and deer, the horns of the sheep and ox, the teeth of the bear, wolf, and reindeer, the ivory of the walrus and narwhal, fossil ivory, the whalebone of the right-whale, and the bones of the smaller quadrupeds and various birds, and their skill in shaping them and adapting them to their needs in the rigorous Arctic environment is truly remarkable. The larger bones, as the ribs of the whale, are employed in constructing houses, caches, and shelters; for ribs of boats, runners for sleds, and plates for armour (Nelson). Bone, ivory, and antler were utilized for bows, arrows, spears, harpoons, knives, scrapers, picks, flint-flaking implements, clubs, boxes, and a great variety of appliances and tackle employed in rigging boats, in fishing, in hunting, in transportation, in preparing the product of the chase for consumption; for weaving, netting, and sewing implements, household utensils, tobacco pipes, gaming implements, toys, dolls, fetishes, amulets, and artistic carvings of many kinds. Personal ornaments and toilet articles of bone and kindred materials are more numerous in Alaska , where beads, pendants, hair-pins, combs, labrets, belt clasps, belt ornaments of reindeer teeth. etc., are largely made and ingeniously applied. The artistic work of these northern peoples is shown in their extremely clever carvings in ivory and their engravings of various ornamental and pictorial designs upon objects of use and ornament, but there seems to be sufficient ground for the opinion that these particular phases of their art are largely of recent development and are due to association with white men and as a result of the acquisition of metal tools and perhaps also to some extent to contact with Indian tribes which in their turn have been influenced by the whites. The wide range and vast numbers of the objects of art shaped from these materials by the Arctic peoples of the present period will be more fully appreciated by reference to the works of Boas, Murdoch, Nelson, and Turner, in the annual reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology, and by a visit to the ethnological museums.


Bone and the allied substances have been, and are, favourite materials with the tribes of the Pacific coast. The utensils, implements, ornaments, and totemic and symbolic carvings of the N. W. coast tribes are often admirable and display aesthetic appreciation of a high order (Niblack, Boas). Their carvings in bone, ivory, and antler, often inlaid with abalone, and the graceful and elaborately carved cups, ladles, and spoons of horn, are especially noteworthy. The art of the tribes of the Fraser basin and the Pacific slope S. of Puget sd. is much more primitive, though bone was in general use for implements, utensils, musical instruments, gaming articles, and ornaments (Abbott, Goddard, Powers, Smith), great numbers being preserved in our museums. Many of the tribes of the arid region, the great divide, the Mississippi valley, and the E. still employ bone, horn, antler, and turtle-shell, to a large extent, but metal has largely usurped their place, especially for implements, hence finds from village sites, cemeteries, and burial mounds must be depended on largely for knowledge of the aboriginal bone-work of these regions. The ancient Pueblos inlaid some of their implements and ornaments of bone with bits of turquoise and other bright stones (Fewkes, Pepper). Among the tribes of many sections bones of deer and the larger birds were used for flutes and whistles, and shells of turtles for rattles, and the latter were often made also of beaks of birds and hoofs and dewclaws of deer and other animals, or by attaching these articles to parts of the costume, or to bands for the wrists and ankles. Champlain illustrates a game drive in which the drivers appear to be beating with bones upon clavicles of some large animal, and among the Plains tribes and the Pueblos a sort of saw-fiddle in which sometimes a scapula is drawn over a notched stick, or over another scapula, for keeping time in ceremonial dances, is employed. The mounds of the Mississippi and Ohio valleys and the Southern states have yielded a wide range of objects, both useful and ornamental. Of the former class, awls, fish-hooks, pins, arrow-points, cutting tools made of beaver teeth, and scraping tools are the most important. Of the latter class, beads, pendants,, gorgets, pins, wristlets, etc., are worthy of note. There are also bone whistles and flutes, engraved batons, and various carvings that would seem rather to be totemic and symbolic than simply useful or ornamental; horns of the buffalo and mountain sheep were made into dippers and cups, and were also, as were the antlers of deer, utilized in head-dresses by the ancient. as well as by the present peoples. The scapulae of large animals formed convenient hoe blades and, as such, were probably universally employed by the native agriculturists. A novel use of bones is that of plating them with copper, illustrated by the plated jawbone of a wolf obtained by Moore from a Florida mound. In the wonderful collection of objects from the Hopewell mound, near Chillicothe , Ohio , is a human femur engraved with intricate and finely executed symbolic figures (Putnam and Willoughby ).


The literature of this topic is voluminous, though much scattered, and is embodied mainly in reports on field researches published by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum, the Bureau of American Ethnology, the Reports of the Minister of Education, Ontario, the leading museums and academies, and in works of a more general nature, such as Moorehead's Prehistoric Implements and Fowke's Archaeological History of Ohio .


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. 66-67.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College