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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)


Photo: Susan Cole


ca. 1800

Whale bone clubs have long been in use on the southern Northwest Coast, in particular among the Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth cultures of the region of Cape Flattery and the west coast of Vancouver Island. This club appears to be closely related in style to several other examples collected by Captain James Cook in 1779 at Yuquot Village, Vancouver Island. The designs carved into the surface of this club, which include the thunderbird and lightning serpent, are symbols of the whaling tradition that is central to Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth cultures. The thunderbird, or supernatural eagle, has the ability to capture whales in its talons. Lightning serpents act as their supernatural associates and can be used as lightning boltsthe harpoons of the thunderbirdsto successfully impale the hunted whale.

This club has a similar shape and decoration to those known to the Wakashan-speaking Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth. Typically, these clubs are approximately 20-inches long and 3-inches wide, with the blade slightly rounded rather than flat. The blade includes relief carvings of circles and trigons arranged vertically down the center of the blade. The handle, or pommel, is often an elaborate sculpture of the heads of birds or humans that sometimes wear what appear to be a headdress. Holes cut near the pommel originally held thongs of hide that were attached to the wrist of the wearer so that the club would not fall away.
22 3/4 x 2 7/8 x 1 in. (57.8 x 7.3 x 2.5 cm)
Purchased with funds from the Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council of the Seattle Art Museum and General Acquisition Fund
Provenance: [Jackson Street Gallery, Seattle, Washington]; purchased from gallery by Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 1999
Photo: Susan Cole
Not currently on view

Warfare on the Northwest Coast

Warfare was a very real element of Northwest Coast Native life. It was undertaken mostly to avenge wrongdoing and to capture slaves and goods. Weapons included clubs, daggers and an array of body armor, such as heavy hide tunics and leg protectors, wooden slat armor for the upper body, wooden neck guards and helmets. Clubs of stone were most certainly used as offensive weapons; however, whether clubs made of whale bone were used in battle or used ceremonially is not clear. Clubs of wood, stone and bone were often elegantly carved with relief designs on the blade and sculpted with animal and human figures on the pommel. Both the relief and sculptural designs likely refer to powers needed by a warrior in battle. After contact with Europeans and Euro Americans and the suppression of warfare by Indian agents and missionaries, some aspects of revenge and the duty to uphold the status of a clan or family that had been wronged was transferred to social events like the potlatch and resolved ceremonially.
Ka'heit'am (Stone club), pre-1778, Nuu'chah'nulth, Mowachat, Yuquot village, 91.1.21

Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah Whale Bone Clubs

The Makah people of the northwestern-most tip of Washington state and the linguistically related Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations of the west coast of Vancouver Island have long-established traditions of hunting humpback and gray whales for meat, oil, bone, sinew and gut. Participants in a hunt, which tradition dictated were only individuals of high status, prepared physically and spiritually for this dangerous endeavor. Archaeological discoveries at the Ozette site near Neah Bay reveal whale bone fragments and implements, including clubs, indicating that whale hunting dates back at least 500 years.
Makahs cut up whale on beach at Neah Bay, Washington, 1910, Asahel Curtis
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, NA721

Contemporary Makah Whaling

In 1855, the Makah signed the Treaty of Neah Bay with the U.S. government, reducing the size of their traditional lands but guaranteeing their right to hunt whales. The treaty stated "The right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said [Makah] Indians in common with all citizens of the United States." In the 1920s, the gray whale population diminished as the result of commercial whale hunting. The full recovery of the population to precommercial levels and the removal of the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994 made it possible for the Makah to resume the hunt. In May 1999, the Makah conducted the first successful whale hunt in more than seventy years. A U.S. federal appeals court ruled that the tribe had to comply with the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and obtain a waiver before it could proceed with another hunt. The tribe applied for a waiver in February 2005. Currently, the U.S. government is reviewing the tribe's request in an environmental impact statement and will begin a formal rule-making process. After the Makah are granted a waiver, their hunts will be conducted with a domestic permit, as they were during the successful hunt in 1999.

Other Clubs Across SAM's Collection

Carved Club (wahaika), n.d., Maori, 57.22
Club, most likely pre-contact, Puget Sound Salish, 92.12
Ka'heit'am (Stone club), pre-1778, Nuu'chah'nulth, Mowachat, Yuquot village, 91.1.21

View a Map of the Northwest Coast

Map of Northwest Coast
© Seattle Art Museum

The Antiquity of Whale Bone Clubs

Some clubs, like the ones found at Ozette, were excavated from datable sites: the material from the Ozette site dates from about 300 to 500 years ago. A few notable bone clubs were collected during early European expeditions to the Northwest Coast, including those of Captain James Cook in 1778 and Captain George Vancouver in 1792. Several of these clubs are in collections in European cities, including London, Exeter, Cambridge, Florence and Vienna, a result of these artifacts being disbursed and traded among institutions.
Nootka group in interior of house, Nootka Sound, British Columbia, 1778, John Webber
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, NA3918

Other Whale Bone Clubs in SAM's Collection

This club from the northern Northwest Coast displays a different style than the Nuu-chah-nulth/Makah example. While the Nuu-chah-nulth/Makah club has a smooth, symmetrical blade and simple geometric elements incised on the blade, the Tsimshian club is very sculptural and asymmetrical, providing an abundance of surface decoration. It is possible that the creature represented might be the bulky elephant seal that mates off the coast of California. The extended trunk like nose depicted at the top suggests such as attribution.
Whalebone club<b/><i/>, ca. 1850. Coast Tsimshian,  Haida, 97.37

Other Makah/Nuu-chah-nulth Works in SAM's Collection

piku ?u ?is lukwidab (large basket with lid), ca. 1910, Native American, Makah, 86.90
Humpback Whale, 20th century, Charlie Swan, Native American, SC76.309
ciapuxas (whaler's hat)<b/><i/>, 1960s, Jessie Webster, Nuu-chah-nulth, Ahousaht, 95.83
ciapuxas (whaler's hat)<b/><i/>, 1960s. Jessie Webster, Nuu-chah-nulth, Ahousaht, 95.84
Human face mask<b/><i/>, 1979.  Arthur Thompson (Tsa Qwa Supp), Nuu-chah-nulth, Ditinaht, 1948 - 2003

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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