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Maine Indian Chip Carving - featured in March

Penobscot carver, Joe Hugga Dana, holding one of his chip carved root clubs.

Of all the wood crafts and arts made by Maine Indians, one is unique to them; the art of chip carving. This is done by other cultures around the world, but I believe among Native Americans only Maine's Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes utilized chip carving to decorate their tools. Root clubs are believed to be the first item to have been enhanced by chip carving. Root clubs too are unique to Maine tribes.

For many centuries Maine's first inhabitants relied on the woods around them to sustain them. Even when fishing in the ocean, ponds, lakes, streams and rivers, the woods of Maine provided the fishing tools. Birch trees provided bark for making canoes, containers, wigwams and moose calls. Birch saplings were dug up roots and all, then turned into serious weapons, root clubs. Ash trees provided the materials to make baskets. Cedars were sought after for their wood and their bark which was woven into pouches and rough moccasins. Maple sap was boiled into syrup and maple wood was burned for heat and cooking.

The first crooked knife, a chip carving tool, was thought to be a beaver incisor hafted to a wooden handle. The crooked knife is used to create chip carved designs. When trade provided metal blades for crooked knives the handles of these knives were themselves often chip carved.

It is unknown if the first chip-carved walking sticks were made for native use or for trade to tourists. I have not found any documentation about early Maine Indian walking sticks but have seen one, obviously made to sell, dated "1878" and inscribed "Poland Springs". Poland Springs, now and then famous for it's water. But in 1878 it was a popular spot for the nation's wealthiest citizens to vacation and to drink the now famous water which was then thought to have healing powers. A 350 guest room hotel, the Poland Spring House, had opened in 1876.

Sometime after that, a smaller version of the Maine Indian chip carved walking stick, the chip carved talking stick emerged as an item for sale. The talking stick has been used by many tribes, it gives the person holding it the authority to speak at a council meeting and is passed around to those wishing to have a say.

There are chip carved canoe paddles dating back to the early 1800's, chip carved cradle boards and cradles were made then as well. In the late 1800's thru the 1950's - 60's various chip carved wooden items were made for sale to the tourists (called "rusticators" here in Maine in the 1880's-1930's). The items with chip carving included wooden tomahawks, picture frames, easels and some rustic furniture such as side tables.

Today some exceptional chip carvers are making root clubs, walking sticks, talking sticks and paddles. Their work utilizes traditional tribal designs and motifs. Some of the work is completely traditional, some is most modern yet showing traditional roots.

Stan Neptune, Penobscot, is not only carving these items but has for years worked to document old root clubs. Stan was taught to chip carve by Senahbeh, an elder who at the time was one of the only chip carvers working. Stan taught his son, Joe Hugga Dana to carve. Hugga is one of the finest chip carvers of all time combining traditional chip carve design with an impeccable artistic sense to carve timeless works of beauty. Hugga's boyhood friend, Erik Sappier, Penobscot/Abenaki, apprenticed with Hugga and now produces his own style of chip carved items which are technically excellent with a style that is constantly evolving as Erik explores the possibilities of the art form.