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Root Clubs: Unique to Maine Native Americans

Face - carved on a late 1700's root club
Face & Spirit Moose - current root club by Hugga Dana, Penobscot
Face -  carved on 1920's root club by Russell Joe, Penobscot

The root club is a truly Maine Indian item - There just don't seem to be examples of these in any other area. Made from the root ball and trunk of a small birch tree, the root club has been documented to have been made pre-European contact. Carvers trim and sometimes completely remove the bark of the sapling. The roots are sharpened and shaped into points, occasionally an animal or spirit will be carved on a root point. Human or spirit faces or animals are carved in the root ball under the points, sometimes incorporating a root point. The stock of the small tree becomes the handle and is then decorated with small cuts; "chip carving". While other cultures use chip carving to decorate wood, among Native Americans it seems that Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot are the only tribal groups to utilize chip carving as a decorative technique. Penobscots have long been know for the beauty of their chip carved items. Burnt work/pyrography is also used as a decorative technique on root clubs, Passamaquoddy root club makers more frequently use burnt work on their clubs.

PHOTOS ABOVE Showing carved faces from 3 different eras in the root bundles

  1. Face carved on a late 1700's root club. - Private Collection

  2. Face & Spirit Moose - current root club by Hugga Dana. - Spirit Moose; available in the "Current Maine Indian Arts -subcategory "Chip Carving" section of the store on this website - Spirit Moose by Hugga Dana, current work

  3. Face carved on 1920's root club by Russell Joe, Penobscot - Painted Club; available in the "Vintage Maine Items" section of the store on this website Root Club by Russell Joe C/1940's

Traditionally root clubs were used as weapons but some later ones were thought to have ceremonial or spiritual use. Some root clubs from the 1700's are still in existence. The carving on the handles of these have designs still used by Penobscot carvers today. The root balls are plainer in the older root clubs, some carvings on early root clubs have a reddish vegetal stain, but no paint. Smaller root clubs are thought to have been shaman's clubs for ceremonial use.

The traditional chip carving and designs on root clubs is an ancient skill which was nearly lost, but discovery that these could be sold as "tourist items" or "souviners" 1900 -1980's Maine Indian carvers of that era began incorporating designs that sold rekindle interest in carvers of this era. What sold at that time was a combination of the traditional form but with modern touches that appealed to the buyers - changes included painting the handles and the face or animals carved in the root bundle, using Plains Indian type headdresses on the faces that were traditionally carved on some root clubs. Place and tribal names sometimes appeared on the handles - as tourists liked mementos of where they had visited.

Senabeh, Ronald Augustus Francis, was a Penobscot carver who is most frequently accredited with preserving traditional techniques and incorporating traditional designs on the "tourist" style root clubs. Senabeh was born on Indian Island in 1914 and passed away in 1980. Stan Neptune, Penobscot carver and historian, credits Senabeh with teaching him the art of chip carved root clubs. Senabeh was a shaman, medicine man and one of the few Penobscots in 1960-70's that knew Penobscot culture, language and history. Stan Neptune came to Senabeh to learn his more of his own culture, while Senabeh talked he was carving. Stan learned of his culture and how to find the right trees, how to chip carve and much about the designs used on root clubs, walking sticks and talking sticks. Stan taught his own son, Hugga Joe Dana. Now Hugga is among the best (if not the best) chip carver. Hugga is happiest when out on his beloved Penobscot river and is a hunting and fishing guide. Hugga has taught his boyhood friend, Erik Sappier the chip carving art. Leo Francis, Clarence Francis and Russell Joe are three Penobscot carvers who were producing clubs and walking sticks in the 1920's-70's. Their work had some chip carving, but incorporated a lot of painting. Russell Joe's had chip carving that was more traditional than either of the Francises and his faces were very distinctive - his carved faces jutted out from the club or walking stick ... like the figure on a prow of a boat.

Walking sticks were carved in a similar fashion to root club handles, it is unknown how long chip carved walking sticks have been made by the Wabanaki. Early paintings and photos show some Wabanaki holding these. Talking sticks are currently also similarly carved. Some carvings from the 1940's-90's and a few today are made from poplar not birch.