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Root Club/War club: Penobscot c/1920


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. Traditionally used as weapons some later ones were thought to have ceremonial or spiritual use. Very small ones, less than a foot long are thought to have been shaman's clubs. The traditional carving on root clubs is an ancient skill which was nearly lost - but discovering that these could be sold as "tourist items" or "souvenirs" around 1900 -1930, Maine Indian carvers of that era began incorporating designs that sold - including painting them and 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.

This relatively small root club is very similar to one that appears on the back of the book "Spirits in the Wood" by Joyce Butler. This small book accompanied an exhibit of the same name at the Maine Historical Society gallery. The face that appears in this root club and the one on the book's back cover are nearly identical - in the carving and the painting as it the style of the chip carving on the handle. The caption identifying the similar club reads "Root club, birch, paint, "Indian" head, roots sharpened, chip carving, Penobscot ca. 1920.

This root club is 17.5" long and about 4.5" across and deep at the burl, the handle is relatively small diameter. Here there is a face carved on the front and on the back at the top of the burl is what looks to be an animal face (naturally appearing in the burl/roots) ... There is an eye , a snout and an ear. (Eye is a natural crack/hole in the burl) The face is painted (Painting of faces in root clubs was NOT done prior to 1900 - If you have one that has a painted face... it is not an 1800's piece! In 1800's berry stain was sometimes applied to sharpened root tips and later in 1800's on faces w/black coal tar stain for eyebrows and eyes - but NOT paint!!) - black, yellow and red paint was used on the face and the face and the carved/sharpened roots were stained with a deep reddish stain. Individual carvers tend to make the faces similar and to chip carve in a certain style - even using very distinctive designs. I have seen a number of this carver's root clubs.... wish someone could identify him. His chip carving - as seen down this handle is deep and large. His faces are clearly all similar. (see example in Joyce Butler's book previously mentioned) On front and back of this handle he has carved ash branches.. more about the meaning of that below

PLEASE view the slide show above so you can pause/enlarge all pics - viewing slideshow will enable you to view entire photo not just cropped portion .
The ash tree figures in the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy creation myth... Mythical creature Glooscap shot and arrow into an ash tree, splitting it and out of the split emerged "the people" ... legend of how humans came into existence. The ash is a sacred plant to these tribes. Ash splints are what the NE Native Americans used for their amazing baskets. Ash branches are a favorite chip carved design element on most all root clubs

Root Club/War club: Penobscot c/1920  - face
Root Club/War club: Penobscot c/1920,  in slideshow - entire side
Root Club/War club: Penobscot c/1920  - chip carve detail
Root Club/War club: Penobscot c/1920 -entire club back w/book
Weight: 2 lb