The crooked knife was an essential tool to the Northeast Native Americans. The earliest crooked knives were made from a beaver incisor left imbedded in a portion of the mandible or a beaver or porcupine incisor hafted onto a handle. After European contact, the Northeast Native Americans had access to a variety of metal blades that could be modified to make their crooked knives. The Hudson Bay Company, and other companies that traded with the Indians stocked blades for crooked knives. Maine Indians made crooked knives with metal blades beginning definitely in the early 1700’s, possibly in the late 1600’s. Handles for these knives were plain or decorated with elaborate carvings or incised decorations produced by chip-carving, incising and/or etching.
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A crooked knife is used as a one-handed drawknife which has a crooked handle made from wood or antler. The knife is grasped fingers-up with the cutting edge held toward the user. Since the 1700’s the blades of a crooked knifes have been made by modifying a flat steel file, farrier’s knife, or straight razor making a tanged blade with a cutting edge that is beveled on only one side. The blade’s tang is then inserted into a wooden or antler handle and is secured to the handle with sinew lashing, pitched string, wrapped wire or a metal sleeve. Unlike knives used to whittle, the crooked knife is used to shape objects – splints of brown ash for baskets, ax and adz handles, canoe frames, and decoys – by slicing and shaving. Crooked knives were and continue to be vital to construct birch bark canoes, canoe paddles and poles. They were also used to make brown ash splint baskets, shape snowshoe frames, and to carve root clubs. Indeed – they are used to make all of these items today.. Crooked knives were/are also used to hollow out wooden bowls and dishes. Crooked knives were readily adopted and used by Franco-American, Franco and Anglo Canadian, and Scandinavian woodsmen, who recognized the utility of this knife form, which required no vice to hold the object being worked. In the Maine woods, lumbermen used crooked knives to make ax handles and wooden “folk art” carvings. Crooked knives were also used to make waterfowl decoys and were readily found in the tool boxes of Maine farmers, carpenters and non-native canoe company employees.
Northeast coast Indians crooked knive handles sometimes had/have elaborate workmanship. Crafted with care and decorated with motifs that had significance to their makers, these knives reflect the distinctive woodcarving traditions of Maine and Atlantic Canada. Other crooked knives, such as an seven piece set of a MicMac canoe maker, have unadorned handles that are simply shaped to fit the user’s hand and show scars and repairs of their long and intense useage. All handles of crooked knives are shaped to fit one individual’s hand. When you pick up a crooked knife you immediately feel if it is too long, too short, too wide or too narrow for you.
For the Wabanaki (the tribes of Maine, Vermont and Eastern Canada) from long before European contact until the Depression, crooked knives were commonly made and used tools. After the Depression their use declined significantly as modern manufactured goods replaced those objects formerly made with crooked knives (ie; birch bark canoes replaced by canvas and wooden ones). Today, Wabanaki Indian basket makers and birch bark canoe builders continue to use crooked knives, often those used by their grandparents or even earlier generations. These will be passed down to their children and nieces and nephews.
Recently some unscrupulous dealers have recently offered fake crooked knives –these have beautiful carved handles, with various older blades some from old razors or old knives. BUT the blades were put in by someone who has never used or held a real crooked knife and have been put in upside down! These knives could not be used to draw towards oneself. In addition it is obvious the handles bear no signs of use, and the back of the handles never have indents from use.
When you hold a crooked knife that is over 100 years old and that fits your hand, it is an amazing feeling – you sense how naturally it is gripped and drawn. You know you are holding a tool that helped people survive in a harsh environment. Crooked knives with decorated handles show the human need for art and urge for self-expression
Illustration from 1853 book showing how to use a crooked knife
Crooked Knife w/traditional chip carved diamond and triangle design -Private collection
Crooked Knife w/traditional vine design - Available on this website store in "Vintage Maine Indian Items" section
Antler Handle of 1900 Crooked Knife w/Penobscot double curve design - Hudson Museum, University of Maine, Orono Maine - Permanent Collection