Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A 17th Century Calling Card

By: Paul D’Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator, and Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art
It is probably one of the 17th-century’s most feared calling cards. An object, not a piece of paper, carrying a visage, not a name. It is also exceedingly rare; only one or two others are known to exist anywhere in the world.
Why refer to the club as a “calling card?” The 17th century Captain William Hyde explains, speaking of the Iroquois: “Now When These Men Goe a Scalping in Canada, they scratch the markes they have on their faces and bodyes upon their Clubhamers which they always leave behind them with the dead body, that it might be Knowne who did the action.” It was also a powerful statement to leave your war club next to your slain enemy’s body on the battlefield.
War clubs were often inscribed with personalized information and messages. On this club the self portrait features the owner’s tattooed face; a rayed sun motif at his mouth, a straight line and a dotted line running diagonally across his face, and a zigzag line arcing over his left eye. The small notch in his ear indicated that there may have been a feather or down decoration there. The self portrait is linked through a “power line” with an image of a turtle, the owner’s guardian spirit, on the other side of the club.. Warriors also ornamented their bags, spoons, bowls and other personal items with their particular guardian spirit. Also present on this club are markings illustrating the owner’s war records, or records of his war exploits; two slain enemies are visible under the turtle. A wolf with his tongue lolling out adorn the end of the club, its eyes were likely once inlaid with shell.

As a product of one of the New England coastal Native American groups in the mid-17th century, it is likely that this piece was used during King Philip’s War in 1675-76. Family records state that it was captured by Lieutenant John King in 1676 in a battle near Hatfield, Massachusetts. King helped lead the colonists and their Indian allies against the followers of the Indian leader Metacom, known to the English as “King Philip.” The war was particularly bloody for the time period in the American colonies; more than half of New England’s 90 towns were attacked by Metacom’s followers, including Plimouth Plantation itself, and more than 800 colonists and 3,000 Natives lost their lives. The Natives lost the war, and Metacom’s head was reportedly displayed at Plimouth Plantation for 20 years. Don’t count on seeing it there today.

The club remained in the King family for more than 300 years. One of the owners, Timothy Dwight (President of Yale College and an important writer of travelogues through the early Republic), wrote of the club in 1821, “I had one of these [war clubs] in my possession many years; in shape not unlike a Turkish sabre….On it were formed several figures of men….Some of them were standing; some of them were prostrated; and a few had lost their heads.”

Every time we see this club, we think of the recreated 17th-century objects and buildings at places like Plimouth Plantation and how rare a treat it is to see and experience anything surviving from the 1600s. This war club stands as a vivid reminder of the sometimes violent clash of cultures that accompanied the expansion of colonial settlements into Native territory. The club’s turbulent history, however, stands in marked contrast to its serene and elegant artistry, a testament to the proud and vibrant culture from which it came.
Photography by Richard Walker.

1 comment:

Le Loup said...

Great post, thanks for sharing this. Would love to see more 17thc. & 18th century.
Regards, Le Loup.
http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com

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