Crooked knives are multi-purpose tools that were made and used by Woodlands Indians as early as the 1600s. They were documented by explorers, traders and missionaries as one of the most essential tools of “the Man of the North.” Woodlands tribes include those in the Northeast (Maine and the Maritime Provinces) such as Micmac, Penobscot, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy, and those in the Eastern, Central and Western Great Lakes regions such as Iroquois, Huron, Cree, and Chippewa.
The circa 1880 Northeastern Woodlands Indian crooked knife pictured here has a handle carved in the shape of a curled human hand, exemplifying the blend of function and artistic expression that elevates embellished crooked knives beyond the status of an everyday tool.
An excellent book, “Mocotaugan: The Story and Art of the Crooked Knife” (2003) by Russell Jalbert & Ned Jalbert (available as a pdf at mocotauganthebook.com), describes the crooked knife being used for everything from making wood shavings for fire starter to shaping ax handles, wigwam poles, storage vessel, snow shoes, canoe paddles, and birch bark canoes. The unique angle at which the blade is set into the handle earned this knife the name “crooked.” The blade is positioned so that the grip can be grasped with the thumb placed under the handle, allowing for a powerful stroke as the knife is drawn across wood towards the body.
Indians were adept at recycling useful materials, and often repurposed steel from a straight razor or a file to serve as the knife blade. In our example, the knife is secured to the handle with a harness of inlaid lead or pewter, but often blades are held with leather or wire wrap.
Not all crooked knives were elaborately carved. Utilitarian knives with simple handles would have been among the several crooked knives a woodsman typically owned. This unpublished photo from circa 1880 of a group of Cree Indians in Quebec shows three men (sitting at far right, sitting center front, standing in back near the tent opening) using their everyday crooked knives to shape canoe paddles.