The Chief Legaic war dagger, "Eagle at the Head of the Skeena River"
Lot 2196
The Chief Legaic war dagger, "Eagle at the Head of the Skeena River"
length 21 3/4in
Sold for US$ 482,000 inc. premium

Native American Art

1 Jun 2009, 12:00 PDT

San Francisco

Lot Details
Property from the collection of Eugene Chesrow, Chicago
The Chief Legaic war dagger, "Eagle at the Head of the Skeena River" The Chief Legaic war dagger, "Eagle at the Head of the Skeena River" The Chief Legaic war dagger, "Eagle at the Head of the Skeena River" The Chief Legaic war dagger, "Eagle at the Head of the Skeena River"
The Chief Legaic war dagger, "Eagle at the Head of the Skeena River"
Consisting of a hand-forged double-edged iron or steel blade, a finely fluted fuller tapering to the point, the copper-clad grip wrapped in hide cords (with later string for reinforcement?), faint remains of red dye on the hide, the pommel chased, drilled and engraved to depict an eagle's head, an abalone inlay for the eye.
length 21 3/4in


  • Provenance:
    Chief Legaic; by descent through his family; Howard Roloff, British Columbia; to the present owner

    MacDonald and Cove, p. 200, The caption reads: "Wrought iron war dagger of chief Legaic still in the possession of a descendant".

    Chief Legaic Engraved Dagger
    Tsimshian, c. 1790-1830
    Iron or steel, copper, hide wrapping, abalone shell
    Length: 21 ¾”

    Northwest Coast daggers were at one time ubiquitous weapons, and were said by early observers to be carried by nearly every male among the northern tribes or First Nations. The oldest daggers were probably made from native copper, obtained as placer nuggets in the Copper River region of south-central Alaska and traded widely among Northwest Coast peoples. Many daggers were made of iron or steel, which were usually obtained in trade with Europeans or Americans. The oral histories of certain daggers also describe origins in meteoric iron or iron fastenings recovered from beached shipwrecks, many of which were Asian in origin. Some were made using recycled blades of Euro-American origin, while others were created in the traditional native double-edged form, like this fine example. The very first Europeans to make contact in the region remarked that all the Native groups they encountered had a name in their language for iron or steel, and knew how to work it, at least in terms of the more basic methods of forging and cold hammering. Certain traditional daggers were made in a double-bladed style, with one long and one much shorter blade on either end of the handle or grip area. Sharp on both ends, these would have been very formidable combat weapons. The pommel of this dagger has been formed so that the eagle head reflects some of the characteristics of the double-bladed type of fighting knife.

    Like the stratified Northwest Coast society itself, such objects as knives or daggers also occupied varying levels of recognition and status. The most elevated status was that of the clan heirloom object, a class of materials known in the Tlingit language as At.oow, meaning something ‘paid for’ or highly valued. Certain of the larger and more imposing knives or daggers attained this exalted status. Such objects were of both social and historical importance, and were recognized as a link between the people of the present and the many historical events the object participated in, as well as the spirits of individuals who inherited the proprietorship of these objects through the generations. The histories of some important heirloom daggers can be traced back through seven and more generations, and the highlights of their use and employment through time would be recounted when they were brought out on ceremonial occasions for display and spiritual support of the participants. The subject dagger at one time experienced this degree of high status and cultural importance.

    The traditional name for this impressive dagger is ‘Eagle at the head of the Skeena [River]’. The dagger is an heirloom of the Gispaxloats [Kispaxlu-uc], or ‘People of the Elderberries’ clan. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was owned by the highest-ranking chief of the Gispaxloats, whose name was Legaic [or Legaix]. This name, like most of its kind in the Northwest Coast, was hereditary, and was passed down from father to nephew through time. The Skeena River, along with the Nass, are the two largest and most important waterways that cut through the coastal mountain range from the sea to the interior plateaus of northern British Columbia. Various branches of the Skeena Tsimshian, or Gitk’san peoples, dwelled in villages positioned along its banks as far as two hundred and more miles inland, and the importance of these rivers for trade between coastal peoples and interior groups was tremendous. The owners of this finely worked and highly embellished dagger lived among the coastal barrier islands, and are known as the Coast Tsimshian by ethnologists and historians.

    Exactly when and where the Eagle at the Head of the Skeena dagger was made are unknown, though the knife was undoubtedly handed down within the clan from one generation to another. Legaic was a strong and powerful chief made wealthy through trade with the Tlingit, Haida, and other tribes of the region. He was the subject of both envy and distrust, admiration and disapprobation. He traded and made war far and wide, and many oral histories record his life and times. One of his most famous exploits was the creation of a complex pictograph, commemorating his dominance over trade on both the Skeena and Nass. He had the painting created on a rock bluff overlooking Ten Mile Point on the Nass River, a place where all the Tsimshian tribes would pass on the way to their most valuable fishing grounds. The painting, in red on the solid rock face, depicts the face of Legaic and twelve of his most valuable Coppers, which were high-status symbols of chiefly wealth and power. These historic images can still be seen today.

    The technical processes of making an elaborately embellished weapon such as this required a great deal of familiarity with metal-working procedures, some of which were carried over from the working of native copper, while others were probably acquired through observation of Euro-American blacksmiths. The iron or steel had to be heated and hammered into shape, which is known as forging. The more delicate aspects of this knife’s decoration would have been hammered into form using hot and cold chisels and punches, a process known as chasing. This would have been followed by the engraving of certain incised lines, as well as the drilling of the fine holes that run along the centerline of the mouth. A small piece of abalone shell was inlaid in the eagle’s eye, which is a characteristic that is very seldom seen in all-metal daggers like this exceptional example. The fine fluting down the length of the double-edged blade and the precise and detailed depiction of the eagle’s head at the pommel distinguish this as one of the most impressive and remarkable weapons of its kind.

    Steven C. Brown, former Curator of Native American Art, Seattle Art Museum
    April, 2009
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