Feeding the Ancestors: Tlingit Carved Horn Spoons

Carved Tlingit Spoons
Carved Tlingit Spoons
Carved Tlingit Horn Spoons From the Peabody Museum Collection

Carved horn spoons were among the most powerful, intimate objects created by the Tlingit people of the American Northwest Coast. Carved spoons depict supernatural and ancestral beings, natural phenomena, and animal and human characters. Each intricate handle manifests inherited stories through nested crests and figures. As with totem poles, one must "read" the emblems from the bottom up to appreciate their meanings.

Feeding the Ancestors: Tlingit Carved Horn Spoons presents a selection of carved spoons made and collected in the 1800s. At the time, Tlingit elites used spoons like these to serve food at ceremonies, simultaneously sustaining themselves and the ancestral beings carved on the handles. The interpretations and stories presented derive from collaborations among scholars, tribal historians, carvers, and other students of Tlingit material culture.

Tlingit villages were once located along the entire Northwest Coast, a dramatic landscape of rugged mountains, dense forests, and waterways. This productive, challenging territory was colonized by Russia in the eighteenth century and was purchased by the United States in 1867. Attendant violence, disease, forced labor, and forced assimilation profoundly disrupted indigenous people's lives. Tlingit people persisted through these tumultuous and troubling changes.

Spoons no longer feed the ancestors as they did in the 19th century, but they continue to bind modern tribal members with their ancestors and history. Carved horn spoons were reserved for formal occasions, including the ceremony of feasting, gifting, and mourning known as the koo.éex', or potlatch. Elites used spoons to serve and eat bear, goat, seal, eggs, fish, berries, and oil out of carved wooden vessels. To the Tlingit, the head, mouth, and tongue were vital parts of one's body, and eating was a potent physical and spiritual act. As participants feasted, the ancestral beings on spoon handles were nourished and honored.

The text and materials in this exhibit derive from the book Feeding the Ancestors: Tlingit Carved Horn Spoons, by Anne-Marie Victor-Howe (Peabody Museum Press, 2007). Dr. Victor-Howe is an anthropologist and former Hrdy Fellow at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. She is now an independent researcher and works closely with Native peoples in the Northwest Coast region.