The bikahtagenigan, or crooked knife, was an essential tool used by Native Americans in creating birchbark canoes, paddles and poles, brown ash split baskets, snowshoes, and clubs. The crooked knife is a drawknife made with a bent handle; the carver grasps the knife fingers-up with the blade facing him and pulls it toward himself, slicing and shaving the wood to form smooth surfaces.
Native Americans made the earliest crooked knives in the American Northeast and Atlantic Canada from beaver or porcupine incisors hafted into a wooden handle. Contact with French, English, and Scandinavian settlers brought the technology of metal blades to the Maine Indians by the early 1700s. The knives were widely made and used until around 1930, when modern manufactured goods replaced many items that were traditionally carved.
Crooked knife handles are often elaborately designed, displaying items such as the carved heads of animals, horse hooves, hands with wedding rings, snake bodies, inlaid photographs, women’s legs, and traditional deer and dove images seen in beadwork of the Iroquois. The knife pictured above shows a playing card motif.
Today, Maine Indian basketmakers and canoe builders still create and use crooked knives, and you can find a number of knives online at antique woodworking sites. And if you’ve used one before, upload your pictures — we’d love to see this traditional tool in action.
Crooked Knife Online Exhibit [Hudson Museum]