Language: Central Yup'ik
Cavilqaat. Tau taumeng wii atutullrat tangtullruamki qaygimi uitatullruama arnaungerma tang wii qanerrcigatellruunga. (They carved with it. I used to see them use it when they stayed in the men’s house, even though I was a girl. I was a mischievous girl.)
—Neva Rivers, 2002
The curved, or “crooked,” knife is an old tool still used by contemporary carvers. The knives were used for shaping masks, boxes, trays, tubs, harpoon shafts, bows, arrows, boat frames, and many other items. With its curved edge, a mellgar can sculpt grooves and concave interiors as well as flat or convex surfaces, and the sharp tip lends itself to the carving of fine details. The blade is scrap metal or a piece of steel knife or file. It is lashed to a handle made of wood, bone, or antler.
Region: Southwest Alaska
Object Category: Tools
Dimensions: Length 26cm
Accession Date: 1897
Source: E. W. Nelson (collector)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E176120
Identifying & explaining
Virginia Minock: Tua-i taun mellgar.
(That is a curved knife.(1))
John Phillip, Sr.: Qupsuutii. Uumek tua waten murak waten kapuskumku, tua-i-ll’ ayagtelluku caqirrngiinaqan uuggun alularluku. Tua-i-llu makunek kangirai cali miklicarluki. Wani-wa-gguq mellgar.
(The one used for splitting [the pointed end of the handle]. If I stick it in the wood, then let it go, and if it starts to go crookedly, you steer it with this one [the handle]. Then you use this side [curved knife blade] to make it thinner. This is the curved knife.)
Virginia Minock: He uses this [pointed] end to split the wood, a certain kind of wood, but he has to drive it, to make sure it doesn’t [wiggle].
Joan Hamilton: Mellgaq.
John Phillip, Sr.: Cali-llu aipaa natkeg atran aipaa canassuun.
(The other name for this is canassuun [curved knife].(3))
Neva Rivers: Qagkukmiutun makut canassuutet.
(People of the north call these canassuutet [plural of canassuun].)
John Phillip, Sr.: Canaluteng waten. Pingqertua wii makucimek.
(They carve with this. I have one of these.)
Neva Rivers: Yes, imkut curly-rluteng.
(Yeah, those ones that are curly.)
John Phillip, Sr.: Qanermiarkiurluni canaluni. Makut maa-i qayaliaqameng tamiin atulriit qayar aklukiurquni anguarucikuni aturluni, tua-i cali-llu makuicunateng angutet.
(One makes a fire-bath respirator by carving. When they made a kayak or implements for the kayak like an oar, they used this, and the men never lived without one.)
Virginia Minock: It’s an important tool for men.
John Phillip, Sr.: Taugaam wani makunengrat-ggun cavignek wii tua-i makunek tanglangellrunga ciuqliitnek. Atutunillruit imkunek tegalqunek-wa tam’ ii-i.
(After they got metal, I started seeing this kind. They said they used to use a stone back then, yes.)
Joan Hamilton: Ulukanek?
John Phillip, Sr.: Ii-i, tamakunek. Tamakunek pitullrunilarait makutaitellrani.
(Yes, those. When they didn’t have metal, they said they used to use that kind.)
Joan Hamilton: Metal is a trade thing, afterwards. This is a recent one. After contact, they started using these and before that they used slate.
Aron Crowell: Beaver tooth, also. The beaver tooth I think has a curved edge like that.
Joan Hamilton: Augkut-mi paluqtat, keggutaitnek-qaa aturlallruut-llu.
(What about those beavers, did they also use their teeth?)
John Phillip, Sr.: Pilallrullilriit-wa tua-i tamakunek-llu avani calissuutaitellermegni. Taugaam wii angumanrilamki nalluanka.
(They probably did back then when they didn’t have [metal] tools.
Since I wasn’t born at that time I don’t know.)
Joan Hamilton: He became aware when these were around [metal bladed], makungqelratni taugaam [only when they had this kind].
Virginia Minock: Cavigneng?
Neva Rivers: Yes.
John Phillip, Sr.: Wiinga paluqtalegmiungunrilama. Taugaam tua-i aturnilarngatait tamakut paluqtaat ipgata.
(I am not from a place where they have beavers. But I think they say that they used beaver’s [teeth], because they are sharp.)
Joan Hamilton: Una cauga?
(What is this one [handle]?)
John Phillip, Sr.: Makut-wa tulimaulriit. Tulimaneng makulilallruit asveret makuitneng augkut wiinga tangvalallrenka. Wii pingqertua asvermeng rib-aanek makuciqa.
(These are ribs. They used to use walrus ribs to make this kind that I saw. I have one that has this kind from a walrus rib.)
Neva Rivers: Iquit ukut ayuqsuicugnaqut ilait ukatmun ayuqetuciquq.
(I don’t think that the ends are all the same, and some may look like this.)
Joan Hamilton: They made different shapes over here [handle end].
Neva Rivers: Ukut-llu atutulqait imkunun qayaq imkuraqamegteggu, keluut maani repair-atuken elpet, matarciaqamatamakut string-at imkut atulteng itru [ ].
(They would use these [the pointed end of the handle] for the kayak when they went to repair it, you repaired the stitches here, when you unharness it.)
John Phillip, Sr.: Tulimat iquitneng-llu pililartut waten ayuqellrianeng wangkuta. Wii pingqellruunga ilaarturcuutmek qayamek waten. Ilaarrtursuutnek pilallruit.
(We make ones [handles] that look like this made from the tip of the rib. I had one for patching kayaks like this. They used to call them ilaarrtursuun [tool used for patching]).
Neva Rivers: Ataam elliqatamegteki uumeng cal’ aturluteng stitch-at imkut avaggun piluku uumeng cal’ aturluteng antaqluki [when they are going to put it (the kayak cover) on again, they would use this and do the stitching using this and also to take it (stitching) out.] Use this one and go through the same stitch [hole]. This is very useful one. And the ones that I know of, my papa’s, it’s shaped up like that.
Joan Hamilton: More round.
Neva Rivers: Rounded, yes. And he used it unarcimeng piaqami [when working on straight-grained wood]. Wedge-ameng pirraarluku kaugtuqarraarluku nutaan-llu taumeng piluku unarcineng piaqami [after using the wedge and after hitting it, then do it with that one when he’s working on straight-grained wood]. He used that [handle end] for his thumb and forefinger to be protect it, because it [the fingers] will lead this one [the handle] not to go by other way [crooked], but this one will protect it.
Joan Hamilton: Guide it.
Neva Rivers: Guide it. This way, this [the split] will be [straight], maliggluku qupiaqan [follow it when he is slicing it].
John Phillip, Sr.: Wiinga-w’ tua-i atulallrukenka tamakut. Maavet wani teguqerrluku tamakut unarciat ciumek wani qupuurqerlarait augkunek aitautneng aturluteng miklicarluteng. Nutaan-llu mikliriata una aturyugngarian aturluku qupurissuutekluku.
(I used to use those. Take it here first, the straight grained wood after splitting it, then use a wedge and make it smaller. Then after they are made smaller, if he is able to use this [the handle], he uses it to split wood.)
Neva Rivers: Uumun aturluteng [using that (the curved blade)] they made little kindlings [wood shavings], made sure that they make it real small. And when their [pile of shavings] was big enough, qipluku [twist it], imgulluku [wrap it up]. And they use it for the fire-bath [respirator].
Neva Rivers: Cavilqaat. Tau taumeng wii atutullrat tangtullruamki qaygimi uitatullruama arnaungerma tang wii qanerrcigatellruunga.
(They carved with it. I used to see them use it when they used to stay in the men’s house even though I was a girl, I was a mischievous girl.)
Joan Hamilton: Tangerrsugnarqellruut.
(It was good to watch.)
John Phillip, Sr.: Iqmiuciquni tua-i wani-w’ una ilua aturciquq.
(If he was making a tobacco container, he would use it [the curved blade] for [scooping out] inside.)
Neva Rivers: You have to use the thumb in here [on the concave surface of the curved blade], mikcuarauluku piukunegteggu [if they want to make a small one (hollow)], because I’ve seen my grandfather. My papa and my grandmother tell story about this kind [of tool].
Joan Hamilton: You can guide the depth with your thumb and finger. And that way you can guide how deeply you’re carving.
Neva Rivers: Camun cal’ atutullratki, aimegtessutekluki-gguq atutulqait-llu makut nuyanun, angutet aimegtaqamegteki.
(They also used it on different things, like for cutting hair they would use it, when they cut men’s hair.)
Joan Hamilton: Uigtuaqerrlii.
(I am going to try. [Laughter.])
John Phillip, Sr.: Ipegcetqapiarrlainarluteng makut aturyaraugut. Ipgailkuni canallra assiiciiquq. Taugaam ipegterrlainarluku.
(They use these very, very sharp. If it is dull the carving will not be good. They always sharpen it.)
Neva Rivers: And I’ve seen my papa, he tanned that big maklak [bearded seal (hide)] to make a qayaq [kayak (cover)]. He would use this kind [of knife] and go this way all the way to mangarrluku [bevel it].(4)
Joan Hamilton: Qavcitaaqerluci ayagnirluci makucinek aturyuumallruyiiceci?
(At what age were you able to use this?)
John Phillip, Sr.: Wiinga-wa piugngariama naspalalallrukenka. Tangvag. Waten qanrutlallruatnga, “Murilkelluten yuukina. Calilriit-llu murilkelluki yuukina.” Taluliyaurcama tua-i makuciq aturluku pilangellruunga.
(When I became able, I started trying to make things. Watch. And they would talk to me like this, “Be an observant person. Observe those who are working.” After I started making fish traps, I used this kind.)
Joan Hamilton: Qavcinek alrakungqellruyit?
(How old were you?)
John Phillip, Sr.: Allrakunka tang nallukenka. Tuani aipaagni twelve, taum nuniini pingataqlalria. Allrakuuput naaqevkenaki wani calituryaurtelluukut allrakuq ataneqevkenaku. Piugngariaqami yuk caliyugngariaqami avani calitullruuq.
(I don’t know my age. Maybe twelve, it seems to be around twelve. We didn’t keep track of age when we began to work, and it wasn’t important. When a person has learned to work, he began to work back then.)
Joan Hamilton: What they did was at first they watched, and then once they think they’ve learned enough, if they have somebody teaching them, then they’ll try on little things, hone their skills. They didn’t pay attention to age, instead they paid attention to skills development.
John Phillip, Sr.: Waten qanrutlallruitkut, piugngarikumta caliar, ca aturyugngarikeput piugngarilia ayagnirluta calilaassqelluta. Caliarput ikiungermi cangaituq assiriinarciquq. Munariinarluta.
(They would talk to us saying that when we are able to work and able to use things, we should start working. Even our work is ugly it would be okay, it will improve. We will get more skilled.)
Joan Hamilton: Epleneng-qaa nallunrilluku piugnarilleq, wall-uq angayuqarpet nallunirluku?
(Will you know when you are able or would your parents find out?)
John Phillip, Sr.: Tua-wa piugngaricirput tangerrluku ellimelaqaitkut. Waten qanruyutetangqertuq yugni wangkutni. Yuk wani piugngariaqan tua-i ayagnirluku cangnatuussqelluku piugngarillemtenek ayagluta. Tuaten qanrutlallruitkut.
(They summon us to do things by watching what we are able to do. In our tradition there is a saying: “If a person is able to do things, let him start.” And that is how it begins, that is how they would talk to us.)
Neva Rivers: Piugngarillra [when he is able]. Like they say they’re old enough, wangkuta-llu piugnariluki [we say they are able to] in our own language.
Joan Hamilton: They never told you that you couldn’t learn anything, you couldn’t do anything.
It’s just not time yet. And you know sometime in the future it’ll be time. (Laughter.)
[From discussions with Joan Hamilton (Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center and Museum), Virginia Minock, John Phillip, Sr. and Neva Rivers at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/22/2002-4/26/2002. Also participating: Aron L. Crowell, William Fitzhugh, and Stephen Loring (NMNH), Suzi Jones (Anchorage Museum), and Ann Fienup-Riordan.]
1. A mellgar is a “knife with a curved blade used for carving” (Jacobson 1984).
2. Mellgaq is the word for mellgar “curved knife” in the Hooper Bay-Chevak dialect of Yupik.
3. Canassuun “curved knife” literally means a “tool used for carving wood” (Jacobson 1984).
4. The verb base mangag- means “to bevel the edge of a skin for sewing” (Jacobsen 1984).
The curved or “crooked” knife is a traditional tool that contemporary wood carvers all across Alaska still use. Men employed them in the past to fashion masks, boxes, trays, tubs, harpoon shafts, bows, arrows, boat frames, and many other items.(1)
Because of its curved edge, the crooked knife can sculpt grooves and concave interiors as well as flat or convex surfaces, while the sharp tip lends itself to carving fine details. The blade—made from scrap metal or a piece of steel knife or file—is bent to form a curve and fastened onto a wood, bone or antler handle with a lashing of root, sinew or sealskin.(2)
Alaska Natives had crooked knives with metal blades from before the time of direct contact with Western explorers and traders. Captain James Cook, who met a group of Yup’ik kayakers in Kuskokwim Bay in 1778, wrote that: “They appeared to be wholly unacquainted with people like us, they knew not the use of Tobacco, nor was anything foreign seen about them, except a knife may be looked upon as such.
This indeed was only a piece of common iron fitted into a wooden handle, so as to answer the purpose of a knife; they however knew the value and use of this instrument so well that it seemed to be the only thing wished for.”(3) Zagoskin reported that the earliest Russian fur traders in Norton Sound found that the people there already possessed knives and other metal goods, probably obtained through trade from Siberia.(4) Before metal was available, carvers used sharpened beaver or porcupine incisor teeth with wooden handles.(5)
1. Curtis 1930:41; Fitzhugh and Kaplan 1982:168, 171; Hoffman 1897:783; Krech 1989:96-97; Nelson 1899:85-86; Ray 1966:54, 110
2. Fitzhugh and Kaplan 1982:168, 171-172; Hoffman 1897:783; Nelson 1899:85-86; Ray 1966:54, 110
3. Beaglehole 1967:403
4. Michael 1966:100
5. Fienup-Riordan 1988:216; Fitzhugh and Kaplan 1982:168, 171