A little bit of pre steel fun.
Finding the origins of the mokotagen and it’s design influence from nature or peel steel utilization of natural materials.
We have the flint shard mokotagen, a simple blade driven from core offers a nice chisel grind. This knife has actually performed extremely well, especially on soft woods like cedar, and green woods.
Second, we have the rib bone mokotagen.
This one was interesting, after speaking with a few canoes builders from the northern Amikwa nation, I was told that a few still save moose bones for their cedar carving. This one (3rd image) is deer bone, not as green as I’d have liked but still very functional.
What’s really interesting is just by taking the lines from this bone knife you can see its resemblance in design to today’s mokotagen.
Lastly, is the Beaver tooth, cut/split and pressure fit into a crook handle.
This one was a nightmare, months spent with a bag of Beaver teeth, breaking one after another until one tooth stood out with a natural crack running it’s length, showed where it’s weak spots are, as well as where it’s strongest at. Had this tooth been less brittle, it would have taken better shavings. I had to use it gingerly so as not to break it. Further work will be done once I have my hands on fresh teeth.
These tools beg the question, how many may have been found on dig sites and discarded as “waste” materials without a purpose?
Sometimes not a tool, is a tool.
A brief cliff note history and material use.
First and foremost this is a knife true to North America, it’s design pre dates European contact by thousands of years. It’s important to note that the name is just as important as the tool itself. Mocotaugen is the popularized Algonquin spelling, I personally use mokotagen because it’s the potawatomi spelling, but Cree will say mok’tagen and ojibway say Waabikomaan. The important thing to remember is that for the most part it literally translates into “something useful for emerging from wood “.
There has been misconceptions regarding the name because in the mid 1600 French missionary Sebastian Raselles called them “le ceateu croche” or hooked knife, later on the English referred to it as the crooked knife.
There was three commonly used materials for the blades and each one gives us different tangs. The blades aren’t limited to these thougj, as many were found to use old scissors and Jack knife blades.
The first recorded steel blade was from 1590, and was an old file.
Files seem to be one of the preferred stocks to use, and the same stock I use in mine. Files were everywhere back then, they were heavily traded, and with the same technique used to work copper in pre contact time, they were easily worked into blades. The use of files is what give us the “file tang”.
The second most commonly used steel was straight razors, these were heavily used in the north east by canoe makers, and give us the “side set” tang which is predominant in Maine tribes.
The third material was steel from flat stock like shovels, wagon wheels, barrel hoops, and cross cut saws. This gives us the “saw blade” tang commonly seen in the wood craft books of the early 1900s. This tang is a very limited use tang.
It’s important to remember that while a good mokotagen will handle hundreds of tasks, it’s not really a multi functional knife. It’s not supposed to be a one size fits all deal.
It’s not uncommon for the avid user to have upto 12 in thier arsenal. This is because blade shape determines use. Narrow, thin blades with shallow bevels work on soft woods, which is why the use of straight razor blades was so high among canoe builders. While Wider blades with steep bevels were used for medium to hard woods.
Narrow blades were produced to follow grain, while wide blades were used for cross grain cutting. It’s honestly taken me years to find the perfect mix for a general use blade that meets today’s needs.
The bends also play important roles in use, from almost flat for planing to deep curve for gouging. Before one sets out to build their own, these are aspects to take into consideration.
Use in history:
These knives basically allowed for a 4 tools methodology to live in the northern bush.
This was considered the man’s knife.
During the 1750s companies like Hudson Bay noticed their importance, so much so that it was one of the only native words used regularly by white traders. HBC had their own made by English blacksmiths to have for trade, but their lack of understanding only offered a horribly uncomfortable design. Which was widely rejected among native traders.
After the great depression, the need to make your own goods fell, and people moved from the sticks to towns, effectively causing the tools fall from grace. During the outdoorsman resurgence in the early 1900s woodcraft and Indian craft books produced how to chapters on making them, but completely botched the history, and design of them.
I’ve devoted ungodly amounts of time into research, building, and use of these knives. Traveling to northern communities and talking with the elders who grew up making and using them. I’ve made over 300, some for the average user, professional bark canoe builders, traditional craftsman, even museums. After all that time I’m still learning about these knives. Their history and use is so deeply ingrained into woodland area cultural that it’s almost impossible to track down all the information about them, and this short blurb really doesn’t do them justice.
These are one of my most heavily used tools in daily life, the practice of a four tool methodology (axe, knife, mokotagen, and awl) is a skill in itself because it requires extensive knowledge of materials being worked.
Out of all the information on the Internet, most being horrible twattle, there are two bits that stand alone.
First being the Jalbert Bros book “Mocotaugen the art of the crooked knife ”
While this is a very well researched and thought out book, it’s focus is less on the knifes history and more on its handle art and it’s meaning. This book was written for museum curators and collectors so they knew what they were looking at. It is a great read.
Second is a yearly collection review written for the Smithsonian in the early 1900s, entitled “The man’s knife of the northern woodland indian ” and it does a great job explaining this knifes role in woodland material culture.
I will add a third book, mostly because it’s a great book, Ferdy Goode’s “Song of the crooked knife”. This book show cases these knives and some of their more famous users through time. It’s well worth the read.