The evolution of the mocotaugan
From the top: Early Stone Age knife; the first major advance in the cutting tool; a typical mocotaugan with steel blade; the steel-bladed mocotaugan as usable art.


Since time immemorial, this singular knife, along with the axe and the maul, was one of the most essential survival tools of the First Peoples of the Woodlands. It was a many-purpose tool, adapted to make use of the plentiful wood, reeds and rushes indigenous to the dense wilderness of forest and lakes. The knife was made with the blade attached to the handle at an angle, similar to a half-open jackknife, and was always used in a toward-the-body motion. Of all the many native tribes throughout the Americas, this shape of the knife and the way it was used were characteristics indigenous only to the tribes of the Woodlands.
     Over eons of time, the blades were made of stone and, later, sometimes with beaver teeth. (The beavers, when Europeans arrived, were often as big as bears, and they used their incisors the same way the knife was used — in a toward-the-body motion.) Beginning in the 1500’s, the blade was transformed — with European steel.
     The new form, almost always with blades made from settlers’ worn objects such as wagon springs and razors, spread swiftly throughout the Woodlands, that vast land that stretched from below the tundra of Western Canada east and south across the Great Lakes to the Atlantic and down the coast to the Carolinas. The knife became more than an essential tool; it became both a striking example of two-way acculturation in the New World and a major medium through which Indian artists expressed themselves in the Woodlands traditional art form — small-scale sculpture.
     For more on the nature and history of the knife, see the book, pages 34-48.