Identifying Horn Spoons

Of The Columbia River Basin

by Jacen Arthur Greene

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Columbia river Basin Horn Spoon The sheep horn spoons of the Columbia River Basin, elegantly carved, reveal a simple but compelling artistry expressive of the ways in which the tribes along the river embedded art into everyday life. The Columbia River runs south through Washington State before continuing west along the border between Washington and Oregon, passing from high desert to temperate rain forest as it drains a vast intermontane plateau between the Rocky Mountains and Cascade Range. A number of Chinook and Sahaptin-speaking Native American tribes along the Columbia share elements of a common culture, reflected in the unique design elements of their carvings, baskets, and other items of daily life.Less well known than the popular beadwork and baskets of the region, carved sheep horn spoons nonetheless possess a profound elegance in their robust carvings and gently curved forms. Correctly identifying sheep horn spoons can be a challenging task, but a clear understanding of their method of creation, elements of design, and distinctive forms can help even the beginning collector to identify and appreciate these examples of native artistry.

Creation: Mountain sheep were once common throughout the rocky plateau of the Columbia River Gorge and surrounding area, providing a plentiful supply of material for transformation into bowl and spoon. To ready one of the curving horns for the carving and shaping process, it was separated from the inner bone core. A piece of the horn was cut from the outer curve and carved into the rough shape of the spoon. It was then boiled until soft enough for the bowl of the spoon to be spread and the handle recurved for a more easily grasped and aesthetically pleasing shape. (Holm). 

Design & Appearance The bowls of horn spoons are generally ovoid in shape with a flat rim. The outer rim of the bowl is often decorated with a band of incised triangles that form a zigzag pattern between them. A wide, flat band runs along the base of the bowl and rises into the handle. On finer examples, the handle is topped with a sculptural, angular carving of an animal, or less commonly, a human figure. Animal designs often face toward the bowl and stand out from the spoon on four separate legs or a pair of solid, half-circle shaped supports that rise in separate ridges above the animal’s back. A lowered tail may denote a wolf design, a common feature of wolf depictions along the Columbia. Another design element shared with other artifacts of the region is chevron-shaped ribs that stand out from the sides of the animal. According to some authors, these exposed ribs may represent a depiction of the animal’s soul. The surface of a few horn spoons may also be decorated with geometric shapes or human figures. (Brown, Holm, Jonaitis, Mercer).

Older, well-used spoons have a dark brown or nearly black patina and worn surfaces. More recent spoons are paler in color with well-defined edges. Most spoons with a dark patina and typical Columbia River design currently in museum collections are dated to the early and mid-19th century. The parallel, slightly wavy fibers of sheep horn spoons, along with the dark color, may give an impression of wood, but wood spoons are easily identified by the presence of concentric growth rings. Wood spoons also tend to have a flatter base, often with a groove along the underside, and a straighter, shorter handle. (Holm)

Similar Spoons: Hupa and Yurok spoons of the North Coast of California, made of wood or elk antler, generally lack any bowl design. California spoons have handles carved in abstract geometric shapes (often serrated along the edge), sometimes pierced with long openings, and lack the sculptural elements of Columbia River spoons. (Kelly).Tlingit and Haida spoons, made of wood or mountain sheep horn with occasional metal handles or abalone shell bowls, tend to longer and narrower, more ovoid shapes. A relief-carved or formline design of Northwest Coast elements (resembling the animals and faces on a totem pole) generally wraps around a long, pointed, recurving handle. Some are constructed from two separate pieces or have abalone shell inlays, both unlike Columbia River spoons. (Victor-Howe, Wardwell, Holm).

Woodland Spoons, made of wood, are simply carved and often have a small sculptural figure on a tip bent at a sharp angle from the handle. Flat discs or cutout shapes of metal are sometimes attached to the handle. Bowls are shallower and the sculptural elements more diverse and animated than in Columbia River spoons. (Brasser, Conn, Wardwell).
Plains spoons are often made of sheep, buffalo, or cow horn. Handles may be wrapped with quillwork or beadwork and the tip sometimes carved in the shape of a human or animal head, both unlike Columbia River spoons. (Brasser, Conn).
Conclusion: Columbia River horn spoons may have been used in ritual root feasts (Brown) by members of a “Root Society” who believed that handle carvings were representative of ancestor spirits (Jonaitis), but a definitive understanding of such items remains elusive. What is known is that such spoons were an integral part of the range of design and symbology that collectively define the outstanding artistic tradition of the Columbia River tribes.


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