The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Length: 35.000 cm
Gift of Stewart Culin
Room 26: North America
Pomo, early 20th century
From California, North America
The dagger is made from polished elk antler, with the hilt wrapped with fibre cord and otter [?] fur. The engraved designs include geometric forms and an arrow. It was made by the Native historian and artist William Benson (1862-1937).
Benson and his wife devoted much of their life to providing museums with superb articles of Pomo material culture. they worked particularly with the dealer Grace Nicholson from Pasadena. William Benson recorded stories of Pomo life. Best known is his account of the Stone and Kelsey Massacre of 1849. Two abusive ranchers were killed by the Pomo, which resulted in the wholesale massacre of Pomos by the U.S. Cavalry.
This type of dagger was worn around the neck by Pomo bear doctors, and used in the initiation of male adolescents into the bear society and in the killing of bears. Unlike other California bear cults, the Pomo bear cult had many aspects, not simply that of a guardian spirit, but rather of a rapacious plundering creature believed to inhabit the doctor's bearskin clothing. He would waylay and kill people, seizing their belongings. It was said that no more than four people could be killed by a bear doctor each year. He could be disarmed by removing the bear costume: one Pomoan story tells of Kamachi, from Yorkville Rancheria, who mistook two bears for bear doctors, but nevertheless was able to overpower and kill them.
J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)