For many cultures food is important on a variety of levels. Food is a necessity for life, but can hold deeper meaning. When your mother makes you chicken soup when you’re sick, its broth helps sooth your throat and strengthens your immune system. But it also becomes a symbol of her love and care.

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Above: Seneca Effigy Ladle, ca. 1760, ash burl, 4 1/2″ x 5 1/4″. Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY T0031.

This Seneca effigy ladle, from NYSHA’s Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, also adds meaning to a meal. Carved from ash burl around 1760, it turned the act of consuming daily sustenance into something deeper.

For the Seneca, a nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, food staples consisted mainly of cultivated crops, farmed for the most part by women. Men hunted for meat in addition to the corn, beans, and squash that made up the core nourishment. These three crops were the focus of many ceremonial activities, speaking to their importance. The widespread use of ladles attests to Seneca reliance on soups made from these vegetables and hunted meats.

The handle of the ladle is carved into an effigy, the representation of a bird of prey in this case. For the Iroquois, dreams often served as the inspiration for the carving of effigies, which also appear on other food service implements, including bowls and spoons, as well as objects like pipes. The addition of an effigy had the power to turn these everyday objects into the physical embodiment of something spiritual. The stylized carving of the bird does seem to reflect something dreamlike.

It is likely that a male member of the tribe carefully carved the ladle using a tool he had made from natural materials or a knife traded from the European settlers. This effort endowed the simple instrument with significance and turned the act of consuming a meal into more than an act of subsistence. While we most often associate women with this power, in this case men were given the chance to bestow food with innate meaning through the act of utensil carving.

The back hook of the effigy handle allows the user to hang his or her ladle from the rim of a bowl. It is also easy to imagine that the hook may have made transport simpler.  Effigy utensils would have belonged to specific individuals and been carried around when visiting others or traveling. This way their owners could nourish not only their bodies, but also their souls during any meal.

The importance of the effigy ladle has continued to be recognized. It is believed to have been collected from the Tonawanda Reservation in Western New York and passed down through antique dealers before eventually landing a spot in the Thaw Collection, where it can be seen today.

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References:

Betty Coit Prisch, Aspects of Change in Seneca Iroquois Ladles, A.D. 1600-1900 (Rochester, NY: Rochester Museum and Science Center, 1982).

Gilbert T. Vincent, Sherry Brydon, and Ralph T. Coe, eds. Art of the North American Indians: the Thaw Collection (Cooperstown, NY: Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association, 2000).

-Britney Schline, CGP ’14

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.

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