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Eastern Woodlands and Prairie Indian feast bowls carved from wooden burls comprise an extraordinary genre within the North American Indian art corpus. Bowls with effigy forms likely derived from pre-Columbian pottery traditions that existed from about the Mississippi River drainage to the Atlantic Coast. Precious few examples of such noteworthy bowls of burled wood remain extant. The bowl proper can often be seen as forming the subject's body. An animal head on a bowl likely represents either a personal totem, or clan affiliation.
Burls with requisite qualities grow on only a few species of trees -- in particular, box elder and other maples as well as white ash. This bowl is of maple burl, which is characterized by a very fine grain with minimal pattern. Burled wood is especially suited for utensils repeatedly exposed to liquids and heat, for it is not inclined to split, as are staight-grained woods.
Carving a feast bowl in the traditional manner is a laborious task. Once a suitable burl is obtained, the carver utilizes a variety of hand tools to rough out a blank -- primarily rasps, a crooked knife, and a small adze. The blank is set aside to season thoroughly over a period of time. Finishing touches are accomplished with scrapers and polishing agents such as dried horsetail stems, or fine sandpaper in more modern times.
Full appreciation of effigy feast bowls necessitates understanding American Indian veneration of foodstuffs as being actual living essence. Food sustains life. Food is life. Even the act of consuming food in daily routine constitutes a ritual in and of itself. The serving of food is an essential component of most ceremonial activities -- the people as well as the totem animals' spirits playing an active role. The dramatic positioning of the hawk or eagle heads on rim of this serving bowl suggests some sort of communion between them, and with the feast participants. The story is told of a chief of a certain tribe presiding over a feast to which former adversaries had been invited. He pronounced a simple, yet eloquent invocation to initiate the feast, saying, "The Great Spirit meant for us to eat together in peace and friendship."
Benson L. Lanford
November 30, 2002