Saturday, October 20, 2007




Ted Orcutt, The Karok Master, King of the Flintknappers. at the he
turn of the last century there were many flintknappers working at
their craft. One of these knappers stands out among the rest as he
carried on a sacred tradition, the white deer knapper. The White Deer
knapper had the honor of knapping the massive obsidian blades for the
world renewal ceremony known as the White Deer Dance. The White Deer
Dance was very a huge undertaking and organizers spent years planning
for one event. The event was not only time and labor intensive but
was also financially very costly. To make things work out, each tribe
took a turn hosting the event that often lasted 3 solid days. The
actual dance involved dancers carrying stuffed albino dear skins on
polls followed by obsidian dancers that carried a set of two- twin,
massive obsidian bi-faced blades tied in the middle with a buck skin
thong. He who knapped the sacred, giant, ceremonial blades for the
Karok, Hupa and Yurok was a man of honor. The man who last held this
honor was known as king of the flintknappers, he was Theodore Orcutt.
Theodore Orcutt was born February 25, 1862 near the Karok Indian
settlement of Weitchpec on the Klamath River. Weitchpec is now at the
upper or north edge of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in
northern California. His mother was a full blooded Karok Indian, born
at the Karok settlement of Orleans, Oleans is only a short distance
from Weitchpec on Hwy 96, his father was a Scotsman. Theodore's
father, Albert Stumes Orcutt had fair skin, blue eyes and light hair
and was about 5.11 inches tall and ran Orcutt Hydraulic on the South
fork of the Salmon River at Methodist creek, Albert came to this area
from Maine where he was carpenter, although he had been a sailor
earlier in life. Later in life Albert had a small farm and Orchard on
the Klamath River.
Theodore's mother, Panamenik -Wapu Orcutt, was closer to 5 foot 6
inches , with jet black hair, brown eyes and dark skin. His mother
had the characteristic traditional female Karok tattoo on her chin, 3
vertical strait lines. At adolescence all traditional Karok girls had
their chin tattooed with three vertical lines, or stripes. Using a
sharp obsidian tool, soot and grease were stitched into the skin, the
same tattoo was on the biceps. The tattooing was for several purposes
all relating to gender and Klan affiliation. She was considered a
good cook and hard worker, she could make baskets, new the ins and
outs of herbalism and acted on occasion as a midwife. She also spoke
both the Hokan language and English. Theodore's mother stayed close
to him all his life and even in old age she made trips to visit with
him. His mother lived to the advance age of 107 years old.
In about 1865 young Theodore was given his Indian name, "Mus-su-peta-
nac" translated to English means "Up-River-Boy", Karok traditional
names were not given for several years after birth so if the child
died at a young age they would not be remembered by name and the
grieving would be less. The infant mortality rate for Karok in the
late 1800s was not good, at the Federal census of 1910 there were
only 775 Karoks living in 200 Karok homes.
As a child, Theodore road his pony to the local one room school house
and was a quite and good student. He was a quit boy and a very good
writer, had excellent penmanship and was well read, he was, however
largely self taught, because of his many other obligations. He helped
around the house and was diligent in his chores. While the country
was celebrating its first centennial, 1876, Ted was 14 years old and
had begun his flintknapping apprenticeship with his Karok uncle "Mus-
sey-pev-ue-fich" , his mother's brother, whom was a master
flintknapper and was considered the village specialist. It was a
great honor for Ted to be chosen to such a prestigious mentor (mentor-
a wise and trusted counselor) and he practiced when ever he could.
The raw material of choice for stone workers in northern California
at the time was obsidian. Obsidian is a volcanic, colored glass,
usually black, which displays curved lustrous surfaces when
fractured. According to Carol Howe (1979) "the amount of control that
a skilled workman can exercise over obsidian is amazing. Teodore
Orcutt, a Karok Indian, one lived at Red Rock near Dorris,
California. He learned the arrowhead maker's art from his father, who
was the village specialist. The giant blade in figure 1, now in the
Nevada Historical Museum at Reno, Nevada, is an example of his work,
though not ancient, it represents the almost lost hertage of an
ancient art. Orcutt told Alfred Collier of Klamath Falls that it took
years of practice for him to became proficient."
While still in his teens he began to master the art of flintknapping.
First he learned the percussion method of knapping (Percussion method-
the act of creating some implements by controlled impact flake
detachment) and after several years he could reduce a fairly large
mass of obsidian into a flat plate like biface (biface-a large spear
head shaped blank with flake scars covering both faces), he was also
becoming more adapt to the pressure flaking techniques with a hand
held antler tine compressor (Pressure flaking- a process of forming
and sharpening stone by removing surplus material with pushing
pressure- in the form of flakes using an antler tine). His
arrowheads, spear points and other flint work became quite nice and
he began to experiment with eccentric forms and often knapped
butterfly, dog, eagles and other zoomorphic (zoomorphic-abstract
animal shaped art) and anthropomorphic (anthropomorphic-abstract
human shaped art) forms out of fine quality, fancy obsidians provided
to him by his uncle. He was also in his teens when he learned the art
of bead weaver, brain tanning of hides and arrowsmithing.
In 1885, Ted was 23 years old and spend nearly all his time after
work flintknapping and crafting traditional Karok items. It was at
this age that one morning Ted's uncle told him to get his bed roll as
he was now ready to participate in the sacred act of collecting
lithic material. This was an honor that Ted had looked forward to for
many years and he was very excited. Ted ran back to tell his mother
but she was already standing outside with Ted's bed role and some
food she had prepared.


Michael Hough said...

Hi, Ray. Michael Hough here. Nice article. Where'd you gather all the historic info on Orcutt~? I just got a call from a fella who just got 4 of what are very likely Orcutt blades.

Am looking forward to Part 2.


Archaeo said...

I purchased 2 very large blades, said to be knapped by orcut. Please contact me.

Luana Dowling said...

I have a friend that just purchased what are believed to be Orcutt Blades. He would like to sell them and is looking to have them appraised. Is there anyone that has that ability around.