Mohawk and Zulu heritage

26 12 2013

I have two ‘protective’ pieces of cultural heritage in my house (actually, I probably have many more, but these ones are pretty unusual for someone living in Australia).

The first is an assegai that came from my maternal grandparents, who were both born and raised in South Africa, and who came to Western Australia in 1927. They returned to South Africa a couple of times in their later years, and my grandmother died there while visiting with her family on one of their trips back (1978); my grandfather died in Western Australia in 1994. In their house they had a few African pieces, and for some reason I have their old assegai.

I don’t recall how I got it — whether my Mum gave it to me after my grandad died, or whether I asked for it (though I can’t recall ever doing so, as I don’t even think I can remember seeing it when I used to visit as a child). Anyhow, I’ve always known it as an assegai, though some might call it a spear. When I checked Wikipedia, the description on an assegai perfectly fits what I have — a wooden shaft, with a crude iron spear, which is about 30 cm long. I guess I always knew it was some sort of weapon, but that Wikipedia article confirms it.



The other is a Mohawk ‘dancing stick’ that I purchased from a Tyendinaga Mohawk store in 1986 when I lived in Ontario, Canada.

I can vividly recall going into the store and wandering about looking at all the stuff. The only thing that really drew me in the store was this dancing stick, which was hanging high on the ceiling well out of reach and which wasn’t for sale, according to the chap serving in the store. He said it was a ceremonial stick and it wasn’t for sale as they still used in it ceremonies and it was a traded gift from another tribe. It was only in the store for display and storage purposes. At least, that was his story and I had no reason to disbelieve him. I kept coming back to it and looking up at it, and kept asking if it was for sale, and about the history of it and what it was made of (deer antler, white tailed deer hide, deer suede, eagle feathers, and blue and red beads). Then I’d move off, then come back.


I was drawn to this piece of Canadian First Nations culture for some reason. I was the only one in the store, and he could see me going back to it time and again. Eventually, I decided it was time to move on. But on my way out he stopped me and said he could see how drawn I was to this piece. So he sold it to me, knowing it would go to Australia to live out its days. I can’t recall how much I paid for it, but that’s totally irrelevant anyway.

Australian Customs is notoriously harsh about ‘fur, skin, and feathers’, so when my box of belongings arrived in Fremantle Port some four months after I’d sent it home from my year in Canada, I had to go down to Fremantle Port Customs to claim it and to declare the dancing stick. There was always a risk that it would be confiscated and destroyed by Customs, but that was a risk I was prepared to take. The guy at the counter was really good about it — he said it would have to be gamma radiated, but as their unit was a fixed size, they’d have to cut the stick in two! However, he said they’d try to cut it where the cut couldn’t be seen. A week or so later I got a call to come pick it up, and when I did so, I couldn’t see where they’d cut it in half. The guy at the counter told me they’d pushed back the deer suede and cut it in half there, then had joined it by using a piece of dowel in the centre and gluing it back together again. I still cannot see the cut!

The main reason I’ve written this blog post is so that I have some documented history of these pieces and how I came to own them (or they came to own me!). And the reason I’ve written about them now is that a small piece of deer fur fell off the dancing stick last night (possibly where that cut had been made and the deer hide glued back?) and I glued it back on today. And took some photos of it.



2 responses

26 12 2013

Very interesting post and adventure!!!!

1 01 2014
Dawn C.

I have some American Indian art/jewelry that I love.

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