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Canes Throughout History

Walking sticks help people around the world negotiate the ups and downs of living in a three-dimensional world. But sticks have also been used by many cultures for purposes other than orthopedic aids. In Europe, bishops and other church officials have carried ceremonial staffs, and houses of parliament are officially opened by the movement of the Speaker's mace. Western European males in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries "wore" decorative canes as fashion accessories.

It is also known that Northwest Coast First Nations used elaborately decorated ceremonial staffs in public events as a symbol of the office and status of the chief.

It is assumed the use of ceremonial staffs by First Nations originally developed independently of European uses. A recent research project gave me the chance to survey collections of canes and staffs at the Royal BC Museum and other museums and locate historical records to discover the relationship between staffs in the two cultures. My survey also covered the production, use and meaning of decorated walking sticks.

Ceremonial staffs were used by many Northwest Coast cultures, carried as a symbol of the office and status of chief. These beautifully-carved, often-tall cylinders were also referred to as speaker's staffs, as they were held by an individual speaking on behalf of a chief. While most Kwakwaka'wakw speaker's or chief's staffs are about shoulder height, the staff shown in figure 1, with its magnificent, painted heron and whale crest, is only just above waist height (113 cm). 

Historical photographs reveal staffs used in other ways. In 1865, Governor Frederick Seymour ordered malacca staffs from British India with cast-silver heads for the purpose of "presenting a staff of office to each friendly tribe." A series of photographs discovered in the Provincial Archives shows three men, identified as Interior Salish, wearing fringed, leather coats, and one man holds a Seymour staff.

Staffs are defined as carved or decorated cylinders usually higher then the holder's waist and held mid-shaft. Canes are much shorter, held by a handle at the top of the shaft and were used in everyday life. Evidence indicates that aboriginal men, like Europeans, used canes as a fashion accessory.