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Pacific North West Coast American Masks

Pacific North West Coast North American Masks North America is home to a ... range of American masks. Some of these are ... dating back ... others are modern based upon the tradit

Pacific North West Coast North American Masks

North America is home to a fantastic range of American masks. Some of these are traditional dating back centuries others are modern based upon the traditions of Madi Gras and adaptations. If we extend the range a little into the Caribbean there is also the Trinidad Carnival the most famous of the festivals in this particular culture.

The area to be covered here are; The Pacific North West Coast

The masks of the Pacific West Coast of North America are a reflection of the lifestyle, mythology and religious beliefs of the indigenous people. Here you will come across several distinct tribes, the most well known being; Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw ( or Kwakiult ), Tsimshian, Tlingit, Bella Bella, Nuu-chah-Nulth and Makah. The artistic style of these peoples has a commonality in the use of curved symbolry which occurs within pictures of people and creatures, both real and mythological and surface decoration. Here there are rich formalised traditions developed over many centuries to expressing the individuality of the area.

Art work and in particular carved wooden mask were collected from this area from the time of the first incursions of western sailors. Sadly the diseases brought by these visitors had a devesting effect almost wiping out some of the villages. Later devastation to the cultures were wrought by the church and local officialdom. Children were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools to take them away from the tribal ways. Art work and ceremonial regalia were burned driving traditional practices underground. The survival of the art and traditions of this area are now recognised as important. In particular traditional art work is one manner in which the people of this area can communicate the value of their interpretation of the world to the rest of us.

I had the opportunity to visit this area during 2003. The whole coastal area is extremely verdant. Tall temperate rain forest trees grow to the edge of the sea. Wild life abounds in the sea and forest. Salmon and whales are common in the sea and deer and other game animals fill the forests. The area is abundant in all those things that makes a hunting collecting way of life the natural choice for the inhabitants. The mountainous terrain also forces settlements to be near the sea or in valleys.

Visiting this area during August we soon became aware of the salmon swimming up river to spawn. These were not large rivers but shallow tidal outlets only a few centimetres deep. Each square metre of water could be populated by as may as 8 fully grown fish. With my untrained eye I noticed at least 5 species of salmon. To fish in these waters would be of no difficulty even for the amateur. As we moved further upstream the final demise of these abundant creatures became noticeable as the smell of rotting fish pervaded the air.

Despite hearing tales of over fishing, such local abundance is hard to visualise unless you have experienced it. In particular having lived in Britain most of my life I have always appreciated wild salmon as an expensive luxury. Here it is so common it rots away after spawning.

As well as appreciating the natural beauty of the area the beauty of local craftsmanship in carving is apparent in the galleries and craft shops of the area. In particular I enjoyed the galleries in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Within this very compact city there are many galleries displaying a whole range of local art. For me the delight was the exquisite mask and carvings. Some of them truly of museum quality. I

If you are interested in the art of this area then the galleries of Victoria are a worthwhile starting point. Other galleries can be accessed on cruises to Alaska.

An overview of the mask of the area

The masks of North America can be divided into four obvious groups. The links between some of the rituals behind the masks are apparent and there are also strong thematic links to the African masks through the remembrance of and devotion to ancestors. Coming of age and initiation ceremonies also play a part.

Only the northern peoples will be considered here.


Some experts believe that the masquerade tradition only began with the influence of the European settlers. This is contradicted by the fact that some ivory burial masks have been excavated from 2000 years ago. The practice of dancing with masks does seem to be a much later development. Yet in contradiction shamanism was a notable part of the cultures in this and surrounding this area. Also the land bridge traversed by the earliest people to spread from Europe in this area forced people to pass this way. I find it difficult to accept that masked shamanistic ceremonies were not a part of the culture.

Dance masks were generally made for the shaman who linked the community to the spirit world. Most important ceremonies took place in the winter. Typically, masks represented the spirit of the animals and natural phenomena as visualised by the shaman. Essentially two dimensional, as opposed to the three dimensional forms of the West coast traditions, the masks were painted in black, white, red and blue. Constructed from an outer wheel of willow bands, supporting various emblems, surrounding a flat central area representing the face the masks synthesise the human and animal elements.

Some other areas produced less elaborate designs. During the dance the swaying chorus of women would wear small finger masks. <

Pacific North West Coast Masks of this area must be considered in the light of how the local people were forced by the settlers to abandon their own ways. Laws were passed to outlaw the Potlatch and force native children into a Christian way of life and a European style education. A large seizure of Kwakiutl ritual artefacts was made in 1921 by the police in Alert Bay. Some of the traditions managed to flourish underground, notable the Kwakiutl, where there are direct links between contemporary makers and the older traditions. Modern mask makers have developed the styles of their forbears as the need to re-establish the old traditions has emerged.

The People of this area used the natural wealth of the land and sea as their means of subsistence. The abundance of natural food allowed it to be stored for the winter months and gave the opportunity for the practice of the elaborate ceremonies during these colder months.

Devastation by Disease

A large number of native people lost their lives due to the introduction of foreign diseases. In particular smallpox decimated the population of many areas. The Haida in particular were reduced from about 8000 before the arrival of Europeans to 800 by 1880.


In each of the tribal areas the potlatch feast had a different status. Commonly they all were a forum for the continuations of the local traditions and had direct links to social order. Masks were used during the potlatch to carry out religious and initiations rites, define status and to help increase the impact of the mythical element of the ceremony. A major element of the Potlatch were the display by chiefs of their riches. Lavish gifts were given and precious resources used to show the status of the potlatch giver.

The masks and the tribes

Throughout the region the most notable common denominator in the type of masks is the portrait mask produced in differing degrees of conformity to the human features. Portrait Masks From the Northwest Coast of America by J.C.H. King is a detailed study of these and is well worth reading.


The Coastal Tinglit live in Alaska rather than Canada but the influence spreads to the Tahtlan tribes in the south. Shaman masks represent the finest work from this area. Potlatches celebrating the memory of dead ancestors, were danced by men and women wearing human face masks bearing the crests of clans and relatives. Women's masks also had labrets which according to size were the mark of rank. The numerous masks of the shaman represented the various levels of the spirit world, sky spirits for the upper world, or dead warriors, the sea or water spirits and the land spirits. On the other hand the chief wore masks that portrayed their ancestors.

Tlingit masks, as all masks of this area and African ones, combined the aim of representing spirits and ancestors in forms that were recognisable to all tribal members.


The Haida lived on the island now known as Queen Charlotte Island. Of the old masks that have been collected some are known to have been made for sale to the sailors who visited the islands. The human face masks were worn by the chiefs and others of rank during potlatches. Over fifty different crests have been noted and these decorated the masks of the chiefs. Crests represented animals, natural phenomena and the mythological past. The potlatches were given by the Village or house chiefs and were very well developed forms of feast involving the provider in a huge outlay of goods and food.

The potlatch may have been given for several reasons including, commemorating an ancestor, tattooing a crest or cutting a lip for a labret. Dances similar to those performed by the Kwakiutl where a character possessed by a cannibal spirit ran amongst the guests biting them for the chief to rip up blankets to bandage the injuries in a show of apparent wealth.


Tsimshian sculptures were mainly crests, the masks were of human form and often used to dramatise initiations. The workmanship is highly regarded for its quality. In parallel with the neighbouring Kwakiutl some of the initiation ceremonies were very dramatic. The craftsmen were given the tasks of making transformation masks and of engineering some elaborate deceptions.

Novices at initiation ceremonies would be taken through a process where they would disappear through the roof having been captured by a spirit, ?spirited away?, and then to reappear with a magical device presented by the spirit. Even for a modern theatre technician this would be a considerable task. Mask-making virtually disappeared by 1940 after declining from about 1910. A revival was introduced with a training programme begun in 1970.


The best known Nootkan ritual was the "tlonquana" which was a dramatic depiction of the capture of initiates by wolves. The masks used depicted wolves, serpents and wild men. When the initiate had been seized by the wolf he would be given ancestral powers and rights. Through this means the initiate would be given insight into the adult life and myths of their village and people. The dancing and ceremonies lasted for days. Another occasion on which the masks were worn was the announcement of a potlatch. Because the ceremonies were so detailed they would be arranged up to two years in advance in order to assure there were no clashes.

During a minor feast a female and male masked figure would make a dramatic entrance to announce the coming event. The event would be compared to a feast given in the past and the chief would make a commitment to providing an even more elaborate affair.


The Kwakiutl are famed for their transformation masks. These massive masks, up to eight feet long, are based around an animal form and open up during the ceremony to reveal an inner human character. This method links the human, animal and spiritual aspects of life.

The winter period, called Tsetseka, meaning good humour, was used by the Kwakiutl as time for celebrating. They believed that the spirits who had been at large in the world returned to the village to capture certain members of the population. The dances were often connected with the initiation of novices. Possessed by wild spirits the novices would disappear into the woods to be given the ancestral rites and then reappear as fully fledged members of the society. The spirit which possessed them was Bakbakwalanooksiwae (Cannibal at the north end of the World ) who inspired them to eat human flesh. There is no record of cannibalism having taken place, only of ritual enactment.

This period of dancing reached its climax as the initiates disappeared into the woods with the Hamasta dancers appearing at the potlatch in their fantastic masks. These portrayed a great bird monster who ate flesh and the Thunderbird which beat its wings and flashed its eyes. The dancers were supported by the Noohlmahl, the fool, who, with a large running nose, provided flesh for the Hamasta. In addition he also kept the watchers in order.

A second ritual featured the Warrior at the end of the World, Winalagilis, who was supported by a series of other dancers. Some of the effects were of a spectacular nature with one female helper, Toogwid, being killed by a wedge driven through her head. Real animal blood was released from bladders and seal eyes were made to fall from the mask to increase the impact of the event. At the end of the performance she was restored. Other rituals also involved elaborate killings and rebirths. The photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis record some of the costumes and masks of this area go to Edward Curtis Flurry and Co. to find out more and see some of the pictures.

Also try the Library of Congress.

If you are interested in this particular area may I recommend the following books

Mask arts of Mexico by Ruth Lechuga and Chloe Sayer Thames and Hudson ISBN 0 500 27797 4

Masks the Art of Expression Ed John Mack British Museum ISBN 0 7141 2530 x

© Ian Bracegirdle 2004 You may use this article freely on condition that you include this copyright line and URL and that people who subsequently use this article follow the same conditions. Thank you for accepting these conditions.

Article Tags: Pacific North West, North West Coast, Pacific North, North West, West Coast, American Masks, North America

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Teacher Course Leader. Ian has for many years had an interest in masks. His inital interest is tribal masks and masking traditions. He also links current mask usage with our earlier ancestors.

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