Northwest Coast Masks

Mask Representing Moon, ca. 1850. Tsimshian, Artist Unknown. Canadian Museum of History VII-B-9.

The masks of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are powerful objects that assist us in defining our place in the cosmos. In a world of endless change and complexity, masks offer a continuum for Native people to acknowledge our connection to the universe.

-Chief Robert Joseph (Down from the Shimmering Sky, 1998)

The ceremonial masks of the Northwest Coast display animals, humans, forces of nature and supernatural beings and play an integral role in Coastal First Nations culture. These objects recount a time when magic ancestors changed themselves from supernatural beings to human forms at specific locations along coastal waterways and rivers. It is these locaitons that designate the territorial boundaries and homeland of over one hundred independent village groups. Images of these ancestors are displayed on storage chests, utensils, totem poles and  monumental carvings, dance blankets, and ceremonial regalia, but recreating this magical past is most dramatically done through the use of masks in elaborately staged theatrical events. The purpose of these performances, is of course to impress, but more importantly, it is to validate the ancient and honourable history of the mask owner's family (Macnair 1998: 36).

Mask range in shape and style, both of which are dictated by their purpose and function. Forms vary greatly from humanistic portrait masks conveying a wide range of emotions, to animal masks, to more complex masks, including transformation masks and those with moving beaks and jaws. These masks have the ability to take multiple forms and can tell an entire story. Some of these masks are so large and have so many moving parts that they can not be operated by a single dancer, and the performer requires an attendant in order for the mask to be used.

Rear view of a Tsimshian mask. Canadian Museum of History. VII-C-986.

Beginning in the 16th century, Russian, Spanish, British, and French explorers visited the Northwest Coast of the Americas and came into contact with the Indigenous people. Often, collectors on board these ships were tasked with returning to Europe with "exotic curiousities" including tools, clothing, and ceremonial objects, traded from the Indigenous peoples. Contact with Europeans had a number of impacts on Coastal First Nations, though many were able to amass great amounts of wealth via trade, populations were decimated as people were continuously exposed to diseases to which they had no immunity. 

As early as the 1820s First Nations artists began to create masks that were not used for ceremony and meant only for sale to Europeans. These masks are commonly referred to as "trade masks" (Wyatt 1994). Trade masks can be identified by their form, designs, lack of wear markings, and lack of attachments that would enable the wearing of a mask while dancing. 

For example, this Tsimshian mask, collected during the 19th century shows evidence of being danced and used during ceremonies. It has attachments including a strap and cordage that would have securely fastened it to the dancers face. There is also a wooden bar, known as a bite piece, that the wearer may have held with their teeth. Additionally, the nostril holes would have allowed for the dancer to breathe comfortably while wearing the mask. 

The crest designs and ancestor images depicted on masks are often considered inherited rights. Thus, if an owner dies before passing on rights and ownership, no person has the right to tell the story of the mask or dance it. As many families and their entire lineages died due to introduced European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza, the story behind many masks were either lost or forgotten (Boyd 1996: 307; Seip 1999: 279).

The assault on First Nations culture by administative, religious and settler colonial forces resulted in many masks being confiscated, destroyed or sold to collectors. First Nations people were persuaded by missionaries to give up their beliefs and convert to Christianity, and missionaries often persuaded them to sell or destroy their regalia and other ceremonial materials. As missionaries compelled Northwest Coast people to abandon their cultural practices, the stories behind many masks and the histories of their transmission were similarily lost or forgotten (Boyd 1996; Seip 1999: 279-281). In addition, the forced attendance of children at residential schools beginning in 1884 and ending in the late-20th century, led to generations of First Nations people being disconnected from their culture, including their artistic traditions. While children attended residential school they were punished for speaking their language or practicing their faiths, and often were unable to communicate with their families for years.

Today, artists often make masks for decorative and commercial purposes, but many are still made for ceremonial use. Although changing and adapting to new social, political, and environmental circumstances, the continuation of the mask making tradition ensures the passing down of skills and knowledge from one generation to the next, as well as an ever increasing awareness and respect for Northwest Coast cultures.

The selection of masks presented in this online exhibit is intended to promote respect and understanding for Coastal First Nations past and present. The images have been selected from the research archive of Dr. George and Joanne MacDonald and have been assembled from multiple institutions over the course of the MacDonald's 50 year museological and anthropological careers.  

As with many other Northwest Coast objects collected by maritime travelers, anthropologists, ethnographers, and museum collectors, masks have been scattered across the globe and reside in a plethora of museum and private collections. Many of these pieces are unknown and inaccessible to the First Nations communities from which they originated. Despite the vast amount of scholarship and popular attention masks have had over the years, their true meaning can only be revealed through the oral traditions of the First Peoples people who continue to define a cosmos inhabited by magical ancestral forces. It is these traditions represented by masks that make the supernatural world visible.

The Bill Reid Centre recognizes and has done its best to ensure that First Nations sentiments regarding restrictions and protocols for the display and exhibition of certain objects has been respected. To the best of our knowledge, culturally inappropriate and sensitive materials have not been displayed here. We welcome any and all comments and criticisms to the contrary, and will take swift action if an exhibited image contradicts cultural protocols.  

"We can only begin to understand and appreciate masks when they are contextualized by the authority of the native voice."

-Mcnair et al. 1998: 10, Curator's Statement

References Cited

Boyd, Robert (1996) Commentary on Early Contact-Era Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest. Ethnohistory 43(2): 307-27.

Cole, Douglas (1990) An Iron Hand upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.

Glass, Aaron (2011) Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast. Bard Centre, New York. 

Holm, Bill (1984) The Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.

Jonaitis, Aldona (2006) Art of the Northwest Coast. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.

Mcnair, P. Robert Joseph, and Bruce Grenville (1998) Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.  

Seip, Lisa (1999) Transformations of Meaning: The Life History of a Nuxalk Mask. World Archaeology 31(2): 272-287.

Wyatt, Gary (1994) Spirit Faces: Contemporary Masks of the Northwest Coast. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.