Central Coast Masks

Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Kwakwaka'wakw

Approximate 19th-century territory of the Central coast. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of the Handbook of North American Indians.

In Down from the Shimmering Sky, an exhibit on Northwest Coast masks, displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the late 1990s, co-curators Peter Macnair, Chief Robert Joseph, and Bruce Grenville relate four realms into which Northwest Coast masks can be loosely categorized. The authors of this page feel the existence of these worlds is particularly well articulated in the masks of the Central Coast, and we include their descriptions here for that reason. The realms include the Sky World, Undersea World, Mortal World, and the Spirit World. Mcnair cautions that not every group on the coast believes that their universe includes all of these domains. Similarly, he notes a great deal of fluidity exists between the realms as many of their supernatural inhabitants have the power to travel between them.

Galokwudzuis, Crooked Beak of the Sky, one of the attendants of Baxwbakwalanuxsiwe'.

The Sky World

The Sky World plays a very significant role in the life and legend of Northwest Coast peoples and this is reflected in the forms that masks take. The Nuxalk place significant emphasis on the importance of the Sky World and have elaborate mythology surrounding it. They believe that the sun is a supreme deity and resides in a great house known as Nusmata (“the origin place of myths and legends”). In the mythic past the sun sent four supernatural carpenters to the earth to create human life, and the Nuxalk have many masks that represent the ancestral sun.

Below the Sun, the skies are inhabited by many birds, the most well-known of these birds throughout the coast is the Thunderbird. A giant mythical bird that is said to emit lightning from its eyes, and produce thunder by flapping its wings. The Kwakwaka’wakw depict numerous supernatural birds that live in the Sky World, including Baxwbakwalanuxsiwe’ (Cannibal-at-North-End-of-the-World) and its attendants Huxwhukw, the supernatural Raven, and the Crooked-Beak. Many of these masks, including those made by Willie Seaweed, Mungo Martin, and Beau Dick, are still danced in ceremonies and/or displayed in museum collections.

The Undersea World

The Undersea World is equal in mystery and power to that of the Sky, though there are more malevolent beings in the watery deep. Creatures in this realm have counterparts in other domains including the Sea Eagle, Sea Raven, Sea Bear, and Sea Wolf. The Kwakwaka’wakw call their Undersea chief Kumugwe’ (“Copper Maker”), who lives in a house in the ocean depths made with copper planks and roof boards, and from here he commands all of the sea creatures. As “Copper Maker” he is believed to be the source of all copper in the Mortal World, travelling in his canoe, and bestowing copper on those that he favours.

Killer whales, which live and are commonly seen in the Northwest Coast waters, are seen as important figures and their likeness is often represented on masks. The Kwakwaka’wakw view orcas as the reincarnations of deceased chiefs and when they arrive alongside villages they are always given a great welcome. These whales are not hunted as it is believed that it is unwise to harm or threaten them.

Kwakwaka'wakw mask representing the spirit of the octopus. Museum of the American Indian.
Nuxalk whale mask with movable parts. Canadian Museum of History VII-D-187.
Heiltsuk sea monster mask worn during the clam dance. Museum of the American Indian.

The Mortal World

The Mortal World is quite different now from the one that existed in the mythic past. In the time recorded in myths, beings with the ability to transform walked the earth and used it as we do today. These beings gave names to places, hundreds of which have been recorded and are still in use today. Long ago these myth people were threatened by a great flood that covered the known world. The ancient people devised many ways to survive the deluge, and when the waters subsided they underwent a final metamorphosis and became the biological progenitors of humans. It is important to note that they did not forget the animal forms from which they transformed, and the specific locations where they changed into humans.

The Mortal World is home to both creatures of the land and supernatural beings. Creatures that appear commonly in this domain include the wolf, grizzly bear, and land based birds.

The Kwakwaka’wakw believe in Tsonoqua, a giantess, who survived the great flood in ancient times and retained her supernatural form. She is commonly depicted in mask form with black skin, sunken cheeks, pursed lips, and long black hair. Generally, these masks are large and worn with a bearskin costume when danced. There is a second form of this mask, which is worn by a chief, to signal the end of his Potlatch, when his achievements are read out.

Kwakwaka'wakw Tsonoqua mask. Photograph by Dr. George F. MacDonald. Canadian Museum of History.
Heiltsuk mask representing an ancestral human. Photograph by Dr. George F. MacDonald. McCord Museum of Canadian History ME 982.32.3.
Kwakwaka'wakw bee mask. Collected by W.H. Birmingham from Gwa'yi (Kingcome Inlet, BC). Canadian Museum of History.
Kwakwaka'wakw Bakwas "Wild Man of the Woods" mask on display at the U'mista Cultural Centre. Photograph by Dr. George F. MacDonald.

The Spirit World

The Spirit World does not have a single space, and it is believed to be located in different places. For some people it is located far beyond the horizon, only accessible via an undersea path. Others believe it is underground, reachable though a graveyard or entering a coffin that is a doorway. In addition, it is also said to be the Milky Way, where souls spiral in oblivion. Macnair suggests that it may be best to see it as “coexisting with the Mortal World, separated from it only by a thin veil which few can penetrate,” athough those who are part of the Spirit World are able to access the Mortal World as they please.

In this realm ghosts are found, these ghosts may be departed relatives or something more sinister. As a person is close to death, ghosts gather as a group to help ease the passage from the Mortal to Spirit Worlds. However, there is a more dangerous spirit known to all Northwest Coast peoples, but recognized by different names. This spirit has a consistent characteristic, he is the keeper of drowned souls, causes loss of sanity, lures people to him with a faint firelight in the forest, and his victims survive by scrounging food from the forest and intertidal area. The Kwakwaka’wakw know this malicious spirit as Bakwas (“Man of the ground embodiment”). He appears as a small, hairy, green skinned man with skeleton-like appearance. Those people who drown or have been enticed to follow his firelight in the woods are lost and become his ghostly followers. 

References Cited

Boas, Franz (1898) The Mythology of the Bella Coola Indians: The Jesup North Expedition, Memoir of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 1, Part 2. New York. 

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 & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.

Hom, Bill (1987) Spirit and Ancestor: A Century of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum. Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum, Seattle. 

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

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