North Coast Masks

Tlingit, Haida, Nisga'a', Gitxsan, Tsimshian, Haisla

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

The North Coast, extends from the southern tip of Haida Gwaii to Yakutat Bay in modern Alaska. The North Coast includes the Tlingit, Haida, Nisga'a, Gitxsan, Tsimshian, and Haisla speaking peoples, and there are prominent distinctions in the cultures and artistic styles of each group. However, there are also many similarities that make these groups distinct from other areas of the Northwest Coast. Evidence suggests that the sophisticated formline designs, that are incorporated into many elements of Northwest Coast art, were first developed here (Holm 1990: 602). However, these styles of art were also influenced by those in the Central and South coast regions, as these people all came in contact regularly as a result of long distance trade and intermarriage.

Haida "Jenna Cass" type mask. Washington Historical Society.

The study of the surviving trade masks from the 19th century suggest that the first masks made strictly for sale to Europeans and Euro-Americans were first created by the Haida in the 1820s (Macnair et al. 1998: 53-60). These masks are similar to those created for ceremony, however, they lack the rigging that would allow them to be worn during a preformance. Common features of performance masks being a bite piece that a dancer would grip between their teeth, and cordage that would fasten it to a dancer's face. In addition to them not being used in the traditional fashion, scholars have concluded that these masks are representative of a shift towards a new tradition of mask making (MacDonald 1996; Macnair et al. 1998: 56).

There are many portrait masks that depict women with labrets, however scholar Bill Holm recognizes that a group of these masks all with similar features are particularly unique, and the work of the same Haida carver during the early to mid 19th century. These masks have large open eyes, a small narrow nose, a wide mouth with a large labret, and are carefully painted with red and blue designs, possibly representing facial tattooing or painting. This mask, belonging to the "Jenna Cass" type, was made for sale and was not used during ceremony. This style of mask may have been one of the earliest that was produced exclusively for trade and continued to be produced by artists into the 20th century. The name "Jenna Cass" is suggested by Holm to be the anglicized interpretation of the Haida word Djilakons, the name of an ancestress of the Haida Eagle moiety (Macnair et al. 1998: 66-75). 

In this region art is made for social and religious purposes, which are closely related. The North Coast Nations have a rigid social organization, and strict protocol surrounding the inheritance and display of crest symbols. These crests were depicted on monumental art such as totem poles, canoes, and house fronts, as well as ceremonial items such as masks and regalia.  

When European fur traders first arrived in the Pacific Northwest, there was a growth in both personal and clan wealth based on the new economic relationships. The new wealth facilitated an increased production of art. Contact with merchants and early settlers resulted in trade and carvers were able to access iron tools which changed how monumental art was carved. However, a period of epidemics followed the period of prosperity. During this time, artists, many of whom were Elders, were unable to pass on their knowledge, and entire villages disappeared in the face of pandemic disease.

Tlingit artists fulfill the needs of chiefs who needed to proclaim their nobility and for shamans to assert their control over the powerful forces they possessed. The Tlingit similarily have a complex system of clan hierarchies and crest systems with complex lineages and protocols for inherited social positions. The mosquito mask, made from copper and abalone, seen here, is an excellent example of the refined art style of the North Coast.

Tlingit copper mosquito mask. National Museum of the American Indian 6981.
Freda Diesing carving a mask at 'Ksan in 1972. Photograph from the Research Collection of George and Joanne MacDonald.

The Haida produced the greatest number of monumental houses, the largest and greatest number of totem poles, as well as vast numbers of smaller carved works such as masks, bowls, and boxes. Tsimshian speaking peoples, the Nisga'a, and Gitxsan, have art styles that are closely related and are inspired by the Northern Wakashan speaking peoples, whose territories they bordered and overlapped with. Although, by the end of the 19th century their practices had almost ceased to exist as a result of disease and other colonial factors such as the efforts of missionaries to spread Christianity, and the Potlatch ban from 1885-1951. 

However, by the 1970s, the efforts of Mungo Martin, Ellen Neel, Bill Reid, Freda Diesing, Robert Davidson, and many others resulted in a revitalization of Northwest Coast art, specifically Haida art. During this time the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art at 'Ksan Historical Village also informed many artists, as well as the general public, of the Northwest Coast art traditions that had been passed down for generations, despite government interference.

References Cited

Holm, Bill (1990) Art. In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 7, Northwest Coast. Edited by, William C. Sturtevant and Wayne Suttles, pp. 602-632. Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. 

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

MacDonald, George (1996) Haida Art. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.

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

Matson, R.G., Gary Coupland, and Quentin Mackie (2003) Emerging from the Mist: Studies in Northwest Coast Cultural History. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver.