South Coast Masks

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

The South Coast is defined by Stuttles (1990: 453-455) as extending from north-central Vancouver Island to Southern Oregon. The region south of the Coulmbia River is recognized as beign culturally distinct and therefore is not included in our overview of the South Coast. Matson et al. (2003: 3) suggest that European contact was responsible for the Northwest Coast culture not spreading further south.

Nuu-chah-nulth mask with hair attachments. Canadian Museum of History. VII-F-39.

This region includes Nuu-chah-nulth, Makah, Chinook, and Coast Salish peoples, however only Nuu-chah-nulth and Coast Salish masks are presented here. Historically, less art was produced in this area in comparison to the North and Central Coast. The people of the South Coast, particuarly the Coast Salish, do not display their masks as openly as other groups, with the majority belonging to secret societies that were not allowed to be photographed as they cannot be seen by those who are unintiated. The reasons for the differences in production are complex and not well understood by outsiders.

The Nuu-chah-nulth made powerfully realistic portrait masks that had elements of their two-dimensional art in terms of boldness and naturalism. Masks carved during the 18th and 19th centuries were much more strongly modeled than the masks produced by the Coast Salish. Many of the masks were carved to conform very closely to the face of the wearer, and as such they were strikingly lifelike. Often there were features such as eyes that could open and close and attachments of human hair for beards and moustaches. Painting on the masks were bold and geometric, often asymmetrical. Common patterns included broad stripes and feather form U-shapes. Typical colours were black, red, and blue, however, this range expanded in the 20th century when commerical paints became more inexpensive and more readily available to artists. 

Nuu-chah-nulth wolf mask. Canadian Museum of History. VII-F-668.

Zoomorphic figures were also often depicted on Nuu-chah-nulth masks. The most common of these were mythological creatures such as thunderbird, sisuitl (two-headed serpent), and various supernatural wolves. The wolf masks, often worn higher on the head, more like a headdress, had long snouts, with lips drawn back to reveal many teeth (Kruger 2003).

There is relatively little known about Coast Salish masks, as with many other Coast Salish arts, due to their sacred and secret nature (Suttles 1990: 468-470). The Coast Salish people make a type of ceremonial mask known as Sxwayxwey, this mask is worn during one of the masked dances of the Coast Salish. The mythology of this mask and its ritual context are better known than many other sculptural objects.

Like all ceremonial masks during the time of the Potlatch Ban, beginning in 1885 they were not danced and often confiscated by Indian agents or sold by their Indigenous owners to museums or private collectors. After the repealing of the Potlatch Ban in 1951 Sawayxwey masks were publicaly worn and displayed. However, in recent years images of Sxwayxwey masks have been removed from public view in museums and online collections due to their very powerful and spiritual nature. 

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. 

Kruger, Arnold (2003) To Find a Treasure: The Nuu-chah-nulth Wolf Mask. American Indian Culture & Research Journal 27(3):71-86.

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. 

Suttles, Wayne (1990) Central Coast Salish. In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 7, Northwest Coast. Edited by, William C. Sturtevant and Wayne Suttles, pp. 453-475. Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.