Appropriation (?) Of the Month: The Bet of the Broncho and the Raven

Nuxalk sun mask logo of

By Jennifer Kramer

On January 26, 2014, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and the Denver Art Museum (DAM) announced a friendly wager on the outcome of Super Bowl 2014 between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos. Following in the footsteps of other light-hearted bets between cities over major competitive events, each museum chose an artwork from their collection that best represented their respective football team’s mascot.

The bet stated that whichever city’s football team lost the big game, their waged artwork would go on loan for three months to the winning city, to be displayed in the winning city’s museum, with all expenses paid by the losing city’s museum.

DAM selected a Frederic Remington 1895 bronze sculpture—The Broncho Buster.  SAM selected a circa-1880 forehead mask in the shape of a raven’s head from the Nuxalk people of Bella Coola, British Columbia, Canada. SAM Curator of Native American Art, Barbara Brotherton chose this particular piece because she considered it an “absolutely stunning masterpiece from our collection” (pers. comm. January 28, 2014). SAM Director Kimerly Rorschach said: “We know that the Seahawks logo is based loosely on Northwest Coast Native American design. It just seemed natural to choose one of our great works that is of a bird reminiscent of that logo” (quoted in CBC News, Jan. 28, 2014).

Clearly, both museums were responding to the loyalty of sports fans by selecting artworks that visually referenced the teams’ mascots. DAM Director Christoph Heinrich said “the fever surrounding Super Bowl Sunday is an opportunity for both cities to show off what makes them special, on and off the field” (quoted in CBC Press, Jan. 29, 2014). Since each artwork was meant to represent the city in which it was located, aesthetically-valued pieces were chosen to marvelously materialize municipal pride and to physically evoke sports prowess.

DAM released a press statement explaining its art selection: “The bronze horse symbolizes the spirit and tenacity of the Wild West. Popular from the time of its creation, The Broncho Buster stands today as an icon of the region and is thought of as the first action bronze of a western hero” (quoted in Hendrick, January 27, 2014). SAM too justified its choice by interpreting visual characteristics of the Nuxalk raven forehead mask as aggressive competitor: “The open mouth suggests the ferocity of this bird of prey, possibly a supernatural “man-eater” (quoted in Hendrick, January 27, 2014).

This description took artistic (not cultural!) license when it playfully suggested a bellicose meaning (echoing United States football’s traditional “trash talk”) that did not reflect Nuxalk sacred and ceremonial functions of the mask, which signify inheritance and social identity. Moreover, the museum knew this mask’s cultural meaning was not that of a “man-eater.” Brotherton had written its on-line catalogue record in 2011: “This elegant depiction of Raven carved in the skillful Nuxalk style was the property of a high-ranking man or woman who was a member of the sisaok society, sometimes referred to as the society of chiefs. The dancer’s regalia was associated with a special name, songs, and dance movements that were passed down and validated during potlatches” (SAM on-line collection website).

SAM unwittingly promoted looking relations (Baloy 2014:221, 253; Townsend-Gault 2004:189) when it read the surface of the mask as a sports metaphor, inadvertently blocking an understanding of both the original (and ongoing) use of this type of mask in Nuxalk culture and the colonial history that allowed for its cultural alienation through collection and museum display (Cole 1985; Townsend-Gault et al. 2013). As both Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Natalie Baloy have explained, looking relations are superficial because they allow spectators to see only a beautiful façade, but also have powerful effect because they hide the real relations arising from settler colonial injustices imposed on Native people. Pressures from Canada’s Indian Act, missionization, residential schools, and other assimilative techniques enabled Native material culture to be collected as artifact or art and owned within a Western legal definition by institutions or private collectors. When non-Native viewers impose their own meaning onto a material manifestation of Nuxalk culture, the unequal power relations between Native and non-Native peoples are reinforced.

It would be simplistic to reproach the museum for objectification of Nuxalk culture. The mask has routinely been classified in typical museum terminology (including accession number, materials, date, and measurements) on exhibit labels and in published catalogues (see Holm 1995:182) and in art language as a “masterpiece” owned by the museum. Suggesting the mask could be considered a “man-eating bird” is sensationalist and could understandably lead to Nuxalk feelings of misrepresentation and exoticization. Many Nuxalk did feel that a sacred mask used ceremonially to pass on social identity should not be used as a bet for a sports competition and expressed their opinions and indignations on social media sites, encapsulated by this tweet from Nuxalk, accompanied by the hashtag #decolonize: “Nuxalk masks are sacred ceremonial items, not simply “art” display pieces (January 28, 2014).” Numerous bloggers and on-line commentators interpreted SAM’s actions as trivializing, disrespectful, and potentially demeaning of Nuxalk culture. Some took a more Western approach:

When I create a piece of art and keep it for my own use, I am free to do with it whatever I want. When I create a piece of art and give or sell it to someone else it is theirs, and they too can do whatever they wish with it regardless of what I think. Culture is not a physical item, an item may represent concepts in a culture but the culture stands or falls on it's own ability to be relevant without the need for outside compliance or validation (source, accessed on June 19, 2014).

Others, such as this comment, take an ironic and naturalizing attitude: “Hi Spain, yes it is the BC Guy's Museum, I am going to let my buddy borrow my Picasso that I legally own, just letting you know" (source, accessed on June 19, 2014, ). The speed at which the Internet filled with personal and emotional responses shows the potency of this debate.

The Nuxalk, like others, first heard about this wager through news and social media. Shortly after, a Victoria-based journalist contacted the Bella Coola band office and asked for a statement from elected band chief Wally Webber. This cold-call approach put Chief Webber on the spot, and created emotional tension by insinuating cultural appropriation by SAM towards the Nuxalk Nation. Clyde Tallio, recognized speaker for the Nuxalk hereditary chiefs, thinks that “The news reporter was fishing for a story and must have fed [Wally Webber] a bunch of lies to get a reaction” (pers. comm. January 28, 2014).

Chief Webber was actually quite circumspect in his response after hearing that an important piece of his community’s cultural heritage was being offered in a sports wager without obtaining the permission of the Nation or giving the courtesy of an advanced warning. In an interview with the CBC News, he stated:

They informed the Broncos about it and they’ve never contacted us. If they’re not going to respect what they have of ours, send it back to us where it will be looked after right…They call it a man-eating raven. It is not that. It’s a high-ranking mask for the chiefs’ sacred dances, and to see it being used this way in a bet is not very kosher with us (January 28, 2014).

This critical response, and the ensuing negative publicity, could have been minimized if SAM had included the Nuxalk Nation in their decision to select the mask to represent Seattle. This was a situation of differing cultural protocols that resulted in missed opportunities. According to CBC News reportage “SAM Director Rorschach said she understood the Nuxalk Nation’s concerns, but pointed out the exchange was only temporary and not a transfer of ownership. She said it is common to lend pieces without consultation” (January 28, 2014). Due to museum protocol and European-derived logics of property, the museum did not contemplate asking the Nuxalk Nation permission to use their cultural patrimony in a sports bet. From SAM’s perspective, loaning objects from the museum’s collection does not require external consultation with a community of origin, as this action is not considered a change of ownership. Since SAM believed it had the prerogative as the legal owner to decide the mask’s use, it did not occur to the Museum staff that celebrating the mask for its aesthetic achievement could be perceived as a loss to Nuxalk culture. 

Even those not familiar with Native Northwest Coast cultures or carving styles can recognize the delicacy of this raven’s rendering and sense that it is imbued with some sort of power. The missing communication in this cross-cultural gaffe is that Western aesthetics are not necessarily commensurate with sacred Native spirituality regardless of how both systems share transcendence as a value. As Marina La Salle has written, “These sorts of misunderstanding are in part due to the fact that the appropriate use of an idea, image or object is governed by the cultural protocols and worldview of a particular group, and what might be acceptable use of cultural heritage by one group may be viewed as unacceptable by another” (IPinCH Fact Sheet 2014). As Chief Webber succinctly stated: “You have to understand the culture before you start doing stuff” (quoted in CBC news, January 28, 2014). In this situation, if SAM had followed Nuxalk protocol that respects cultural stewardship by seeking permission to bet the Raven forehead mask, then cross-cultural exchange, knowledge sharing, and reciprocal relations might have resulted.

It is evident that Western laws of ownership and Indigenous systems of stewardship and cultural belonging are varying value systems that in this situation were not in sync. Anthropologist Cara Krmpotich responded by noting: “Superbowl bet aside, it seems like a dissonance in how property is thought about. SAM is taking a property approach that they own it, therefore they can loan it as desired. The Nuxalk chief [Wally Webber] is taking a more inalienable approach – they may not legally own it, but how it is stewarded still matters” (Facebook comment, January 31, 2014).

Nuxalk property laws were and are different: hereditary chiefs steward tangible and intangible cultural heritage (i.e,, masks, totem poles, talking sticks, rattles, songs, dances, and origin stories) for the extended families they represent (see Kramer 2006, 2013). While Nuxalk material culture may be sold, the Nuxalk maintain their rights to own or “belong to” the intangible inheritance or prerogative materialized in the object (Kramer 2006: 60-1; Krmpotich 2010:172). Even though this mask was sold out of Nuxalk hands, and from a European-derived property system alienated from the Nuxalk as a commodity and legally coming into SAM’s possession through a donation, the Nuxalk consider themselves inalienably connected with it.

The museum damaged their relationship with this First Nation by not informing them about the wager. If SAM had asked permission, they would have received information about its sacred meaning for the Nuxalk. And perhaps given the time to reflect, the Nuxalk might have felt that it was a compliment to the aesthetic strength and power of their culture that, of all the artworks in SAM’s collection, this one was selected to represent the city of Seattle. Further, this could have been an excellent platform for the tiny 1,500-person Nuxalk Nation from the central northwest coast of Canada to become globally known and have their concerns heard by millions of Super Bowl viewing fans.

An unexpected outcome of this misunderstanding was that the Nuxalk Nation (a relatively recent unity self-identified in the 1980s (Kramer 2006:25)) took small steps towards restoring their traditional governance structure by recognizing the decision-making powers of hereditary chiefs. It is a move (back) towards Nuxalk hereditary chiefs’ stewarding tangible and intangible cultural heritage for their people. When elected chief (but also coincidentally hereditary chief) Wally Webber was asked what he would have said if the Museum had come to him and asked permission to use this mask, he replied: “To me, it is up to all the hereditary chiefs and elders back home. We would meet back home and then we would make a decision (CBC News, January 28, 2014).” Tallio explained to Brotherton during a phone conversation: “It is the hereditary chiefs’ job to take care of people’s spirituality...The chiefs own these things [such as masks] and care for them on behalf of their members…. Our goal at home is for museums to work with hereditary chiefs” (February 18, 2014).

One way to think about this encounter of varying value systems (enflamed by media maelstrom) is as a catalyst that launched Nuxalk sovereigntists to reassert their traditional governance system. In this light, the raven forehead mask came to represent all Nuxalk cultural heritage in need of de-colonization. A reclaiming of control has occurred. While the media mistakenly called the elected band council for an official authorial response, the community came together to agree that situations involving their cultural heritage and sacred ceremonies were the jurisdiction of hereditary chiefs who stewarded these cultural belongings in the name of their extended families. Contemporary protocol has now been established that divides the elected chief and council’s responsibilities from those of the hereditary chiefs. Tallio informed me that in the future the Nuxalk hereditary chiefs will be meeting as a group to make decisions that relate to cultural heritage, territory, and sovereignty (Tallio, pers. comm. February 18, 2014).

To its credit, once the museum learned that the Nuxalk Nation did not approve of the inclusion of the raven forehead mask in the sports wager, Rorschach immediately called Chief Webber to apologize. She admitted that SAM had made a mistake in not asking for Nuxalk permission in advance, and offered to bring the mask to Bella Coola to rectify their relations and to discuss the possibility of repatriation. SAM publically announced that it had replaced the Nuxalk mask with Tsuji Kako’s 1901 Sound of Waves, a six-paneled Japanese screen that also has an uncanny likeness to the Seahawk logo.

This story can certainly be told as dueling value systems of aesthetics/art and sacred/spirituality and incommensurate Indigenous and European-derived ways of thinking about property, resulting in accusations of cultural appropriation and disrespect, trivialization of sacred ceremony and the objectification of culture. However, I suggest an alternative reading. This meeting of meaning systems has the potential to turn looking relations into reciprocal relations—what Dwayne Donald calls ethical relationality: “an ecological understanding of human relationality that does not deny difference, but rather seeks to understand more deeply how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other” (2012: 93; 103, cited in Baloy 2014:29). What was initially intended as a cultural exchange between the cities of Seattle and Denver has the potential to become another type of cultural exchange between an art museum and a First Nation.

The Museum swiftly responded to their cross-cultural mistake in order to realign their relationship with the Nuxalk to one of respect: “We have the greatest respect for the Nuxalk’s art and culture and intended the forehead mask to be a cultural exchange with the Denver region,” Rorschach said (quoted in Lederman, January 29, 2014). Nuxalk hereditary chief Charles Nelson stated: “I feel much better that the wager's not happening, definitely…It gives me comfort. [The mask] is being shown the respect that it needs (quoted in Drews, January 29, 2014).” As Krmpotich aptly observes for the Haida, but which applies to the Nuxalk as well: “Respect is contingent on knowing who you are as an individual, but also in knowing that your identity is largely determined by your relations, and the interdependence of persons, families and communities” (2010:166).

Reciprocal relations are based on mutual respect and grow strong through attempts to understand different cultures’ value systems. Being open to the flow of variable meanings and interpretations leads to a more productive cultural exchange. Clyde Tallio seeks to turn Nuxalk cultural heritage in museums from “retired pieces—a tribute to a way of life that doesn’t exist” (pers. comm. February 18, 2014) into practicing, living objects that work to engender social relations, both back in Bella Coola and between the Nuxalk and the rest of the world. “These objects are vessels between ancestors and people today…[They are] used to get our positions in the community,” he said (pers. comm. February 18, 2014). And one might add that tangible cultural heritage such as the raven forehead mask, has become a vessel to bridge relations between museums and First Nations, Native and non-Native people. Chief Nelson shared with the media a hopeful statement: “We want to take this as a lesson and learn from this mistake, build from here and start creating a relationship…We just don't have that relationship with the museum yet (quoted in Drews, January 29, 2014).” Perhaps the return home for this Nuxalk forehead mask will be part of a process of “ethical relationality”—a continuing journey towards reciprocal relationship building.

Image: Nuxalk sun mask logo of (original mask in collection of the American Museum of Natural History).

References Cited:

Baloy, Natalie. 2014. “Spectacle, Spectrality, and the Everyday: Contemporary Settler Colonial Politics, Aboriginal Alterity, and Ex/Inclusive Spaces in Vancouver” PhD Thesis, Anthropology, University of British Columbia.

CBC News. 2014. “Super Bowl wager of native mask upsets B.C. First Nation,” January 28.

CBC News. 2014. “Super bowl Wager Pits Seattle, Denver art museum.”The Canadian Associated Press, January 29.

Clifford, James. 1988. “On Collecting Art and Culture,” in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, 215-52.: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Cole, Douglas. 1985. Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Donald, Dwayne. 2012. “Forts, Colonial Frontier Logics, and Aboriginal-Canadian Relations: Imagining Decolonizing Educational Philosophies in Canadian Contexts” in Decolonizing Philosophies of Education, edited by Ali A. Abdi, pp. 91–111. Sense Publishers, Rotterdam.

Drews, Keven. 2014.  “At B.C. First Nation's request, Seattle Art Museum pulls mask from Super Bowl bet,” The Canadian Press, January 29.

Hendrick, Thomas. 2014. “Seattle, Denver art museums bet artwork on Super Bowl,” KWGN online, January 27.

Holm, Bill. 1995. The Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Native Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle. 

Kramer, Jennifer. 2006. Switchbacks: Art, Ownership, and Nuxalk National Identity. UBC Press, Vancouver.

Krmpotich, Cara. 2010 “Remembering and Repatriation: The Production of Kinship, Memory and Respect.” Journal of Material Culture 15(2):157-179.

La Salle, Marina, and the IPinCH Cultural Commodification Working Group. 2014. Appropriation and Commodification of Cultural Heritage: Ethical & IP Issues to Consider. IPinCH Fact Sheet.

Lederman, Marsha. 2014. “Canadian First Nation Rules Super Bowl Bet Involving Sacred Mask Offside,” The Globe and Mail January 29,.

Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. 2004 “Circulating Aboriginality.” Journal of Material Culture 9(2): 183–202.

Townsend-Gault, Charlotte, Jennifer Kramer, and Ki-ke-in (eds.) 2013. Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas. UBC Press, Vancouver.

Jennifer Kramer is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Curator, Pacific Northwest, at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), at the University of British Columbia. She is an IPinCH Associate.

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight the complexity of 'cultural appropriation' and 'cultural appreciation'.