Cumberland Academy

Kwakiutl Ethnography | Milwaukee Public Museum


Native Masks That Are Not For Sale

Some types of genuine Native American masks can never be found for sale. The reason is that these special masks have too much sacred importance to the tribes that make them. Just as the Catholic Church forbids the sale of holy relics, some Native American tribes have forbidden the sale of sacred masks. The two best-known types of sacred Native American masks are the false face masks of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribes and the kachina masks (also known as spirit masks) of the Hopi Indians. If you see a false face or kachina mask for sale anywhere, it is either stolen or (much more often) a forgery.

Iroquois false face masks are considered so sacred that they are not even permitted to be viewed without the proper ceremony. There is some disagreement among Iroquois people about whether it is unacceptable to sell or display any false face style mask, or just true false faces that were carved from a living tree and used in religious ceremony (“live” masks). Some carvers sell “non-live” Iroquois masks in the false face style that they made specially for sale, while others disapprove of this. As in any belief system, not all individuals share the same religious interpretations. However, everyone agrees that it is profaning the Iroquois religion to buy or view a living false face mask, so to err on the side of respect, we will not link to any false face pictures here.

Masks are highly valued by the Kwakiutl, serving as potent manifestations of ancestral spirits and supernatural beings and offering these supernatural entities temporary embodiment and communication through dance and other kinds of performance (Greenville 1998: 14). Masks also allow the wearer to undergo spiritual and social renewal, and serve as an outward manifestation of inward transformations (Pollock 1995: 588-590). However, Northwest Coast tribes do not all share the same myths or characters, nor do they necessarily use masks in the same way during their ceremonies (Malin 1978: 47). Each mask and accompanying dance are owned by particular families and passed down by elders and chiefs to their immediate and extended families to be used in ceremonies like the potlatch and seasonal festivals. These masks thus accumulate histories that transform and enhance their value (Gosden and Marshall 1999: 172). Oftentimes, people who specialize in carving are commissioned to make these masks several months, even years, in advance for members of the Kwakiutl First Nation as well as for museums and private collectors (Malin 1978:18-19; Ostrowitz and Jonaitis 1991: 251).



Kwakiutl  (Kwakwaka’wakw)

“We are the Kwakiutl. We have lived here, on the northeastern shores of Vancouver Island, since time immemorial. Our ancestors hunted and fished on these lands and waters, and developed a rich culture through which they celebrated the diversity of life around them. We continue to be strong by honouring all that our ancestors have taught us.”~Kwakiutl Indian Band Greeting-Homepage~

With the introduction of European technology and food, much of the traditional subsistence cycle was altered. A variety of salmon and shellfish are still gathered and preserved by freezing, canning, or smoking, and the spring runs of eulachon (candlefish) in Knight and Kingcome Inlets are still harvested and rendered into oil. According to Mungo Martin, the Kwakiutl lived at Kalugwis before 1849, when the Hudson’s Bay company built a fort at Fort Rupert. When they moved to Fort Rupert the village site was at times occupied by the Lawit’sis. Before the middle of the 19th century, the present area of Fort Rupert village had very little permanent settlement, but was the site of an enormous bank of clamshells, two miles long, half a mile wide and fifty feet high. The shells were the last vestiges of enormous feasts held here for generations and they came to play a part in local history in World War II when they were used to level the nearby Port Hardy airport. Other visible aspects of Fort Rupert’s cultural fabric include a historical graveyard, the old chimney which marks the site of a former Hudson’s Bay Company fort and an impressive Big House.

The Kwakiutl Clans would construct totem poles, which showed family legends, events, or symbols. Made of wood and carved with figures of animals or people, totem poles became family identification symbols.A totem can be the symbol of a tribe, clan, family or individual. There are different animals that will accompany each person through life, acting as guides. Different animal guides come in and out of our lives depending on the direction that we are headed and the tasks that need to be completed along our journey. Native beliefs further explain that a totem animal is one that is with you for life, both in the physical and spiritual world. Though people may identify with different animal guides throughout their lifetimes, it is this one totem animal that acts as the main guardian spirit. With this one animal a connection is shared, either through interest in the animal, characteristics, dreams, or other interaction. This Animal Guide offers power and wisdom to the individual when they “communicate” with it, conveying their respect and trust. This does not necessarily mean that you actually pet or spend time with this animal, more that you are open to learning its lessons. For some, knowing what is their totem animal is almost an innate process. It’s as if they’ve always known, inexplicably drawn to the animal or having a special feeling for the animal’s energy. For others, they wonder how to tell what their animal totem is.

Feb 27, 2020

Totem Poles: Culture and Meaning Among First Nations, With Kwakiutl Lineages

Patty Inglish MS

First Nations of Western Canada and Alaska are descendants of the first people to step into the Western Hemisphere between 12,000 to 14,000 years ago and possibly in an earlier wave of migration about 35,000 years in the past.

Many of these New World tribal groups developed a democratic government and wrote constitutions. In the Pacific Northwest, these type of documents were carved as figures and designs in tall cedar poles. In the Eastern Woodlands of what is now the United States, documents were written on various materials, including leather and paper.

The Kwakiutl experienced an earlier restoration than some other nations when potlatches were decriminalized in 1951 after outlaw status was declared by the provincial government in 1884 (some sources state 1876). These celebrations had been held for hundreds of years previously, according to the local oral tradition.

The potlatch celebration, from which some linguists believe “potluck” is derived, includes raising a tall carved family crest, a community or a memorial carved cedar pole, traditional music, dancing in costumes, honoring the supernatural clan founders, lavish gift-giving, and much food.

Whites largely mistook this party as idol worship, with escalating reactions soon making the potlatch fully illegal for seventy years.

Ignor-ance – History of Australian enslavement and migration. Influence and association with the Great Pacific.

It may take decades or perhaps longer before the truth is fully revealed.

Australian Aborigine

Native American

Spider Clans

Hopi 11th century – Middle Ages Craftsmanship

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