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The masks and tribes
Throughout region most notable common denominator in type of masks is portrait mask produced in differing degrees of conformity to human features. Portrait Masks From Northwest Coast of America by J.C.H. King is a detailed study of these and is well worth reading.
The Coastal Tinglit live in Alaska rather than Canada but influence spreads to Tahtlan tribes in south. Shaman masks represent finest work from this area. Potlatches celebrating memory of dead ancestors, were danced by men and women wearing human face masks bearing crests of clans and relatives. Women's masks also had labrets which according to size were mark of rank. The numerous masks of shaman represented various levels of spirit world, sky spirits for upper world, or dead warriors, sea or water spirits and land spirits. On other hand chief wore masks that portrayed their ancestors.
Tlingit masks, as all masks of this area and African ones, combined aim of representing spirits and ancestors in forms that were recognisable to all tribal members.
The Haida lived on island now known as Queen Charlotte Island. Of old masks that have been collected some are known to have been made for sale to sailors who visited islands. The human face masks were worn by chiefs and others of rank during potlatches. Over fifty different crests have been noted and these decorated masks of chiefs. Crests represented animals, natural phenomena and mythological past. The potlatches were given by Village or house chiefs and were very well developed forms of feast involving provider in a huge outlay of goods and food.
The potlatch may have been given for several reasons including, commemorating an ancestor, tattooing a crest or cutting a lip for a labret. Dances similar to those performed by Kwakiutl where a character possessed by a cannibal spirit ran amongst guests biting them for chief to rip up blankets to bandage injuries in a show of apparent wealth.
Tsimshian sculptures were mainly crests, masks were of human form and often used to dramatise initiations. The workmanship is highly regarded for its quality. In parallel with neighbouring Kwakiutl some of initiation ceremonies were very dramatic. The craftsmen were given tasks of making transformation masks and of engineering some elaborate deceptions.
Novices at initiation ceremonies would be taken through a process where they would disappear through roof having been captured by a spirit, ?spirited away?, and then to reappear with a magical device presented by spirit. Even for a modern theatre technician this would be a considerable task. Mask-making virtually disappeared by 1940 after declining from about 1910. A revival was introduced with a training programme begun in 1970.
The best known Nootkan ritual was "tlonquana" which was a dramatic depiction of capture of initiates by wolves. The masks used depicted wolves, serpents and wild men. When initiate had been seized by wolf he would be given ancestral powers and rights. Through this means initiate would be given insight into adult life and myths of their village and people. The dancing and ceremonies lasted for days. Another occasion on which masks were worn was announcement of a potlatch. Because ceremonies were so detailed they would be arranged up to two years in advance in order to assure there were no clashes.
During a minor feast a female and male masked figure would make a dramatic entrance to announce coming event. The event would be compared to a feast given in past and chief would make a commitment to providing an even more elaborate affair.
The Kwakiutl are famed for their transformation masks. These massive masks, up to eight feet long, are based around an animal form and open up during ceremony to reveal an inner human character. This method links human, animal and spiritual aspects of life.
The winter period, called Tsetseka, meaning good humour, was used by Kwakiutl as time for celebrating. They believed that spirits who had been at large in world returned to village to capture certain members of population. The dances were often connected with initiation of novices. Possessed by wild spirits novices would disappear into woods to be given ancestral rites and then reappear as fully fledged members of society. The spirit which possessed them was Bakbakwalanooksiwae (Cannibal at north end of World ) who inspired them to eat human flesh. There is no record of cannibalism having taken place, only of ritual enactment.
This period of dancing reached its climax as initiates disappeared into woods with Hamasta dancers appearing at potlatch in their fantastic masks. These portrayed a great bird monster who ate flesh and Thunderbird which beat its wings and flashed its eyes. The dancers were supported by Noohlmahl, fool, who, with a large running nose, provided flesh for Hamasta. In addition he also kept watchers in order.
A second ritual featured Warrior at end of World, Winalagilis, who was supported by a series of other dancers. Some of effects were of a spectacular nature with one female helper, Toogwid, being killed by a wedge driven through her head. Real animal blood was released from bladders and seal eyes were made to fall from mask to increase impact of event. At end of performance she was restored. Other rituals also involved elaborate killings and rebirths. The photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis record some of costumes and masks of this area go to Edward Curtis Flurry and Co. to find out more and see some of pictures.
Also try Library of Congress.
If you are interested in this particular area may I recommend following books
Mask arts of Mexico by Ruth Lechuga and Chloe Sayer Thames and Hudson ISBN 0 500 27797 4
Masks Art of Expression Ed John Mack British Museum ISBN 0 7141 2530 x
© Ian Bracegirdle 2004 http://mask-and-more-masks.com You may use this article freely on condition that you include this copyright line and URL and that people who subsequently use this article follow same conditions. Thank you for accepting these conditions.
Teacher Course Leader. Ian has for many years had an interest in masks. His inital interest is tribal masks and masking traditions. He also links current mask usage with our earlier ancestors.