Pacific North West Coast North American Masks North America is home to a fantastic range of American masks. Some of these are traditional dating back centuries others are modern based upon traditions of Madi Gras and adaptations. If we extend range a little into Caribbean there is also Trinidad Carnival most famous of festivals in this particular culture.
The area to be covered here are; The Pacific North West Coast
The masks of Pacific West Coast of North America are a reflection of lifestyle, mythology and religious beliefs of indigenous people. Here you will come across several distinct tribes, most well known being; Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw ( or Kwakiult ), Tsimshian, Tlingit, Bella Bella, Nuu-chah-Nulth and Makah. The artistic style of these peoples has a commonality in use of curved symbolry which occurs within pictures of people and creatures, both real and mythological and surface decoration. Here there are rich formalised traditions developed over many centuries to expressing individuality of area.
Art work and in particular carved wooden mask were collected from this area from time of first incursions of western sailors. Sadly diseases brought by these visitors had a devesting effect almost wiping out some of villages. Later devastation to cultures were wrought by church and local officialdom. Children were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools to take them away from tribal ways. Art work and ceremonial regalia were burned driving traditional practices underground. The survival of art and traditions of this area are now recognised as important. In particular traditional art work is one manner in which people of this area can communicate value of their interpretation of world to rest of us.
I had opportunity to visit this area during 2003. The whole coastal area is extremely verdant. Tall temperate rain forest trees grow to edge of sea. Wild life abounds in sea and forest. Salmon and whales are common in sea and deer and other game animals fill forests. The area is abundant in all those things that makes a hunting collecting way of life natural choice for inhabitants. The mountainous terrain also forces settlements to be near sea or in valleys.
Visiting this area during August we soon became aware of salmon swimming up river to spawn. These were not large rivers but shallow tidal outlets only a few centimetres deep. Each square metre of water could be populated by as may as 8 fully grown fish. With my untrained eye I noticed at least 5 species of salmon. To fish in these waters would be of no difficulty even for amateur. As we moved further upstream final demise of these abundant creatures became noticeable as smell of rotting fish pervaded air.
Despite hearing tales of over fishing, such local abundance is hard to visualise unless you have experienced it. In particular having lived in Britain most of my life I have always appreciated wild salmon as an expensive luxury. Here it is so common it rots away after spawning.
As well as appreciating natural beauty of area beauty of local craftsmanship in carving is apparent in galleries and craft shops of area. In particular I enjoyed galleries in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Within this very compact city there are many galleries displaying a whole range of local art. For me delight was exquisite mask and carvings. Some of them truly of museum quality. I
If you are interested in art of this area then galleries of Victoria are a worthwhile starting point. Other galleries can be accessed on cruises to Alaska.
An overview of mask of area
The masks of North America can be divided into four obvious groups. The links between some of rituals behind masks are apparent and there are also strong thematic links to African masks through remembrance of and devotion to ancestors. Coming of age and initiation ceremonies also play a part.
Only northern peoples will be considered here.
Some experts believe that masquerade tradition only began with influence of European settlers. This is contradicted by fact that some ivory burial masks have been excavated from 2000 years ago. The practice of dancing with masks does seem to be a much later development. Yet in contradiction shamanism was a notable part of cultures in this and surrounding this area. Also land bridge traversed by earliest people to spread from Europe in this area forced people to pass this way. I find it difficult to accept that masked shamanistic ceremonies were not a part of culture.
Dance masks were generally made for shaman who linked community to spirit world. Most important ceremonies took place in winter. Typically, masks represented spirit of animals and natural phenomena as visualised by shaman. Essentially two dimensional, as opposed to three dimensional forms of West coast traditions, masks were painted in black, white, red and blue. Constructed from an outer wheel of willow bands, supporting various emblems, surrounding a flat central area representing face masks synthesise human and animal elements.
Some other areas produced less elaborate designs. During dance swaying chorus of women would wear small finger masks. <
Pacific North West Coast Masks of this area must be considered in light of how local people were forced by settlers to abandon their own ways. Laws were passed to outlaw Potlatch and force native children into a Christian way of life and a European style education. A large seizure of Kwakiutl ritual artefacts was made in 1921 by police in Alert Bay. Some of traditions managed to flourish underground, notable Kwakiutl, where there are direct links between contemporary makers and older traditions. Modern mask makers have developed styles of their forbears as need to re-establish old traditions has emerged.
The People of this area used natural wealth of land and sea as their means of subsistence. The abundance of natural food allowed it to be stored for winter months and gave opportunity for practice of elaborate ceremonies during these colder months.
Devastation by Disease
A large number of native people lost their lives due to introduction of foreign diseases. In particular smallpox decimated population of many areas. The Haida in particular were reduced from about 8000 before arrival of Europeans to 800 by 1880.
In each of tribal areas potlatch feast had a different status. Commonly they all were a forum for continuations of local traditions and had direct links to social order. Masks were used during potlatch to carry out religious and initiations rites, define status and to help increase impact of mythical element of ceremony. A major element of Potlatch were display by chiefs of their riches. Lavish gifts were given and precious resources used to show status of potlatch giver.