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Pacific North West Coast American Masks

Pacific North West Coast North American Masks North America is home to a ... range of American masks. Some of these are ... Dating back ... others are modern based upon the tradit

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 the traditions of Madi Gras and adaptations. If we extend the range a little into the Caribbean there is also the Trinidad Carnival the most famous of the festivals in this particular culture.

The area to be covered here are; The Pacific North West Coast

The masks of the Pacific West Coast of North America are a reflection of the lifestyle, mythology and religious beliefs of the indigenous people. Here you will come across several distinct tribes, the 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 the 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 the individuality of the area.

Art work and in particular carved wooden mask were collected from this area from the time of the first incursions of western sailors. Sadly the diseases brought by these visitors had a devesting effect almost wiping out some of the villages. Later devastation to the cultures were wrought by the church and local officialdom. Children were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools to take them away from the tribal ways. Art work and ceremonial regalia were burned driving traditional practices underground. The survival of the art and traditions of this area are now recognised as important. In particular traditional art work is one manner in which the people of this area can communicate the value of their interpretation of the world to the rest of us.

I had the opportunity to visit this area during 2003. The whole coastal area is extremely verdant. Tall temperate rain forest trees grow to the edge of the sea. Wild life abounds in the sea and forest. Salmon and whales are common in the sea and deer and other game animals fill the forests. The area is abundant in all those things that makes a hunting collecting way of life the natural choice for the inhabitants. The mountainous terrain also forces settlements to be near the sea or in valleys.

Visiting this area during August we soon became aware of the 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 the amateur. As we moved further upstream the final demise of these abundant creatures became noticeable as the smell of rotting fish pervaded the 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 the natural beauty of the area the beauty of local craftsmanship in carving is apparent in the galleries and craft shops of the area. In particular I enjoyed the galleries in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Within this very compact city there are many galleries displaying a whole range of local art. For me the delight was the exquisite mask and carvings. Some of them truly of museum quality. I

If you are interested in the art of this area then the galleries of Victoria are a worthwhile starting point. Other galleries can be accessed on cruises to Alaska.

An overview of the mask of the area

The masks of North America can be divided into four obvious groups. The links between some of the rituals behind the masks are apparent and there are also strong thematic links to the African masks through the remembrance of and devotion to ancestors. Coming of age and initiation ceremonies also play a part.

Only the northern peoples will be considered here.


Some experts believe that the masquerade tradition only began with the influence of the European settlers. This is contradicted by the 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 the cultures in this and surrounding this area. Also the land bridge traversed by the 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 the culture.

Dance masks were generally made for the shaman who linked the community to the spirit world. Most important ceremonies took place in the winter. Typically, masks represented the spirit of the animals and natural phenomena as visualised by the shaman. Essentially two dimensional, as opposed to the three dimensional forms of the West coast traditions, the 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 the face the masks synthesise the human and animal elements.

Some other areas produced less elaborate designs. During the dance the swaying chorus of women would wear small finger masks.

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