Northwest Coast Native American

an essay by Margaret Cumming

For hundreds of years masks have played an important role in the lives of the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast. They signify ancient traditions dating from antiquity to present day. The dramatic, colorful masks of the Northwest Coast are some of the most fascinating artifacts produced by Native Americans.

Mask Making

Although the different tribes throughout the Northwest Coast have different traditions and cultures, there are many techniques and styles which are common to the entire region. Traditionally, a maskmaker is an anonymous artisan, always male and always of high status. The artisans who produced masks were not artisans by profession. They were expected to take part in hunting and fishing responsibilities in addition to their craft. In order to carve a mask, the artisan would normally go into seclusion in order to concentrate fully on the task of carving the mask. Masks are typically carved from red cedar wood. The artisan must take into careful consideration what shrinkage or warping might occur in his work before measuring for a mask. In ancient times, the artisan would have traditionally crafted tools for gouging, shaping, and cutting fine details. However, in the late 18th century, European trade brought superior cutting tools to Native Americans, making masks much easier to produce. This allowed not only a greater number of masks to be made, but also more complex masks with moving parts! Another important feature of mask making is painting. The designs painted on masks of the Northwest coast are traditional forms. Forms painted with black paint are typically to add emphasis to facial features, while other colors are added for decoration. Eyes and eyebrows are usually painted black. The paint the artisan used was usually a mixture of lignite, graphite or charcoal (for black), ochre(for red), and copper minerals(for blue or green) with a mixture of chewed, dried salmon eggs. Finally, hair, feathers, gold, straw, skin, or other materials might be added to enhance the mask or make it more realistic.

Mask Forms

The tribes of the Northwest coast had masks which depicted many different humans and creatures. There are three kinds of masks, the single face mask, the mechanical mask, and the transformation mask. The single face mask is a single piece of wood. A mechanical mask is built with strings or hinges (after Europeans), which might allow a mask to open and close it~s mouth or eyes. The transformation mask is the most complex kind of mask. It consists of an outer mask that opens up to reveal an inner mask form, which might also open up to reveal a third mask form! Transformations masks are difficult to make and difficult to wear, for the different layers make the mask extremely heavy. Only a strong member of the tribe could wear the transformation mask. The Native Americans formed animal masks to communicate a certain symbolism, myth, or status. In addition, all members of a tribe belonged to a clan, or group of people who supposedly were descended from a specific animal. Therefore, animal masks held special meaning for certain clans.

A Short Guide to important Animals


The Raven is considered to be a trickster. He has magical powers and can often create things just by imagining them. The Raven is also considered to be a hero, for it was supposedly the Raven who discovered the first human beings hiding inside a clamshell! Certain masks depict cannibal Ravens which feast on human flesh, which I shall talk about later.

The Killer Whale is considered the best hunter of the sea, for it hunts in packs. It is said that when fishermen injures a killer whale, the canoe will capsize and the fisherman will sink down the Village of the Whales where they will be transformed into whales themselves.

Bears are considered to be uniquely human in nature. Bear masks are usually smiling and bear images are used on gifts to signify friendship.

The thunderbird and eagle are the most powerful of creatures. The only thunderbird or eagle clans are those of high nobles or chiefs. The thunderbird is said to flash lightning bolts out of his eyes and cause thunder when he flaps his wings. ^1

The Function of Masks

Masks were not formed purely for the purpose of decoration. Some masks were commissioned as portrait masks, masks which were intended to portray a specific person. The artisan would form the mask to show off the status of the individual depicted in the mask. Some portrait masks are depicted with a labret (a decorative plug) in the lower lip. The bigger and more beautiful the labret, the higher the status.

Some masks were formed for the purpose of secret society rituals. Secret societies can be shaman societies, conjuring societies, war societies, or societies for inducting young people into the tribe. ^2 They were called secret societies because only the members of the society could attend the rituals. The rituals were vital to the practice of members of the society. Shamans practiced special rituals and wore shaman masks as well as different creature masks to act out a story. One famous secret society ritual is for inducting new members into the tribe used by the Kwakiutl people of the central coast. It is called thekusiut. The members enact a story in which young novices are abducted to a far away land where cannibal birds exist. The novices who do not know how to protect themselves are devoured by three cannibal birds, the Crooked Beak, the How How, and the Monster Raven. The masks which depict the three cannibal birds are some of the most spectacular masks of the northwest coast.

A Secret Society Monster Raven Mask

Other masks were specifically intended for use in potlatch ceremonies. A potlatch ceremony is a festival in which the chief of one tribe gives a gift to the chief of another tribe. The chiefs of tribes wanted to give the best gifts of the most worth because that was a sign of the tribe~s wealth. No one wanted to be considered to be stingy, for that was a sign that the chief is poor. On many occasions there was heavy competition among chiefs to show off their wealth. The giving of gifts would require a potlatch ceremony, where people from both tribes including men, women and children of all status would feast, watch the giving of gifts, and a ceremonial dance where specially trained dancers would wear ceremonial masks and act out a story. In most cases, women and children were not allowed to know the meaning of the masks or the story, but would enjoy the dance and songs which praise the characters in the ceremony. Many central coast tribes crafted transformation masks for potlatch ceremonies. One transformation mask used by the Bella Coola people portrays a salmon which opens up to portray the salmon bringer, a character which is said to go down to the bottom of the sea and bring salmon the coast in an underwater canoe so that they may swim up river. Transformation masks of the Kwakiutl people are used to tell myths or ancestral origins, where an animal mask opens up to show an ancestor mask. The better the mask, the more prestige that goes to the host of the ceremony.

A Transformation Mask

Native American Masks Today

The arrival of Europeans brought many new tools to the Native Americans. However, Europeans also brought diseases to the tribes of the northwest which decimated the population. As natives were converted to Christianity, less importance was given to traditional ceremonies. Native tribal culture has disappeared almost totally. However, contemporary artists of Northwest Native American origin have continued the ancient craft of mask making and in turn introduced a new art form. These artists combine traditional techniques and traditional forms with contemporary artistry. Contemporary masks grace the walls of many art galleries today. And so, not only are Northwest Coast masks artifacts which can be seen in natural history museums and appreciated for the vital role they played in tribal ceremonies, but they are now considered by many to be art objects of high worth.

1. Northwest Coast Indians Coloring Book 2. Edward Malin, A World of Faces, p. 50


Malin, Edward, A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians. Timber Press, Portland Oregon, 1978

King, J.C.H., Portrait Masks from the Northwest Coast of America.. Thames and Hudson 1979

Smith, Tom, Northwest Coast Indians Coloring Book.. Troubador Press, New York, 1993

Wyatt, Gary, Spirit Faces: Contemporary Masks of the Northwest Coast. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Ontario, 1994

Holm, Bill, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1965

Carlson, Roy L. , Indian Art Traditions of the Northwest Coast. Archaeology Press, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C., 1976