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Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

In what ways does the artwork tell us about the time and place in which it was made?

• Does the subject matter of the work suggest something about its origins?

• Do the materials or techniques suggest something about the place in which the artwork was made?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.


The Spirit Transformed

Pacific Northwest Coast Indian Masks

The Pacific Northwest Indian people live along the west coast of North America, from the Columbia River northward into southeastern Alaska. It is a region of narrow, stony beaches, from which rise high, rugged mountains covered by deep forests that extend inland for over one hundred miles.

The first people to settle along the Northwest Coast found it to be a very hospitable region, with rivers and lakes rich in fish and forest rich in edible vegetation. Huge cedar trees and other evergreens, as well as berry bushes and grasses, were nurtured by abundant rainfall. The climate was moderate because of warm ocean currents that move north along the western coast of the Americas to southern Alaska. Because of the abundance of wild foodstuffs, there was no need for agriculture.

The native Northwest Coast people organized themselves in clans. The clans consisted of people who believed themselves to be descended from a common ancestor. Such an ancestor might be a real, historical person, a mythical being, or an animal that shared both human and animal characteristics. The clan ancestor might be the hero of the founding myth who received the clan’s name, song, masks, ceremonies, and animal emblem or crest in a supernatural encounter with animal or animal spirits. The stories of these adventures in long-ago mythical times were re-enacted in great ceremonies.

These ceremonies, held in mid-winter, were intended to renew nature and to reaffirm the truth of all the ancient stories. These ceremonies were more than entertainment; they were classrooms in which all the people—children, men, and women—learned how they and their societies came to be and how people should interact with one another and with all living things.

Like other people all over the world, the Northwest Coast Indians told, and still tell, many stories about how the world, its animals, humans, plants, and natural features came into being. The first people were both animals and people at the same time. They shared the same essence and could freely exchange their outward appearance by the simple device of putting on or taking off their skins. This ability is called “transformation.”

The many transformation masks carved by the people of the Northwest Coast, illustrate this magical ability to change from one form to another, from animal to human and back, or from one animal to another. Often the masks have moveable parts, doors that open and close to reveal the human essence within the animal covering, or vice versa.

Pacific Northwest Coast art, like that of most Native Americans, was never created just for decoration. It was never “art for art’s sake” as is often the case in modern western society. Art always had a sacred function, for it rerecorded and celebrated sacred concepts. Human beings were not placed above nature, but were an integral part of nature, dependent, like all other life forms, on her bounty and goodwill. This, above all, is the message of Pacific Northwest Coast art.