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.