Dancing with Masks

Article excerpt

For the Indians of North America's northwestern coast, ceremonial dance and drama bring ritual masks to life

The ceremonial art of the northwest coast of North America has long inspired admiration. In the past, huge carved and painted totem poles, masks, head-dresses and rattles as well as carved or painted chests, boxes and bowls figured prominently in elaborate feasts and potlatches (ceremonial occasions on which gifts were distributed to affirm social status), and continue to be important to contemporary northwest coast communities.

Important aspects of this art are not permanent or tangible, for while some objects exist for short periods of time and deteriorate, others are created and/or destroyed as part of ceremonial events.

Even during their "lifetimes", these ceremonial objects do not necessarily remain unchanged. Study of the paint on northwest coast masks has revealed that some of them have been repainted in dramatically different designs and colours since their creation. Sometimes elements such as pieces of copper or abalone have been added to areas which originally were only painted.

Along with this evolution in the appearance, form and life of objects, there has always been an emphasis on producing new ones to replace those which have grown old. Part of every potlatch has been the revelation of fine new masks and other objects commissioned by proud hosts to be presented for the admiration of their assembled guests. The concept of the mask or figure remains permanent, but it is recreated and represented in the ceremonial context.

The destruction of masks created for ceremonial purposes occurs in another context amongst the Heiltsuk of Bella Bella, British Columbia. It is their tradition to burn masks and other ceremonial objects representing the crests and privileges of a deceased person. In 1990, following the memorial potlatch held to honour Hereditary Chief Wigvilba Wakas (Leslie Humchitt), masks and other objects created by Nuxalk artist Glenn Tallio (Chief Wakas's son-in-law) were burned "as a gesture of love and respect".

Dance and theatre

In 1967 I went to the Bella Coola Valley armed with photographs of masks, head-dresses and rattles known to have been part of Nuxalk winter ceremonies. The people were excited to see the photographs and loved to discuss them. The conversation usually focused upon who had once owned and used the object in question, and when it had last been publicly displayed in the community.

In some households I was shown masks or other carvings. …