See more objects from indigenous communities of the Northwest Coast in our North America gallery.
The underlying principle of many collection projects is collaboration with indigenous communities to whom the collections hold so much power and meaning.
This can be seen through the story of the Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch transformation mask, now on long-term loan at the U'Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, British Columbia, and the exhibition Where the Thunderbird Lives: cultural resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America that it was featured in.
What is a potlatch?
The potlatch is a celebration to confer status, rank and to redistribute wealth, as well as many other social, cultural and spiritual purposes.
The objects used by individuals at a potlatch, often passed down between generations, embody their rights and titles within the community. Transformation masks, which are typically accompanied by long cedar bark costumes and used in dances, represent the act of transforming into either animals or mythical beings.
The dancer wearing this mechanical Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch transformation mask would have opened it by pulling on concealed rigging, to reveal 10 rays. Using a separate bunch of strings, the dancer would then, with a toss of his head, close the mask back up.
In 1884 the Canadian government prohibited the celebration of the potlatch as part of wider efforts to assimilate the indigenous First Nation communities.
The mask's long journey
On Christmas Day in 1921, Chief Dan Cranmer held a potlatch in the village of 'Mimkwamlis, Village Island, British Columbia. When the ceremony was discovered by the authorities, 26 people were arrested and put in prison. They were offered shorter prison sentences if they surrendered their masks and regalia to the authorities.
The Canadian government then sold many of these masks on to North American museums. Several years later Harry Beasley, a British collector, acquired one of these masks – the Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch transformation mask – and later, in 1944, his wife, Irene Beasley, donated it to the British Museum.
Little was known about the long history of the mask until Gloria Cranmer Webster, a Kwakwaka'wakw (First Nation community) anthropologist and daughter of Chief Dan Cranmer, identified the mask from a photograph. This led to years of careful and collaborative discussion between the U'mista Cultural Centre and the British Museum, and in 2005 the potlatch mask was sent on long-term loan.
Many objects at the British Museum have complicated histories that capture changing understandings and relationships between people around the world. In this instance, the potlatch mask has travelled from a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch, into the hands of the Canadian government, a North American museum, a private collector, to the British Museum, and finally back to the community.
All of these places and people are now interwoven in this mask's complex history. More importantly, this object has helped foster connection and productive collaborations between communities represented by the U'mista Cultural Centre and the British Museum.
One such collaboration led to the exhibition, Where the Thunderbird Lives: cultural resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America, co-developed and displayed at the Museum.
'Where the Thunderbird lives' exhibition
Where the Thunderbird lives celebrated the cultural resilience of First Nation communities on the Northwest Coast of North America. The exhibition aimed to bring the story of communities with more than 10,000 years of cultural continuity to an international audience at the British Museum.
The Northwest Coast of North America is home to communities who have one of the longest continuous cultural traditions in the Americas. Inhabiting the mountainous fjords, lush islands and temperate forests that stretch along the coastline of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State, Northwest Coast societies have long used these rich ecosystems to cultivate extensive trade networks and ceremonial practices.
In addition to the potlatch mask, the exhibition comprised a range of objects including ceremonial wear, basketry, weapons and Haida art.
Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth oral traditions explain that the Thunderbird, a legendary creature imbued with power and strength taught them how to whale. The Thunderbird's preferred weapon for hunting was a pair of 'Lightning Snakes', which he threw like a harpoon at his prey, stunning the animal. The immobilised whale was then carried off in the Thunderbird's enormous claws.
Hunters understood it was not their strength that overcame whales. Rather, it was the whales who chose to give up their physical forms to the most respectful and ritually-prepared hunters. The tradition of Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth whaling, one they continue to advocate today, combines oral history, spirituality and political, economic and familial power.
The peoples of the Northwest Coast have always been part of long-distance trade networks. Over the past 300 years, however, they have increasingly become part of a globally connected world. The ways in which communities adapt to these global changes are reflected in their use of new materials and technologies.
For example, argillite, a grey-black slate stone unique to Haida Gwaii, became the focus of Haida artists after the decline of sea otter fur trade in the 1920s. As successful artists, they developed a characteristic argillite sculptural tradition and sold it to the global market. In addition to an income, the art offered Haida people a platform on which to use visual punning for social commentary and subtle cultural resistance.
Cultural resilience in the 21st century
These examples of Northwest Coast material heritage – evocative and powerful masks, intricate basketry, and the formline art designs – encode family lineages and clan histories of great leaders, require detailed knowledge of the environment and demonstrate how objects continue to shape the way people relate to their world and conceive of their past, present and future.
Ultimately, these objects show how Northwest Coast peoples are an inspiration for all cultures seeking to hold on to their identity and way of life in a globally connected world. Through collaboration with these indigenous communities, the Museum is playing its part in supporting artists from the Northwest Coast.