- Museum number
Mask made of wood, leather.
Height: 80 centimetres
Width: 70 centimetres
- Curator's comments
This mask represents an ancestral being or Crest of the Kwakwaka'wakw people, of the Pacific Northwest coast in Canada. It is carved of red cedar and represents a mythic figure, perhaps K’umugwe’, the Chief of the Undersea Kingdom. He is shown signing with pursed lips. The K’umugwe’ name means ‘wealthy one’ and is responsible for the riches of the sea. Those who ventured to his underworld were rewarded with blankets, coppers, songs, and masks.
It is a mechanical, transformation mask, used in dances. The mask would have been worn over the top of the head with a shredded cloak of red cedar bark covering the body. It would have been one of a number used in feast performances, known as potlatches. The dancer was able to open the ten rays, around the edge (by pulling on concealed rigging) to reveal a separate figure. This is perhaps the Sun or a Starfish. Or, both faces might represent K’umugwe’ at different emotional states; the closed rigging might depict him angry, while the open rigging might depict him happy. Using a separate bunch of strings, the dancer could, with a toss of his head, close the mask back up.
Made around 1910, a specific individual from a specific family would have had the right to dance this mask. This person’s ancestor, in encountering the creature represented, would have gained privileges and riches from the supernatural being. For descendants of the primary ancestor, the being becomes a crest figure with which to express his or her familial status, inheritance rights, and spiritual connections during potlatches. At these ceremonies, which continue to flourish today, rights and privileges, including titles, are passed from one generation to the next. During potlatches, dancers wearing the masks and regalia attempt to channel the spirits of the crests.
Hosting and participating in potlatches was banned by Canadian Act of Parliament, the Indian Act, in 1884, as part of wider national efforts to assimilate First Nations people. In 1921, Dan Cranmer on Village Island, 'Mimkwamlis, hosted an illegal potlatch. The Canadian authorities discovered the potlatch and sentenced 20 participants to Oakalla Prison Farm. Other participants were given lighter sentences on the condition that they relinquish their potlatch regalia. More than 200 items of regalia were seized and handed over to the police. The following year, after being photographed at Alert Bay, these family potlatch regalia were sold and distributed to North American museums. In 1938, one of these museums, now called the National Museum of the American Indian, sold the present mask to the English collector, Harry Beasley, for his Cranmore Museum in Kent. Mrs Beasley donated the mask to the British Museum in 1944. In 1976 and 1977 the mask was displayed in London and Kansas City. It was identified by Gloria Cranmer Webster, a Kwakwaka’wakw anthropologist, cultural bearer and daughter of Dan Cranmer, as appearing in one of the 1922 photographs of seized regalia by Vivian Lord. In 2005 the mask was loaned to the U'mista Cultural Centre, at the 'Namgis community of Alert Bay, British Columbia, where it is displayed alongside the other masks and potlatch regalia returned from North American Museums and European collectors.
'Namgis artist William Wasden has suggested that the artist may have been Arthur Shaughnessy, from Kincome Inlet (Dzawada'enux Gwa'yi).
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1976-1977 7 Oct-16 Jan, London, The Hayward Gallery, Sacred Circles: 2,000 Years of North American Indian Art
1977 16 Apr-19 Jun, Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Sacred Circles: 2,000 Years of North American Indian Art
2005 Nov-2017 Jan, U'Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, Canada, U'Mista Cultural Centre; Permanent gallery display, long term loan
2017 23 Feb-27 Aug, London, BM, "Where the Thunderbird Lives"
2017 20 Oct-present, U'Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, Canada, Permanent gallery display-long term loan
- Acquisition date
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number