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Kwakiutl Art of the Tsetsequa

Updated on March 4, 2013


The Northwest Coast is a magical land filled with a rich history that is told originally, not through books, but through dance, song, and, most importantly, art. The Kwakiutl are one of many tribes of the region, but their work with masks is probably the most well known with their intricate carving and complex mechanics. In particular, the masks of the Kwakiutl Cannibal Society are some of the most elaborate and colorful pieces of the Northwest Coast, representing supernatural beings based on Kwakiutl beliefs and history. These masks, however, do not reveal their whole story in and of themselves, but require assistance from their wearers. Their use in performances in important rituals illustrates their true identity, especially in the Kwakiutl season of the tsetsequa. In order to fully understand the importance and meanings in these masks, it is important to, first, appreciate Kwakiutl beliefs of the beginning of their world and their history; second, to know the process of the Cannibal Society ceremony; and, third, it is essential to understand the symbolism used to create the identity of each mask. Only with this insight can one really see these masks for their true character.

Kwakiutl Beliefs in Their World:

The beginning of the Kwakiutl world consisted of nothing short of magic, filled with concepts that would be unbelievable and foreign to the modern people of today. Anything and everything was possible, and the world was shared by all animals, humans, and even spirits and unnatural mythic beings. This foreign place was divided up into different realms: sea, air, forest, and spiritual realms, all of which were separated by a thin line that could easily be crossed, allowing interaction between these different lives[i]. Although the inhabitants of the early world lived within different boundaries and were physically different from each other, they all spoke the same language[ii]; their skins and outer coverings were the only barriers that truly separated them[iii]. Although impossible in present times, in the beginning even transformation was possible, meaning that creatures could remove their pelts, feathers, or skin and become another creature altogether. It was a magical process which any living creature could accomplish, allowing animals to turn to humans, humans to turn to spirits, spirits to turn to animals, and vice versa[iv].

The possibility of transformation is an essential element in explaining Kwakiutl history, their beliefs in their ancestors, and how they came to be. Eventually, there came a time when the animals and spirits of the world permanently removed their skins to become human and build families and clans. These beings discovered the lineages that exist today and are honored as the first and founding ancestors[v]. Whatever was left behind after the transformation (the face and name of the creature) became the crest of that ancestor, to be passed down through generations[vi]. This is the reason each clan or bloodline, even of the same tribe, has a different crest; the name of their original ancestor was handed down, giving each lineage its own distinctive history.

The history of the Kwakiutl contained no written language and no documented events, so the stories of their history must be told orally and visually through objects, such as masks, and ceremonial performances[vii]. This lack of literature is the principle stimulus for creating art[viii]. The stories of each clan are given physical form in the shape of masks: icons that visually describe the characteristics and legend of a particular ancestor[ix]. The masks and costumes in these ceremonies bring the stories to life, as if the audience witnessing the performance is actually brought back in time. They can behold the transformation of the performer and be enveloped by the magic of the story[x].

The history behind each mask shed light as to how the crest was obtained or created, together with songs and dances that the crest encompasses along with its ownership[xi]. However, these masks, or crests, could not be used or displayed by just anyone, but could only be inherited through generations and marriage. The Kwakiutl acquire rights through matrilineal means, meaning children inherit ancestral rights from their mother’s side[xii]. The importance of inheriting the right to certain masks, songs, dances, etc., is crucial to explaining the purpose of Kwakiutl ceremony[xiii].

The representation of original ancestors is not the only purpose for masks. Masks also tell stories of human ancestors that observed fantastic events or experienced an encounter with spirits of supernatural powers and either overcame that experience or absorbed skills and knowledge of that other world[xiv]. In summary, there are two types of important masks: ones that display ancestral crests of a clan and ones that represent the acquisition of supernatural powers. These two different types of masks are used at different times of the year. For the Kwakiutl people, years are split into two ‘seasons,’ baxus and tsetsequa. These two separate time periods are complete opposites of each other and are filled with their own dances, name, masks, and stories[xv].

Kwakiutl Seasons: Tsetsequa and Baxus:

“Kwakiutl social organization appears to have alternated between two forms, the first comprising summer villages composed of descent groups called numayms, the second comprising winter villages composed of Dancing Societies whose membership cut across the numayms[xvi].”


For the Kwakiutl, the summertime is given the name baxus. This is a time of hunting and preparing food for the winter. It is also the time of the numayms, or descent groups, and their famous potlatch. These numayms are classified according to relation or kinship, groups which differ from those of the winter[xvii]. Each unit has one set of myths that explain their foundation, and with these myths come names, dances, and family crests. One who as the right to such an inheritance such as to become a full member of a numaym must be granted this honor through the occasion of the potlatch[xviii].

The potlatch was essentially a great feast filled with dancing, songs, and wealth. It was surrounded by many people of various groups that witnessed the wealth and rites of the host. They were very intricate affairs that also authenticated status within the groups and introduced a new member, more than likely the host’s child, to a particular numaym[xix]. The set of myths of the specific numaym were performed through dances and song, and the new member’s association

with the group was acknowledged. In essence, the potlatch was a show of wealth that presented visual interpretations of the host’s family-tree and allowed the host to publicly claim the rites of his ancestors[xx].

During baxus potlatches and dances, masks were used to represent the numaymancestors. They were not very elaborate and did not possess the artistic and mechanical complexities such as those of the tsetsequa[xxi]. For this reason, they must not have been considered as sacred as the tsetsequa masks, maybe because during baxus, man is only man representing ancestors. In winter, man turns into something else altogether.


The winter season of the tsetsequa was a time of “madness and creative disorder[xxii].”Tsetsequa was a period of transformation, and the numayms were replaced by different groups called Secret Societies whose membership cut across that of the numayms[xxiii]. Franz Boas, an anthropologist who had much contact with the Kwakiutl and witnessed the change of seasons stated, “During the winter ceremonial season, the social structure breaks down. Instead of being grouped in clans, the Indians are grouped according to the spirits which have initiated them[xxiv].”Tsetsequa was the time of the spirits, a time when the beings of the supernatural world were present and resided among the villages[xxv]. During baxus, men controlled the animals through hunting and wearing the family animal crest. During tsetsequa, men are incorporated by the supernatural beings,[xxvi] and the relationship between men and spirits is reinforced through the masks and costumes worn during the winter ceremonial[xxvii] . Time is not a factor in the winter season, and the spirits that consumed the Kwakiutl’s ancestors are the very same spirits that devour the initiates in the present day[xxviii].

The Secret Societies that are formed during tsetsequa have obtained the myths of their ancestors that acquired supernatural powers from the spirits of the paranormal world. Membership in the Secret Society groups is gained through initiation, which can only occur during tsetsequa and makes up the core of the winter ceremonial[xxix]. These societies all have relationships with different supernatural spirits, and thus have various winter names, unlike the names held duringbaxus. These names are honored through performance, and in these performances, masks are used as the medium to gain access to the supernatural world and the spirits from which they received, and still receive, power.

The highest ranking group is the Cannibal Society, the people of the hamatsa. Thehamatsa is a cannibal in human form, representing the chief cannibal spirit, Baxbakualanuxsiwae, and his household[xxx]. This society reserves the right to consume human flesh, a taboo at all other times of the year[xxxi]. The dance of the hamatsa is an initiation ceremony involving elaborate planning, distinguished skill, and great imagination.

There are many legends that refer to Baxbakualanuxsiwae, but many tell the same story with variations on some of the details. One legend tells of four young brothers who venture to the mountains to hunt the goats that live there. Their father sent them off but warned them to avoid the house that had red smoke rising from it. As the young men proceeded through the forests of the mountains, they came upon such a house. Their curiosity got the best of them, and they decided to see who lived in such a place with odd-colored smoke coming from it. They entered to find a woman rocking a baby. As they sat around the fire, one of the brothers nicked his leg, drawing blood and causing the young child to go into a frenzied state, asking his mother if he could lick the blood. It was at this point that the brothers knew they needed to flee the house. The eldest brother took it upon himself to shoot arrows out the window, asking each of his brothers to retrieve them. Once all his brothers had left to ‘retrieve’ the arrows, he shot another arrow and excused himself to get it. He joined his brothers, and when they did not immediately return, the woman knew they had escaped. She called for Baxbakualanuxsiwae, claiming she had let their dinner get away, and he went after them. They reached the house in time to close the door and let their father know what had happened. When the father heard Baxbakualanuxsiwae at the door, he invited the cannibal and his wife and child to dinner, claiming they would feast upon his sons. The cannibal left, promising to return.

Preparations were made, and the father and his wife dug an enormous hole, filling it with fire hot coals and concealed it with a ‘span of skin.’ Baxbakualanuxsiwae then arrived with his wife and three children, one of which remained in the boat to keep watch. The father invited them to sit with their backs to the covered hole, and began to sing, causing the cannibal family to doze off. Once they slept, the father uncovered the flaming hole and pushed the family into it, killing them and saving his sons from their horrid fate. They turned to mosquitoes as they burned, and the child that remained in the boat fled to the woods where he still lives[xxxii]. This story tells of the defeat of the great cannibal spirit, of how humans can overcome these spirits, no matter their strength or influence. This is one of the purposes of the hamatsa ceremony, to represent human strength overpowering and eradicating the cannibal spirit.

Figure 1: Hamat’sa life group, prepared by Franz Boas at the US National Museum, c.1896 (Neg. #9539; National Museum of Natural History [NMNH] Dept. of Anthropology, Box 25, Folder 2, National Anthropological Archives [NAA]).
Figure 1: Hamat’sa life group, prepared by Franz Boas at the US National Museum, c.1896 (Neg. #9539; National Museum of Natural History [NMNH] Dept. of Anthropology, Box 25, Folder 2, National Anthropological Archives [NAA]).

Hamatsa Dance:

The dramatic events of the hamatsa ceremony began unfolding on the first night of feasting. The guests, or audience, gathered in a house set apart especially for the winter dances, called lopek (meaning ‘emptied’)[33]. This special house, or lopek, is uniquely decorated with paintings of Baxbakualanuxsiwae’s face or of the cannibal spirit’s servant, the Cannibal Raven. These paintings are so large, that the hamatsa initiate springs forth from their mouths throughout the ceremony[34] (shown in Figure 1).

On the first night, once the groups have gathered and begun to feast, speeches have been made, and the historic legends have been retold, a strange shuffling sound can be heard in the roof beams, along with a peculiar whistling noise. At this time, the host or one of his family members announce that the host’s son has been seized by the frenzied cannibal spirits that inhabitthe village during tsetsequa[35]. It is believed that the host’s son, or initiate, has disappeared to the house of the spirit, and is learning the cannibal’s ways, but in actuality the initiate remains in the surrounding woods for up to four months[36]. The absence of the novice does not delay the hamatsa ritual or dance, however, as the members of all the secret societies perform their dances in order to attract his attention and lure him back to the village[37].Eventually, the elders of the Cannibal Society, who at this point are acting like shamans, finally retrieve the young novice, who is in a manic condition as he is possessed by Baxbakualanuxsiwae[38].

The second part of the ritual takes at least four days, reenacting legends of the cannibal spirit and its bird-monster servants and, of course, taming the novice to his original human state[39]. First, the initiate is brought through the village, restrained by his captors and wearing hemlock branches in his hair, around his ankles, wrists, waist, and draped over his shoulders, screaming ‘haap!’ (eat). He is ferocious like an animal and makes it difficult to be controlled as he constantly tries to bite those around him with is obsessive craving of human flesh[40]. He is brought to the lopek to be witnessed.

Figure 2: Courtesy, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute, P27989
Figure 2: Courtesy, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute, P27989

Once he reaches the sacred house, the youth is presented with a human corpse (an imitation, of course, for theatrics) on which he ‘feeds’ viciously. The members of the Cannibal Society stage this scene well, with false blood and faked eating, but the members of the audience who knew very little of the legends were often convinced that what they were seeing was reality[41]. However, in past times, slaves of the tribe were actually executed to feed thehamatsa’s craving for human flesh, but as time passed, the brutality of Kwakiutl ceremony lessened[42]. Finally, the dancing begins.

The first dance consists of the youth crouching down, squatting, looking for more to eat as tremors take over his body, and he turns sharply, this way and that, frantic from the spirit living inside him. He would disappear behind a screen in the house, called mawihl, and reappear with new costume, such as cedar bark ornaments, as the dancing progressed from crouching and agitated to erect and less crazed. While he hid behind the screen, elders of the Cannibal Society would take his place in the dancing arena, dressed as the bird-monsters and dancing the dances they learned from Baxbakualanuxsiwae when they themselves had been possessed by the spirit during their initiation[43].

Figure 3: Cedar Bark Head Ring - Courtesy, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute, 5/401
Figure 3: Cedar Bark Head Ring - Courtesy, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute, 5/401

After three nights of dancing to calm the spirit that has possessed the initiate, the fourth night brings about the process of purification to cure the youth and bring him wholly back to his human self. This night is almost like an exorcism, as the hamatsa novice is brought through different rituals to eradicate the spirit. The initiate is dragged to salt water and ducked four times by senior members, who act as shamans[44]. He is then brought back to the dance house where a ring of red cedar bark is passed over him, then burned in a cloud of smoke at which time the novice is completely calmed. He is then dressed in his ceremonial head and neck rings of red cedar bark and a special button blanket and is able to dance as a maturedhamatsa and is given his new name as an official member of the Cannibal Society[45].

Once the young man is cured, the cannibal spirits appear and dance around the house, impersonated by men wearing the fabulous bird-monster masks, showing how, even though the cannibal spirits are formidable and compelling, they were still defeated and controlled by the power of the tribal elders[46]. This is the main purpose of the hamatsa dance, to emphasize the strength of the lineages through the ritual taming and initiation of the novice into the secret society, giving the youth the entitlement to overcome the spirits in the future, passing on the group’s heritage.

Hamatsa Ceremonial Art:

The art used in the tsetsequa Cannibal Society dance are an essential tool in portraying the legendary events in a visual manner. The masks symbolize the characters of the legends, honoring and appeasing the supernatural beings residing near the villages, bestowing a kind of peace between the people and the spirits[47]. The Kwakiutl were not so much concerned with realism as they were with differentiation and recognition. Every part of the mask, every cut and carve, was important and had meaning. This was essential in correctly identifying and telling the story of the creature being portrayed.

The masks of the tsetsequa season are, for lack of a better word, grotesque, at least in comparison to the baxus masks. One explanation for these twisted elements of tsetsequa artis that it represents the tabooed actions (cannibalism) of the hamatsa, which would otherwise be appalling behavior[48]. Another interpretation could be that during baxus, man is dominant; man is simply man, hunting as he always has. During tsetsequa, however, the spirits are present, the supernatural is dominant, and man is transformed in connection with the spirits through the use of masks. Tsetsequa masks all have at least one element that is exaggerated or distorted[49], and these exaggerations probably display the importance of the sacred masks to be used only during winter. The difference between the two seasons is apparent as the Kwakiutl even distinguish this division between baxus and tsetsequa in their art.

The main characters of the hamatsa dance to be discussed here are the members of the household of Baxbakualanuxsiwae: the cannibal or hamatsa raven, Kwakwakwalanooksiwae; the cannibal crane or long-beaked monster, Hokhokw; and Crooked Beak orGalokwudzuwis[50]. The masks made to represent these creatures were carved with extreme precision and care[51]. It was important to get every detail just right, to create a believable image, to enhance the impact of performance in dances and rituals[52]. The mask carver played one of the most important roles, because without a visual persona with which to associate the legends and an ability to recognize the characters, there would be no drama and no power to bring to the audience.

How Masks are Made:

“Master artists created our regalia and masks with a great sense of theatre. Through the use of shells from the beaches, and animal skins, and the great cedar trees from the forest, these masks, headdresses, and dance robes connect us to our traditional lands[53].”

The dramatics of the winter ceremonial performances rely heavily on the talents of the master carver. These masks are the medium through which the people relate to spirits. When the masks are worn, the wearer impersonates or becomes the spirit the mask represents[54], so it is

important that these works of art carry integrity and honor the spirit or ancestor. In order to carry out the correct actions, movements, and effects, these masks have to be formed perfectly, creating noises of the spirits, exuberating color, and demanding presence.

The actual process of creating the masks to be used in the winter ceremonial is a painstakingly intricate ordeal that could cover a time span of several months. First, the carver began with his blank canvas, a massive block of red cedar wood from the neighboring forest. The wood was always somewhat still full of life and moist with water as it began its transformation[55]. The carver did not dare rush the process, dragging it out using extreme precision and care to make every mark just right. The block of wood can weigh up to one hundred pounds, requiring the artist to use great amounts of energy and strength to slowly strip away the layers of wood to reveal a true form. As much as fifty percent of wood can be stripped from the original block just to get to the basic shape of the mask. Once the skeleton of the form is fully envisioned, the carver could dig deeper to uncover the intricate details of the face of the mask.

Although the curves of the mask vary in separate directions and form different parts of the face, everything has to have a consistent thickness all around. There is a method to this patient madness, as the uniformity allows the long beaks of the mask, such as those used to represent the bird-monsters in the hamatsa dance, to clack together with a much louder snap, giving more realism and theater to the performance.

Once the mask is finished undergoing the carving process, it needs to be dried out. Drying can take up to a whole month, depending on the condition of the wood used. The masks are usually hidden away in a dark, cool place such as a cave in the forest or a shaded corner of a house[56]. This process has to be carried out slowly, for if the wood is dried too quickly, it could change shape or crack, ruining the final creation. Once the mask is completely dried and still in its intended form, color addition and mechanics can begin.

Paint is applied to these masks in a way that the important details can easily be seen by the witnessing audience. The base color is usually black in order to more effectively allow the traces of red and white paint to stand out. These little colorful details mostly outline the eyes and nostrils and give decoration to the massive beaks of the hamatsa bird-monster masks[57]. These colors enhanced the drama of the mask, making it appear more real and aggressive in the firelight, producing an appearance that is believable and astonishing to the audience.

In addition to color, the masks are made with the ability of movement and animation. The beaks have hinges, allowing them to be pulled open and closed[58], imitating snapping or biting, revealing their identity as cannibal bird-monsters. The beaks on these masks are no small appendages. They can reach up to six feet in length, and the mask as a whole could weigh up to forty pounds[59]. Needless to say, these enormous masks are a heavy burden for the dancers to wear and performing required additions to the costume to make dancing possible. Harnesses are fashioned to be worn around the chest and shoulders. Ropes are then fastened, double ropes for the heavier forty pound masks, between the mask and harness connecting them, giving additional support and lifting some of the weight from the dancer’s head and neck[60].

Because of the ropes and harnesses that are needed to support the heavy hamatsa dance masks, body costumes were needed to cover these unsightly necessities, for the ropes and harness could take away from the beauty of the ornately and carefully made masks. So costumes

are used, but there are essential not only to conceal the functional requirements for the mask, but to add to the perception and illusion of reality, that the spirit is alive and well and right before the audience’s eyes.


Although the masks are the most important visual in the dramatic performance, other details are added as reinforcement and out of aesthetic necessity. Costumes are made mainly of strips of cedar bark or hemlock boughs, consisting also of neck, wrist, and ankle rings. These can each be adorned by other decorative embellishments such as feathers, fur, and even bits of shell[61]. Of course, the initiate that performs as the hamatsa wears a different set of rings around his legs, arms, and neck, and these changed as he accomplishes each step of the ritual. Those that are not imitating bird-monsters or were not instilled by the chief cannibal spirit simply adorn themselves with solid black face paint[62], making them less significant than the great cannibal monsters and keeping them almost hidden in the background.

The costumes are used as additions to elevate the beauty of the carefully carved mask, but, as mentioned, they function also to conceal the harnesses and ropes that are essential in keeping the heavy mask in place on the wearer’s face. The dancer is expected to perform a series of elaborate and difficult moves, forcing him to use all his strength and balance. Keeping the mask firmly in place is a simple method of helping him execute these moves perfectly. He has to crouch low and step, making sure his body was constantly shaking with agitation, keeping his arms and hands stretched out, as he looks about wildly for human flesh to feast upon[63].

The initiate needs to have immense control and balance to perform as expected, but he does require some assistance. The masks are so large and bulky that they make seeing where one was going very difficult. As a result, there are designated assistants whose job it is to guide the

performer and assist in his direction as he implements the complicated steps[64]. These are the members of the ritual that wear less elaborate costumes, such as the plain black paint on their bare skin.

Figure 4: Hokhokw and Raven Masks. Edward Curtis photo, 1910.
Figure 4: Hokhokw and Raven Masks. Edward Curtis photo, 1910.

Costumes have their functions and aesthetic value, but nothing worn is as important and revealing as the mask. Each cut has significant meaning and each adornment gives away some identity or detail of the story of the face being created. In the case of the cannibal monsters, a bird needs to be represented. Of course, these particular birds are not simply animals; they are important historical spirits, but, just as any story, a basic foundation needs to be laid out first. In general, the face of the mask begins as human, then as symbols are added in accordance to what identity needs to be established, a new being emerges[65].

For all masks, the placement of the ears differentiates between animal and human[66], whether or not that particular animal has visible ears in real life. The ears of birds and mammals are almost always placed above the forehead; for a human, the ears are traditionally, as in reality, placed on the sides of the face[67]. Particularly for birds, what distinguishes them from other animals is obviously the beak and feathers. The shape and length of the beak determines the species of bird such as an eagle or a raven. In regards to the cannibal-bird monsters of the hamatsa dance, the beaks are highly exaggerated, contorted in some way or made abnormally long. Another feature that characterizes tsetsequabird masks from others is that they have cedar bark fringe and feathers that hang from the back of the mask, almost looking like a wild mane[68]. This grotesqueness, as previously mentioned, is customary for the tstetsequa season and differentiates these important characters of the Cannibal Society from other forms of birds.


Figure 5: Hamatsa Mask - Courtesy, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute, 21/6534

Kwakwakwalanooksiwae, more easily described as Cannibal Raven or hamatsa Raven, is one of the great monster-birds that lives with Baxbakualanuxsiwae and has the ability to crush men’s skulls with its massive beak[69]. His rather horrid talent may be the reasoning behind the wooden skulls that are sometimes attached to the mask, representing the number of people killed. They may also represent slaves that were slain to feed the new hamatsa[70]. The long, dangerous beak of Cannibal Raven was given full form by carvers, with a length reaching up to six or eight feet long. This long and obviously heavy beak stretches over the painted nostrils to curve toward the end of the upper half of the beak. The nostrils are emphasized with brightly colored paint, making them look flared[71], as if in anger or agitation. The head is painted black, using white to give more depth, such as for the huge, rounded eye that seems to endlessly stare down prey. Red and orange are also used to bring out features that make the face almost frightening, such as the enlarged nostrils and the lips of the skull-crushing beak[72].

The beak is the most important part of the cannibal-bird masks. It is emphasized not only by its sheer enormous size, but also through ear-splitting sound. A small string may be tied to the hinged beak, perhaps through the open nostril, and when this string is pulled by the wearer, the beak snaps shut. This move causes a thunderous clattering sound[73], perhaps giving the impression of bones or skulls breaking, striking fear in the audience and bringing more excitement and awe to the performance.

The Cannibal Raven is the servant of the chief cannibal spirit, Baxbakualanuxsiwae, and his face is never omitted from the ritual. When he makes his presence known, the initiate becomes almost feral, becoming uncontrollable and riotous until the Raven is finished dancing[74]. Since the initiate is filled with the spirit of Baxbakualanuxsiwae, Raven, as the spirit’s servant, plays an important role in exorcising the supernatural from the initiate.


The Hokhokw, or Crane, is another of the fantastic bird-monsters used in the Cannibal Society’s winter ritual. The Hokhokw’s beak is significantly different from that of Kwakwakwalanooksiwae, or Raven. Hokhokw is presented with a considerably longer and notably narrower beak, and, instead of having the smooth curve at the end, the crane’s beak is sharply squared off[75]. Comparing the images of Kwakwakwalanooksiwae and Hokhokw, it is fairly effortless to point out the differences. However, the colors are the same, as is the wild mane of cedar bark fringe.

The stories and origins of these masks are mostly very secretive and remain hidden within the traditions of the tribe’s secret societies. One story of the Hokhokw is known, however. It tells of four brothers who are hunting goats in the mountains. When they stop and make camp for the night, only one brother stands his staff between his feet, connecting him spiritually to the mountain goats, keeping him safe. When he awakens, he finds his brothers were killed by a large bird. He begins to shoot arrows at the bird, but more birds come, and he keeps shooting until morning. Once the sun finally rose, he burned the remains of the many birds he killed, and watched as their ashes turned to mosquitoes[76]. Again, this story does not reveal much about the great bird itself, but there is evidence of how this bird affected the people and how it was overcome and defeated by them.


Galokwuzuwis, or Crooked Beak, is the most grotesque and misshapen of the three bird-monster masks. His beak is drastically cut shorter, but this lacking in size does not make him less noticeable. He has a short, wide, and rounded beak that is complimented by overpowering and greatly curved appendages. These elaborate curves allowed the carver almost free range in the design of the mask. These arcs that extend from the beak can be slight or they can expand outward to the point that they look like great loops that circle around the beak. These curves that make the beak almost look twisted are accented with painted white, wavy lines. The rest of the mask is painted in the traditional fashion: solid black, white details, and red accentuation[77]. He has large eyes that almost look bigger than in the other masks, but this seems to be because his beak is much shorter. There are many variations between Crooked Beak masks because in each, the arches are differently shaped or placed and the paint markings are dissimilar. Each mask is unique, depending
on the artist, although they all have the basic symbols that represent the same monster-bird that serve the cannibal spirit.


The Pacific Northwest Coast is arguably one of the most enchanting corners of the world, with its breathtaking views, rich native culture, and thrilling works of art. One group of inhabitants called the Kwakiutl are masters of their arts, creating some of the largest and most elaborate masks of the area. These masks were not simply pieces of art that hung on a wall or were displayed to only be viewed, but were important objects that played a functional role in the Kwakiutl’s ritualistic way of the life. The most important ceremony, the hamatsa dance held during the winter tsetsequaseason, boasted the largest masks, those with the faces of the fantastic cannibal bird-monsters. Through patient carving, careful painting, and traditional dancing, the identity of these masks is carefully presented, honoring the spirits that reside in the village and telling a visual story of family history to a captivated audience.

[1] Gary Wyatt, Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast, (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd, 1999), 8.

[2] Edward Malin, A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians, (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1978), 45.

[3]Audrey Hawthorn, Kwakiutl Art, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 26.

[4] Malin, 12.

[5] Abraham Rosman and Paula G. Rubel, “Structural Patterning in Kwakiutl Art and Ritual,”Man,(New Series: Vol.25, No. 4, December 1990, pp. 620-639), 628.

[6] Donald Pollock, “Masks and the Semiotics of Identity,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, (Vol.1, No. 3, September, 1995, pp. 581-597), 586.

[7] Gary Wyatt, Spirit Faces: Contemporary Masks of the Northwest Coast, (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1994), 5.

[8] Saradell Ard, et al, “Native North American Art,” Grover Art Online, Oxford Art Online (accessed January 8, 2010).

[9] Pollock, 587.

[10] Malin, 12.

[11] Wyatt, Spirit Faces, 5.

[12] David Penny, Native Arts of North America, (Paris: Finest Sa/Pierre Terrail Editions, 2003), 184.

[13] Hawthorn, 26.

[14] Wyatt, Mythic Beings, 8.

[15] Rosman and Rubel, 622.

[16] Pollock, 585.

[17] Rosman and Rubel, 622.

[18] Rosman and Rubel, 623.

[19] Barry Pritzker, A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 179.

[20] Wyatt, Mythic Beings, 7.

[21] Pollock, 588.

[22] Rosman and Rubel, 632.

[23] Pollock, 588.

[24] Franz Boas and George Hunt, “The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians,” (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1897), 418.

[25] Rosman and Rubel, 622.

[26] Pollock, 589.

[27] Rosman and Rubel, 626.

[28] Rosman and Rubel, 636.

[29] Rosman and Rubel, 623.

[30] Hawthorn, 45.

[31] Rosman and Rubel, 625-626.

[32] Franz Boas, “On Certain Songs and Dances of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia,” )The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 1. No. 1. (April – June, 1888): 49-64), 53-55.

[33] Boas and Hunt, 436.

[34] Boas and Hunt, 446.

[35] Penney, 184.

[36] Boas and hunt, 437.

[37] Boas and Hunt, 431.

[38] Penney 184.

[39] Hawthorn, 45.

[40] Hawthorn, 45.

[41]Penney, 187.

[42] Boas and Hunt, 439.

[43] Hawthorn, 46.

[44] Boas and Hunt 442.

[45] Hawthorn, 46.

[46] Penney, 187.

[47] Malin, 42.

[48] Rosman and Rubel, 627.

[49] Rosman and Rubel, 627.

[50] Hawthorn, 45.

[51] Hawthorn, 105.

[52] Malin, 39.

[53] Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Indian, Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life along the North Pacific Coast, (Washington: The National Geographic Society, 2005), 69.

[54] Rosman and Rubel, 624.

[55] Malin, 25-26.

[56] Malin, 25.

[57] Hawthorn, 105.

[58] Malin, 26-27.

[59] Malin, 26-27.

[60] Malin, 38.

[61] Josephine Patareck, Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996), 315.

[62] Hawthorn, 46.

[63] Hawthorn, 46.

[64] Malin, 38-39.

[65] Franz Boas, Primitive Art, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1955), 190.

[66] Boas, Primitive Art, 187.

[67] Boas, Primitive Art, 185.

[68] Hawthorn, 105.

[69] Penney, 187.

[70] Boas and Hunt, 447.

[71] Hawthorn, 105-106.

[72] Hawthorn, 106.

[73]Robert Tyler Davis and William Reagh and Alvin Lustig, Native Arts of the Pacific Northwest: From the Rasmussen Collection of the Portland Art Museum, (California: Stanford University Press, 1949), 156.

[74] Wyatt, Spirit Faces, 14.

[75] Hawthorn, 106.

[76] Wyatt, Spirit Faces, 28.

[77] Hawthorn, 106.


Ard, Saradell, et al. “Native North American Art.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. (accessed January 8, 2010).

This article describes how social rank and ceremonial rites are inherited.

Boas, Franz. “On Certain Songs and Dances of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia.” The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 1. No. 1. (April – June, 1888): 49-64.

The author gives a firsthand visual of the winter ceremonial.

Boas, Franz. Primitive Art. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1955.

The author gives detailed explanations and describes important structural

elements that create Northwest Coast masks.

Boas, Franz and George Hunt. “The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians.” Washington: Government Printing Office, 1897.

This article analyzes the meaning behind social grouping, such as secret societies, and how membership of these groups is acquired.

Davis, Robert Tyler and William Reagh and Alvin Lustig. Native Arts of the Pacific Northwest: From the Rasmussen Collection of the Portland Art Museum. California: Stanford University Press, 1949.

This text describes Northwest Coast ceremony and art. It includes a large collection of images of artifacts, including masks, with descriptions of their use.

Hawthorn, Audrey. Kwakiutl Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

The author expresses essential details of Kwakiutl beliefs as well as essential details of the progression of the Cannibal Society ceremony.

Malin, Edward. A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1978.

This book gives a comprehensive explanation of how masks are made and their purpose in native beliefs.

Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of the American Indian Costume. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.

The author depicts the costumes of the winter ceremonial and provides photos of important masks.

Penney, David. Native Arts of North America. Paris: Finest Sa/Pierre Terrail Editions, 2003.

The author presents a day-by-day layout of the hamatsa ritual. In addition, there are descriptions of the bird-monster masks and their identities.

Pollock, Donald. “Masks and the Semiotics of Identity.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Vol. 1. No. 3. (September, 1995): 581-597.

This publication tells how lineages were established through ancestral crests and explains the transformation of Kwakiutl life from summer to winter.

Pritzker, Barry. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples.New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

This text is important in giving a general overview of Kwakiutl religion, government, economics, and history. It supports further understanding of Kwakiutl customs.

Rosman, Abraham and Paula G. Rubel. “Structural Patterning in Kwakiutl Art and Ritual.”Man.New Series: Vol. 25. (December, 1990): 620-639.

The authors convey the significance masks obtain through symbolism and spirituality.

Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Indian. Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life along the North Pacific Coast. Washington: The National Geographic Society, 2005.

Personal accounts from the perspective of actual tribe members provide a primary resource in this collection of narratives.

Wyatt, Gary. Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1999.

This text informs the reader of the different realms that comprise Kwakiutl religion and provides images of the masks used to retell this history.

Wyatt, Gary. Spirit Faces Contemporary Masks of the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1994.

The author provides his interpretation of the importance of masks in Northwest Coast ceremony and features images of these masks, including excerpts of the stories behind them.


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