Northwest Coast Masks

These two remarkable masks by Northwest Coast Native American and First Nations carvers came to Queen B from the estate of a discerning couple who had an impressive collection of museum-worthy pieces. 

This beaver mask is by prolific and multi-talented Canadian artist Henry Hunt, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe (also known as the Kwakiutl). Since the mask is thick and heavy and neither the eyes nor nostrils fully pierce the wood, it was probably not intended to be worn. The most common crests of Pacific Northwest Coast peoples are Eagle, Raven, Thunderbird, Bear, Wolf, Killer Whale, Frog and Beaver. Beaver is admired as resourceful, productive, persistent and wise, and because beavers cross boundaries (land to water), they are seen by some as “spirit helpers”. This beaver mask is one of several known examples by Hunt.

Henry Hunt lived 1923 – 1985 and was a grandson of the famous Tlingit-English linguist and ethnologist George Hunt, who created the exhibit at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago which introduced many Americans to NWC art and culture. George Hunt was close to the Kwakwaka’wakw through marriage and adoption and was recognized as an expert on their language.

Although grandson Henry Hunt is best known for traditional carved and painted wooden pieces such as this beaver, he also created silkscreen prints, silver jewelry, and ceramics, sometimes blending Kwakwaka’wakw traditions with those of modern art. Working alongside his stepfather, totem pole carver Chief Mungo Martin, Hunt helped restore Thunderbird Park at Alert Bay in Victoria, British Colombia, a collection of NWC totem poles, grave markers and other important ceremonial carvings. The park was founded in 1941 to protect these monumental wooden pieces, but by the 1950s they needed serious repairs. Chief Martin led a team of First Nations artisans to do the work, with Hunt taking over when Martin passed away in 1962. Hunt’s sons Tony, Richard and Stanley also became expert carvers and in 1971 Henry and Tony completed a memorial totem pole to Mungo Martin. Henry Hunt is considered a master carver and his work is found in international collections and museums.

This life-sized male mask is smaller and much lighter than the prior beaver mask. It is hollowed out, and the eyes, nostrils and mouth openings go all the way through, so it may have been worn during ceremonial dances. Real hair fringes the forehead, and abalone earrings, a copper nose ring and painted designs complete the look. Like the beaver mask, this mask is the work of a well-known multicultural, indigenous master carver associated with the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe, Chief Lelooska. 

Of Cherokee descent, Lelooska was adopted into the Nez Perce tribe at the age of 12 but was drawn to the art and culture of “The Cedar and Salmon People” of the Pacific Northwest. As a child he studied woodcarving with his grandfather, He-Killer, and his Nez Perce name means “He Who Cuts Against Wood with a Knife”. As an adult Lelooska lived in Washington state and studied traditional indigenous arts and languages, becoming proficient. He was known for his carved masks, panels, feast bowls, ceremonial rattles and sculptures of animals.

His family was adopted into the House of Sewide of the Mamaleleqala and Qwiqwasutnox bands of the Kwakwaka’wakw and his Kwakwaka’wakw title, Gixken, means “Chief of Chiefs”. Lelooska passed away in 1996. In keeping with tradition his family waited over four years and then put on a magnificent potlatch in his honor. The days-long dancing, feasting, storytelling and gift-giving event was attended by family and friends from many tribes. 

“He Who Cuts Against Wood with a Knife” also left a wonderful educational legacy for all of us: a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the Lelooska Cultural Center and Museum in Ariel, Washington. It houses his life-long collection of art and artifacts representing tribes from all across the United States. In addition to exhibits, the center also offers living history programs, including special firelight performances by dancers wearing Northwest Coast masks, maybe even some carved by Chief Lelooska himself.