(Alaska, Canada, and as far south as Washington State)


The Kwakiutl, Tlingit, and Haida Peoples

According to the Brittanica, 

member of any of the aboriginal North American peoples inhabiting a narrow belt of Pacific coastland and offshore islands from the southern border of Alaska to northwestern California.

The most sharply delimited culture area of native North America was the Northwest Coast. It covered a long narrow arc of Pacific coast and offshore islands from Yakutat Bay in the northeast Gulf of Alaska south to Cape Mendocino in modern California. Its eastern limits were the crest of the Coast Ranges from the north down to Puget Sound, the Cascades south to the Columbia, and the coastal hills of Oregon and northwest California. The Kuroshio (Pacific Ocean current) offshore warms the coast and deluges it with rain. The northern Coast Range, cresting at heights of 5,000 feet and more, rises steeply from the sea and is cut by a myriad of narrow channels and fjords. The shores of Puget Sound, southwest Washington, and the Oregon coast hills are lower and less rugged.

Coastal forests are dense and predominantly coniferous with spruces, Douglas fir, hemlock, red and yellow cedar, and, in the south, coast redwood. These forests support an abundant fauna. Most important from the cultural point of view was the aquatic fauna, for it was on this that the areal culture depended primarily. Five species of salmon; herring; oil-rich "candlefish," or eulachon; smelt; cod; halibut; and mollusks abounded.

The peoples of the Northwest Coast linguistically consisted of a series of units related to widespread "stocks" of native North America (see North American Indian languages). From north to south the following linguistic divisions occurred: Tlingit; Haida; Tsimshian; northern Kwakiutl, or Heiltsuq; Bella Coola; southern Kwakiutl; Nootka; Coast Salish; Quileute-Chimakum; Kwalhioqua; Chinook. Then along the Oregon Coast and northwest California a series of small divisions occurred: Tillamook, Alsea, Siuslaw, Umpqua, Coos, Tututni-Tolowa, Yurok, Wiyot, Karok, and Hupa.

Culturally, Northwest Coast groups can be classified into four sub area units, or "provinces": the northern one, including speakers of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and the Tsimshian-influenced Haisla (northernmost Heiltsuq or Kwakiutl); the Wakashan province, including all other Kwakiutl, the Bella Coola, and the Nootka; the Coast Salish-Chinook province, which included various enclaves of other speech down to the central coast of Oregon; and the northwest California province plus the Athabascan-speaking Tututni-Tolowa.

The Northwest Coast was densely populated. Estimates of density in terms of persons per square mile mean little in a region where long stretches of coast consisted of uninhabitable cliffs rising from the sea. But early historic sources indicate that many villages had hundreds of inhabitants. One conservative population estimate of 129,000 persons on the coast at the dawn of the historic period must represent nearly the maximum that the area could support without improvement of the already complex technology.

Knife Handle
19th Century CE
NW Coast
Haida (probably)
ivory, pearl, shell, wood, 
Height 4 1/8’’ width 1 5/8’’
Form:  The function of this object is not really certain.  It was probably used as a knife handle.  It is made from ivory, pearl, shell, and wood and is symmetrical.  The human and animal forms are combined into a composite or compound creature.

Iconography:  The composite nature of the iconography probably is linked to Kwakiutl, Haida, Tlingit, and Eskimo folk tales and mythology.  The Haida believed that supernatural beings, especially animals had human spirits within them.  Tribes of the NW Coast often claimed to be descended from such beings.  In many of the Northwestern peoples myths the idea of a human spirit that inhabits animal forms may be illustrated here.  The combination of human and animal forms might represent the anthropomorphic human spirit that resides in animals or could be a reference to the ideas of transformation as told in the stories concerning the Raven.  Please read the tale of Raven in Liaisons.  This object may be an expression of the use of the fetish in Native American culture.  The Brittanica describes this as an art object in which there is a "combination of the concept of a guardian spirit with fetish worship and fabricate idols representing plants, animals, and human spirits."

Context:  Scholars at the Dallas Museum of art suggest that this was probably a knife handle but may have been a fetish object.  The Brittanica explains that the term fetish comes "from anthropological writings in which "fetish" (also spelled fetich) referred to a charm thought to contain magical or spiritual powers."  It is safe to assume that if this object was not used as a knife handle it was used as some sort of fetish and was probably sculpted in a small scale so that it was easy to carry.  If compared to the Kachina figures of the Hopi peoples and one may be able to draw the conclusion that this object served a similar purpose designed to influence the world through some sort of sympathetic magic or as a didactic tool. 


Tlingit Clan House

Tlingit, Grizzly Bear House-partition screen 
c 1840 cedar paint and human hair 15'x8'

Form: Both works are a part of or actually a work of decorative architecture.  The clan house is made of planked and carved wood which is then painted.  The facade (front or facing) of the building is decorated with stylized anthropomorphic (human) and zoomorphic (animal like) forms.  The rendering or design of these forms, according to Stokstad, consists of "two basic elements: the ovoid, a slightly bent rectangle with rounded corners, and the formline, a continuous shape-defining line."  The ovoid form is a stylized in a geometric fashion.  The formline could also be referred to as a contour line.  Both the partition and the facade of the clan house are symmetrical.  The doorway is at the center of the design.

Iconography: The iconography of these two structures is fairly complex.  The house is symbolic of a womb like structure.  Entering into the doorway of the house is equivalent to being consumed.  Through the rituals inside one is symbolically "reborn."  When one leaves the house one is reborn.  Notice the house partitions opening roughly corresponds to a vagina.

The totem poles and compound imagery of the partition and facade represent the history of the clan.  Each image represents the lineage of the clan that uses the house.  Each of the animals is associated with a family or grouping.

Context: Houses such as the one above were communal dwellings.  The screen at left was used to divide the chief's living area from the rest of the community.  Houses were also used as ceremonial centers in which special festivals such as the Potlatch and Hamatsa ceremonies were held.  The Potlatch was an elaborate feasting and gathering that lasted for several days.  Gifts were exchanged and dances were performed.  The most powerful individuals were the ones who gave the feast and in some ways the festival was an elaborate way in which the participants battled in an economic fashion.  See Stokstad for a detailed account of the Hamatsa festival.

Tsonokwa Feast Dish 
8 meters long, carved wood,
NW Coast
Salish or Kwakiutl

Anthropomorphic Bowl
1900 CE
NW Coast

Grease dish in form of a boat 
with animal head, 
circa 1900
wood, opercula, trade beads, and abalone
24 1/4 x 9 (61.6 x 22.9 cm) inches

Form: These bowls like the masks were carved of wood.  The designs are symmetrical and painted with naturally occurring pigments.  These bowls may be more brilliantly colored than those used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries since modern artists use modern paints.  These bowls are either anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or a composite of the two.  The ovoid and formline are utilized in their decoration.

The central section of each vessel, which roughly corresponds to the stomach, are used as the food serving areas. The abdomen of the Tsonokwa is the main part of the feast dish, while the face can be removed to reveal another dish. Associated with the feast dish are six small bowls, in the form of red  snappers, seals and frogs, which, when the dish is completely assembled, rest on the knees and other parts of Tsonokwaa's body.

Iconography:  The food at feasts was often placed in a large dish carved in the form of an animal or supernatural beings that are part of the Kwakiutl mythology.  Since many of the being are cannibalistic, such as Bookwus and Tsonokwa, using the facsimiles of each beings' body as a food container may represent a "taking back" or reverse cannibalism.  In many of the Northwestern peoples myths the idea of a human spirit that inhabits animal forms may be illustrated here. 

Context:  The larger vessels were used as part of the first part of the Potlatch ceremonies and food was ladled out of them.  The smaller bowls were used later in the feast.  These vessels were family heirlooms and because of their honorific and antiquarian status before food was served out of these dishes, the name of the bowl and the family who owned were announced.

According to the Brittanica the potlatch was,

ceremonial distribution of property and gifts to affirm or reaffirm social status, as uniquely institutionalized by the American Indians of the Northwest Pacific coast. The potlatch reached its most elaborate development among the southern Kwakiutl from 1849 to 1925. Although each group had its characteristic version, the potlatch had certain general features. Ceremonial formalities were observed in inviting guests, in speechmaking, and in the distribution of goods by the donor according to the social rank of the recipients. The size of the gatherings reflected the rank of the donor. Great feasts and generous hospitality accompanied the potlatch, and the efforts of the kin group of the host were exerted to maximize the generosity. The proceedings gave wide publicity to the social status of donor and recipients because there were many witnesses.

A potlatch was given by an heir or successor to assert and validate his newly assumed social position. Important events such as marriages, births, deaths, and initiations into secret societies were also occasions for potlatches; but trivial events were used just as often, because the main purpose of a potlatch was not the occasion itself but the validation of claims to social rank. The potlatch was also used as a face-saving device by individuals who had suffered public embarrassment and as a means of competition between rivals in social rank.

Potlatches were often combined with the performances of dancing societies, each having a series of ranked dances that dramatized ancestral experiences with supernatural beings. These beings were portrayed as giving gifts of ceremonial prerogatives such as songs, dances, and names, which became hereditary property.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


Photos of Dance Feast, 
Dance Societies of the  Hamatsa
NW Coast

For more pictures of the Hamatsa go

Hamatsa Emerging from the Woods (1914) 
The figure illustrated here depicts an hamatsa (shaman) who has become possessed by supernatural madness after spending many days in the woods as part of the hamatsa initiation ceremony.

Context:  The photos at left were taken by an ethnologist/anthropologist named Edward Curtis.  Curtis studied and documented many Native American cultures of  North America and documented their way of life including their rituals and dances.  Many of the photographs have a "staged" appearance and the interaction of Curtis with his subjects should not be overlooked.  In fact, the photos may in some ways be romanticized according to a European or "white" taste.
"The hamatsa is an important dance of the T'seka. The dance reenacts the taming of the ancestor of the main dancer following an encounter with a mythical being known as Baxwbakwalanukwsiwe', the "First-to-Eat-Men-at-the-North-End-of-the-World." This encounter made the ancestor wild and uncontrolled, like the spirit being. Masks such as those shown here depict several mythical beings that are central to the narrative being performed. The main dancer appears wild at the beginning of the dance and is gradually tamed through the dance, song, and ritual of the hamatsa tradition.

There are four main parts of the hamatsa dance cycle, and the type of ceremonial clothing worn signifies the meaning of each section of the ceremony. Before the dance, the dancer is initiated and is filled with the energy and power of the spirit Baxwbakwalanukwsiwe'. During the first part of the dance, he appears dressed only in hemlock branches, which signify that he is still very wild and possessed by the spirit. He dances in a wild manner, squatting on the ground and dancing upright only at times. In the second part of the dance, called the Cedar Bark Dance, he exchanges the hemlock branches for red-dyed shredded cedar bark. The hamatsa dances less wildly during this phase of the dance. Suddenly something mentioned in the song excites the wild spirit in him, and he runs from the performance area and disappears behind a curtain. From behind the curtain, the sounds of snapping wooden beaks are heard, and the third part of the ceremony, called Hamsamala or "wearing the cannibal masks," commences. Four monster birds appear, representing the man-eating bird associates of Baxwbakwalanukwsiwe'. These performers dance energetically around the dance space, jumping, squatting, and sitting on the floor in accordance with a ritualized pattern. Their cries, stylized dance movements, and eventual exit into the spirit world symbolize part of the process of the taming of the hamatsa initiate. After the bird masks have departed from the big house, the final set of songs is led by the hamatsa dancer. He performs a tame dance wearing a carved headdress representing one of the mythical creatures in his family history and other regalia appropriate to his family and status. Members of his family, who are also initiated, join him in this dance."
This text was originally found here but the link is no longer valid:

Gwaxwiwe' Hamsiwe'
Raven Man-eater Forehead mask
Kwakwaka'wakw, Kwagu'l band
Mungo Martin, ca. 1940 
Red cedar, red cedar bark, enamel

Bookwus Mask c 1990's
NW Coast

below: detail of Curtis's photo showing Bookwus mask at the Hamatsa festival


Tsonokwa Transformation Mask
Simon James (Kwakwaka'wakw) Hand carved and painted
red cedar 15" X 9" X 8 1/2"

Form:  Masks were carved of wood and painted with naturally occurring pigments.  The mask at left may be more brilliantly colored than those used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries since modern mask makers use modern paints.  Some of the masks are complete costumes because they have hanging fibers or hair that conceal the individual wearing them.  Notice how the masks are stylized and use elements of the ovoid and form line that Stokstad refers to.  Many of the masks, such as the Raven Mask and Tsonokwa are referred to as "transformation" masks because they contain movable parts and actually can be animated and transformed during their use.

Iconography:  Masks are integral to Kwakiutl ceremony because they allow the wearer to symbolically become the character.  In this way, the wearer is transformed as they "dance" the mask.  All of the masks tend to represent characteristics of the supernatural figure by relating each being to an animal that has that characteristic.  For example, the raven is a carrion bird who is somewhat ferocious and a trickster.  Bookwus and Tsonokwa are the wild humans of the woods and may symbolize humans struggle against our uncivilized scary or carnal animal side.

Context:  Masks were used in the Hamatsa ceremonies but some were also used by shaman as fetishes.  A fetish is a physical object that helps one to focus their physical and spiritual energies.  In most  cases, masks serve as a fetish that transforms the wearer into another being.  Because the masks and ceremonies were interactive the wearer, who was transformed into the supernatural creature would "attack" their audience.  The audiences often carried props of their own and would simulate bleeding and faint as they were attacked.  The individual stories for each creature are also important.

Bookwus, the Wildman of the Woods, is a non human character that lives on the edge of the forest near the ocean shore. He lurks at the mouths of creeks where he entices the souls of drowned humans, persuading them with ghost food to come and live with him. He lives in an invisible house in the woods where he communicated with the dead and brought them back to life during the winter dance season.

(Story of Tsonokwa, Dzonokwa) quoted from

Tsonokwa, Tsonokwa the Giantess, The Wild Women Of The Woods, Wealth Giver, she is called many names by the Kwakiutl people of British Columbia. Her story is one of the most interesting among the stories of the Northwest Coast.

Tsonokwa is easily recognized by her distinctive appearance. The lips are always pursed in a pouty expression formed by her characteristic cry of "uh uh". Her bushy unkempt hair and half closed eyes in deep sockets portrays her drowsiness. Predominantly black, the cheeks and foreheads often have concave depressions giving her a skull-like appearance. She has large pendulous breasts that sometimes hang all the way to the ground and she walks with a shuffle, her back hunched over and carrying a basket over her shoulder. 

Stories concerning Tsonokwa are plentiful. She is endowed with various attributes and abilities. Often she is portrayed as a narcoleptic creature that stumbles around the fire in the wrong direction only to fall in a heap, asleep on the ground. Others help her to a seat where she promptly falls asleep again. When wakened she does not take part in the ritual dances, but moves in the wrong directions, at odds with the other dancers. Soon she is taken away by attendants. 

In some stories Tsonokwa is like a sorceress in possession of great knowledge. She could change her shape and size and possessed a basin that flowed with water that could revive the dead and make the ugly beautiful. As Geekumhl, the keeper of great wealth, she appears in male form at potlatches where she oversees the giving away of a chief's possessions.

One story tells of a girl that lived in a coastal village on the edge of a great forest. She was small, the runt of the litter so to speak, and she was often teased by the other children. She knew that they shouldn't play in the forest. The elders had told them to beware of the giant women that lived deep in the woods. But children are curious creatures and soon they were further into the forest than they should have been. 

From behind a rock, the Wildwomen appeared. Her bushy hair obscured her face and fur covered her body. She moved with a sudden burst of energy scooping the children into the basket she carried over her shoulder. Then she turned and began walking in the direction of her cave.

At first the children struggled in the basket, but there was nothing that they could do. The lid of the basket was strong. There was no way out except for a small hole in the bottom where the basket was frayed. The children tried to get through the hole but it was to small. Finally they let the runt try and she easily slipped through the hole and fell to the ground. It was up to the smallest child to save her friends. She ran as fast as she could back to the village where she told the elders what had happened.

The people from the village followed the Tsonokwa up into the mountains to her cave where she was preparing a fire to cook the captive children. The people began to sing a song that quickly put the already tired creature to sleep. She stumbled, knocking over the basket, and fell into the fire where she burned to death. Because Tsonokwa was a flesh eater, the embers that rose from the fire became mosquitoes. 

After this the children never questioned the elders and never wandered too far into the forest.


Bookwus Mask c 1990's
NW Coast

below: detail of Curtis's photo 
showing Bookwus mask at the 
Hamatsa festival

James Silva
Professor Mencher
Art – 103A
November 7, 2002
Shamanism and the Bookwus Mask

For those whose interest in a culture’s art is related primarily to its religious significance, the Kwakiutl culture of the Northwest provides an extraordinary example of how an aboriginal culture’s art, beyond its obvious role as an expression of its mythos, plays a vital role in actual religious rites or ceremonies.The Kwakiutl is one of the few remaining cultures in which the mostly misunderstood religious practice of shamanism is still practiced.This can be seen in indigenous artwork such as theBookwus Mask (NW Coast, Kwakiutl, c. 1990’s) which we will formally and contextually examine – especially in the context of the overall potlach/Hamatsa experience with which it is part – to show how the surviving image of Bookwus is somewhat distorted.Then by using cross-cultural comparisons to analyze it iconographically, it should become quite obvious that the Bookwus Mask represents a creature that is ecstatic in origin and is indicative of a highly advanced and entrenched shamanic discipline within that culture. 

Before progressing to the analysis of the Bookwus Mask, it would make sense to first clear up any misconceptions about what a shaman is and what encompasses shamanic tradition.Many people, including some of those in various fields who have reason to study aspects of aboriginal cultures, don’t really understand the concept or role of shamanism in indigenous cultures, often thinking of them as simply the culture’s priest class.Though shamans do sometimes serve this role; strictly speaking, for a religious or spiritual act to be defined as shamanic it must feature, according to authority MirceaEliade in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, “…ascent to heaven, descent to the underworld to bring back the patient’s soul or to escort the dead, evocation and incarnation of the ‘spirits’ in order to undertake the ecstatic journey, ‘mastery over fire,’ and so on.”As you can see, this is quite different from the duties that would fall under the category of a typical priest class, which tend to be dedicated to a specific god or pantheon of deities and whose role includes many bureaucratic duties along with the familiar functions like conducting both religious (i.e. sacrifices) and cultural (i.e. weddings) ceremonies, teaching the traditions, religion and history of the people, and temple or religious site maintenance.With this in mind, we will now formally examine the Bookwus Mask

The Bookwus Mask is a mask that is carved out of wood, brightly painted and adorned to take on the appearance of Bookwus who, in Kwakiutl myth, was the wild man of the woods.The craftsmanship of the mask is exceptional - as it would have to be since it is meant to be worn over the face during a live performance.Both the carvings and coloration are very precise.As with much of the artwork of the Northwest, the mask is highly stylizedand features symmetrical, geometric designs (above the brows and on the upper cheekbones).There are also aspects of a composite or compound (blending of animal and human forms) displayed, notably the beak-like nose and small, round, bird-like eyes.The jaw is subtractively carved to be narrow and, with both upper and lower teeth exposed, the jaw region resembles that of a human skeleton.When all these artistic techniques are combined, the overall appearance of the mask achieves the desired effect – it is wild and monstrous.

When viewed contextually, this is completely understandable.After all, the mask is worn by a performer playing the role of Bookwus during a Hamatsa ceremony at a Kwakiutl potlatch gathering.As stated earlier, Bookwus is generally considered to be a mythical “wild man” creature of Kwakiutl folklore who resided in the forest, but who in reality probably had his origins in the ecstatic visions of the Hamatsa, or Kwakiutl shamans, which we will discuss shortly in detail.To play the part of Bookwus during the Hamatsa ceremony, it was obviously important that the mask be as wild and monstrous as possible while still maintaining an appearance that would be fascinating to the audience.TheHamatsa ceremony itself, according to Stokstad’sArt History, was a performance that portrayed the initiatory experiences of an initiate into the shamanic, or Hamatsa, order of the Kwakiutl people.This performance involved many characters, all wearing masks similar in style to the Bookwus Mask, dancing about and interacting with the audience.One of these creatures, Baxwbakwalanukwsiwe,possesses the Hamatsa initiate at the beginning of the performance, and others such as the “snapping birds” are portrayed as trying to rip the initiate apart ( ceremony ends with the initiate, triumphant over his adversaries, wearing a headdress representing the mythical creatures of his family (totem creatures).Taken as a whole, the ceremony more than likely was originally the dramatization of a long since forgotten Hamatsa’s ecstatic visions seen while in the trance or out of body state, and passed down as an oral tradition.This conclusion is based on the fact that all the characters in the performance are readily comparable to known shamanic archetypes.Unfortunately, the true meaning of some of these beings in Kwakiutl myth has become blurred over time.This misconception is understandable, though, considering oral traditions naturally change over generations.Coupled with the fact that the potlatch was outlawed by Canada’s Indian Act of 1885 (Cole, Natural History, Oct. 91), it was only natural that in modern Kwakiutl culture, where Christianity had made inroads and the young were losing interest in traditional rituals (Jonaitis and Macnair, Natural History, Oct. 91), certain aspects of their shamanic traditions would be obscured and distorted.
To further explore the theory that Bookwus’s origins were ecstatic in origin, we must view Bookwus from an iconographical perspective, comparing him to other known shamanic examples from other cultures to more clearly show what he truly represents.To do so will also require us to iconographically evaluate some of the other characters in theHamatsa ceremony, again using cross-cultural comparisons.As briefly mentioned earlier, the mask is supposed to resemble the mythical wild man of the woods, Bookwus.He communicates with the dead and is known to collect the souls of the drowned by offering them food.According to Kwakiutl mythology, he brings these dead back to life for the winter dance season ( this regard he survives in the folklore as a troll-like figure, which as an icon is fairly simple and self explanatory.But if you analyze Bookwus from a shamanic standpoint, using cross-cultural comparisons to gain perspective, a totally different iconogaphic representation of Bookwus becomes apparent.The “wild” attributes that are stressed in regards to the Bookwus of Kwakiutl folklore is in actuality quite similar to the typical “wild man” figure of shamanic tradition.The “wild man” of shamanic tradition usually represents either a shaman or someone, usually a youth, who is experiencing the calling to become a shaman.According to Eliade’sRites and Symbols of Initiation , “In Siberia, the youth who is called to be a shaman attracts attention by his strange behavior; for example, he seeks solitude,…loves to roam in the woods or unfrequented places, has visions, and sings.”Later, again according to Eliade, such a youth would, “return to the village, filthy, bloodstained, his clothes torn and his hair disordered, and…he begins to babble incoherent words.”Based on this Siberian example, and taking into consideration that many scholars believe the Native American people migrated from Asia and Siberia, it is reasonable to assume that Bookwus is symbolic of a shaman – though one obviously different from that of the initiate.The fact that his appearance is quite different than that of the initiate in the Hamatsa ceremony and he is seen as a “creature” character leads us to the possibility that Bookwus is not simply a shaman, but perhaps an icon of a deceased shaman who is helping the initiate in his encounters with the “snapping birds” and the other hostile creatures of the Other World.In shamanic tradition it is common, according to Rites and Symbols of Initiation, for the initiate to experience “…a period in hell, during which the future shaman is taught by the souls of dead shamans…”This theory becomes even more likely when one considers the other characters and details from the Hamatsa ceremony.The “snapping birds” and their attempt to kill the Hamatsa initiate are again reminiscent of examples from Siberian shamanic tradition.
Among the Yakut of Siberia (Rites and Symbols of Initiation), the initiate, in an ecstatic state (while in a trance or out of body state) is taken to hell where he is dismembered.It is only by going through this that the future shaman will receive the power of healing.The initiate is then recovered in flesh and blood and departs to further explore the Other World, where he meets other semi-divine personages in either human or animal form who teach him other shamanic secrets.This sounds very much like what the Hamatsa ceremony is trying to dramatize.Furthermore, the headdress the Hamatsa initiate wears at the end of the performance is also tied intoshamanic tradition and represents shape-shifting.Many shamanic disciplines include aspects of shape-shifting into the specific totem animal of the shaman.For instance, according to Nigel Pennick’s Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition, in Norse culture the Berserkers (Bear-shirts) andUlfhethnar (Wolf-coats) are both considered indicative of a shamanic martial order which has survived to us in the form of mythological shape-shifting warrior bands.Many other Norse sagas also present a shaman-like character performing “shape-shifting,” most notably the Saga of King Hrolf-Kraki, in which the character Bjorn (Bear), while in a trance state, sends a bear to attack the enemy.The bear disappears when Bjorn is interrupted and awoken during the battle.With this in mind, it is reasonable to theorize that the physical manifestation of a shaman’s fetch (totem animal) would be a composite “wild man” considering that the Hamatsa initiate is described as a wild man as well.This further points to Bookwus being the semi-divine being referenced by Eliade who helps the young initiate to learn the Shamanic secrets.Clearly there are many examples linking the Bookwus iconography with that of the shaman.
When considered from a shamanic perspective, The Bookwus Mask’s role takes on an entirely different meaning than what is generally promoted, as does the iconographic portrayal of Bookwus.To view Bookwus as a troll-like creature of folklore seems rather simplistic, especially when compared to the rest of the characters of the Hamatsa ceremony with which he appears.After reading this essay it should be clear that his role was originally of more importance to the ceremony, but that as the techniques of shamanism have deteriorated over time, so too has the understanding of Bookwus.That he originated in a shaman’s ecstatic vision, like the other characters in the Hamatsa ceremony, should be obvious.Unfortunately, due to the progression of time, government oppression, and the changing cultural and religious customs of the Kwakiutl people, it is not.Luckily, there are still Kwakiutl who attempt to preserve their heritage and even some who still practice the Hamatsa tradition.Because of these people, the Hamatsa ceremony has survived to be analyzed and interpreted by a wide variety of perspectives – in this case a religious/ shamanic one – and new interpretations, such as Bookwus as the spirit of a deceased shaman, can be considered.

Works Cited

Byock, Jesse (translation and introduction), The Saga of King Hrolf-Kraki.Penguin Classics. 1999.

Cole, D.“Underground Potlach.”Natural History, Oct. 1991, Vol. 100, Issue 10, pg. 50.Journal of American Museum of Natural History.

EliadeMircea.Rites and Symbols of Initiation.New York: Harper and Row, 1958

EliadeMircea.Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.Bollingen Series LXXVI, Princeton University Press, Paperback edition, 1972

Jonaitis, A.; Macnair, P.“Masks of the Ancestors.”Natural History, Oct. 1991, Vol. 100, Issue 10, pg. 42.Journal of American Museum of Natural History.

Pennick, Nigel.Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition.New Leaf Distributors, 2nd Edition, 1994

Stokstad, Marilyn.Art History.New Jersey: Prentice Hall.2nd Edition. 1995


Chilkat blanket, 
mountain goat wool, cedar bark and sinew thread
51 x 64 (129.5 x 162.6 cm) inches
19th Century CE
NW Coast
Form:  It consists of composites of different faces.  It is a stylized blanket, made of bark and wool.  It is mainly symmetrical and features animals or animal parts.  The ovoid and form lines are used extensively on it.

Iconography:  The blanket in a sense would come to life when put upon a person.  When draped across a back the main figure would stick out almost becoming three dimensional.  So in a way this blanket also is an icon of gods and ancestors.

Context:  Blankets like this on were used in the dance rituals.  The men of this culture created the designs for these blankets and the women would then weave them, it could take up to six months to complete.  Looms were not used.  Instead fibers were hung from a rod (referred to as the warp threads) and the fibers were then twisted and woven into them to create the design.  Like the Navajo's textiles these blankets were probably not created until after sheep's wool was imported into the Northwest. 

Internet Site of Interest:   ELEMENTS OF NORTHWEST COAST ART Based on the work of Bill Holm.


 According to the Brittanica,
narrowly, the robes, or blankets, woven by the Chilkat, northernmost of the Pacific Coast Indians of North America. The Chilkat comprise a family within the Tlingit language group and make their home on the Alaskan coast between Cape Fox and Yakutat Bay. More generally, the term "Chilkat weaving" applies to any garment woven by these Indians. Although the Chilkat are not the only Indians who make this type of robe, they are the ones who have woven the majority of robes in the period since the original contact with European cultures and have created the finest quality and design.

The Chilkat robe, when laid out flat, is approximately rectangular in shape, except for its long bottom side, which is V-shaped; fringe decorates the bottom and sides. Twine made from cedar bark forms the warp (vertical threads), and mountain goat or mountain sheep wool forms the weft (horizontal interlacing threads), a weave probably borrowed from the Tsimshian Indians. The colours--usually white, yellow, black, and blue or green--come from natural dyes.

The designs on the earliest Chilkat robes were painted, but for the last two centuries they have been woven into the fabric by women of the tribes, following designs painted on boards by the men. As in many Indian tribes, only men are permitted to create designs depicting living creatures, while women may develop abstract geometric patterns. But the seemingly abstract designs with which these robes are decorated are actually highly conventionalized depictions of real animals or spirits symbolically associated with the tribe to which the owner of the robe belongs. As in almost all of their art, the Indians of the Northwest Coast attempt to portray a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface by presenting all of the different perspectives of the object. For example, progressing from left to right on a Chilkat robe would be a panel depicting the left profile of a whale, then a panel containing a head-on view, and finally a panel showing the right profile. Above this tripartite representation there might be an X-ray depiction of the inside of the whale. The artist clearly indicates which animal he has woven into the robe by using certain key features, such as a long snout for a wolf or a short snout for a bear.

According to the "Alaskan" website. (This text was originally found here but the link is no longer valid.)
“The Chilkat story of its origin says that long ago there lived on the Skeena River, in British Columbia, a Tsimshian woman, a widow, of the village of Kitkatla, and her only daughter, Hi-you-was-clar (rain mother). It had been a season of extreme want. The deep snows of winter still covered the lowlands, and the spirit of hunger stalked abroad as a famished wolf. Day after day the girl sat, half dazed from want of food, staring vacantly at the intricately carved and painted picture that covered the rear interior partition of the house; for, although poor, they were of high caste, and their surroundings spoke of past greatness. The picture finally took possession of her, and, setting up a rude frame, she forgot her suffering, and lost herself in the work of weaving an apron of like design. Later her hand was sought by the son of the chief and, in the exchange of presents, her handiwork was given to the father-in-law, who honored the occasion by a great feast, at which he wore the apron, and sacrificed many slaves in token of his appreciation of the gift. . . "

 (The Chilkat Blanket by George Emmons)

 The art of Chilkat Blanket weaving originated with the Tsimshian people (near Wrangell) but later spread to the Tlingits through trade and marriage. The Chilkat Tlingits (near Haines) who developed their own design style became the best and most copious weavers. These blankets, requiring a year of hard work to make, were highly sought by northwest coast Indian nobility long before the first explorers came to this region.

 Traditionally, only the wealthy could make or own a Chilkat Blanket. Both men and women played a role in the creation of the blankets and both considered it a great privilege to wear one. The men designed the pattern and made the pattern board and loom. They provided goat hides for wool. The women gathered cedar bark, prepared the yarn and wove the blanket.

 The patterns were a highly stylized form or art often representing clan symbols and natural forms in an abstract geometric pattern. Animals were portrayed as if sliced down the center and laid out flat. The small circles are ball and socket joints. Eyes were often used as space fillers. The men designed the pattern and painted the abstract figures on a wooden "pattern board." As the blanket was bilateral, only half the pattern was painted in life-size dimensions. The blanket pattern could be interpreted in a variety of ways, however only the man who designed the blanket knew the true legend.

 The woman would loosen the wool from the goat hide by wetting and rolling the hide then pushing the wool off with her thumb and fingers. She carded the wool by sitting with outstretched legs and the wool piled to one side. She drew the wool in the proper amount and fed it to her other hand. The wool was rolled between her palm and thigh to make a loose thread then rolled again to tighten. Two strands were rolled together to form the wool.  A strip of cedar bark was rolled with the strands to make the warp yarn.

 Traditional dyes for the wool yarn were yellow, derived from a lichen called wolf moss; dark brown, produced by boiling wool in urine and hemlock bark; and a greenish-blue made by boiling wool in copper and urine. By the 1890's, commercial dyes and yarns were often used. The warp was never dyed.

 The blanket was woven on a "warp weighted" or "single bar" loom, a simple loom consisting of two standing poles and a cross bar. The warp threads, suspended from a strip of moosehide, were hung from the cross bar. The long ends of the thread were tied into bundles, sometimes weighted with stones, to give tension to the working portion of the yam. The weaver usually sat or kneeled in front of the loom while weaving. The blankets were woven entirely with the fingers. No other device was used. The fingerweaving was called twining. Two or more wefts were twisted around a single warp of yam. When the blanket was completed, the fringe was filled out by adding lengths of warp yam and braided borders were added.

 The Chilkat dance apron was the earliest product of the loom. Also made were ceremonial blankets, tunics, leggings and small pouches and purses. The blankets were used as ceremonial robes worn on special occasions such as a potlatch where they might be presented to honored guests; in dancing; surrounding a body while it lay in state; or occasionally hung on the outside of a gravehouse as a token of esteem.

 The Chilkat Blanket held a key position in the Tlingit economy. It was widely known and highly valued even during the days of its maximum production. In trade, it was rivaled only by caribou hides and copper until guns were brought into the country. In the mid 1800's, their value was about $30 - a large sum at that time. The blanket was a prized possession of anyone wealthy enough to own one.

 During this century, the art of making the blanket has been in danger of dying out. In 1907, George Emmons reported 15 remaining weavers. Taught by her mother in the late 1890's, Master Weaver Jennie Thlunaut of Klukwan was the last of the traditional weavers. She made over 33 blankets and 6 tunics during her 96 year lifespan. In 1984, she conducted a two week workshop in Haines to pass on the art of blanket weaving. There are only a handful of serious blanket weavers today.

An essay about the meaning of the Chilkat Blanket.

Structuring Community
Through Ritual Symbolism
Jennifer A. Robbins

For the Chilkat people, who inhabit the Pacific Coast of North
America from Vancouver Island to Prince William Sound, family
is extremely important. Such a strong familial cultural system
gives its people a sense of cohesion and stability that is affirmed
through ritual transformation. This transformation occurs during
the Headdress Dance, wherein a member of the chiefly class and
sponsor clan wraps himself in a crest animal blanket. Through this
ceremonial event the dancer becomes invested with the extraordinary
abilities of the crest animal, which is articulated by culturally
recognized symbols woven into the blanket. The symbols contained
within a Chilkat blanket depict specific crest animals, which are
exclusive to individual clans and represent ideal traits of the clan
members (Emmons 347). Crests are complex compositions that
include visual imagery as well as accompanying songs, stories, and
dances. Inherited through family lines, crests recall histories shared
between humans, animals, and supernatural beings that reach deep
into the mythological past. By properly displaying a crest and its
related stories in ritual performances, families claim rights to specific
lands and resources and convey what each chiefly family group sees
as their rightful status as elite or chiefly (Samuel 32). Victor Turner, a
prominent ritual theorist suggests that “rituals are storehouses of
meaningful symbols by which information is revealed and regarded
as authoritative, as dealing with the crucial values of the community,”
defining those symbols that are used broadly within the ritual
activities of the community, yet consistently retain their unique
meaning, as “dominant” (Drums of Affliction 2; Forest of Symbols 31-
32). An examination of the visual aspects of this Chilkat blanket illustrates
these concepts and reveals the blanket as an effective vehicle
for dissemination of dominant ritual symbolism.

The Chilkat blanket is consistent with the first property of a
dominant ritual symbol, that a single definitive symbol signifies
many different people and their actions (Deflem 6). According to
an interpretation by George T. Emmons, one of the first ethnographers
to study Chilkat artistic expression, the general design of
this blanket illustrates a diving whale, a common crest element
(377). The crest animal in each of its various incarnations stands for
one particular clan, one emblem of glorification. Just one widely
understood image represents all of the individuals of the clan.

Just as individuals make up the clan as a cohesive entity,
individual designs are compiled to create the crest animal as
a distinguished expression. A clan’s crest animal is identified
through the depiction of unified distinct elements, leading us
to the second feature of dominant symbol theory--a synthesis
of unique elements depicted in a similar manner, the meaning
of which is determined by culturally formed perceptions of crest
animal association (Deflem 6). The unique style of this region
favors the splitting and rearranging of human and animal forms,
as well as the exaggeration of certain features such as wings, ears,
claws, and eyes, as artists visually recreate a variety of beings to
define the social relationships that make up crest histories. The
affiliation with these specific animal crests helps to determine
and empower the clan’s position in society.

One of the aspects that make the crest symbolism of the
Chilkat blanket so powerful and evocative is that it possesses the
third aspect of a dominant ritual symbol, the ability to remind
its audience of the polarities of social structure and natural
phenomena (Deflem 6). The depiction of a killer whale or another
predominant animal in the Chilkat repertory arouses a sensory
response of a purely instinctual nature. At the same time, the
association of this crest animal to a specific clan reminds the
viewer of the social hierarchy delineated by a class system. This
dominant symbol speaks to both the civilizing effects of culture
and the awareness of nature that is fundamental for survival.

The inclusion of clan symbolism on a Chilkat blanket imbues
it with the spiritual power of the family’s crest animal. When
this object is used in ritual performance, it transmits dominant
symbolism, affirming cultural cohesion and social ordering. This
idea is affirmed by Turner; “ritual involves the handling of symbols
that constitute the smallest units of ritual activity; symbols in
themselves are carriers of meaning” (Deflem 7). As a symbol functioning
in a ritual sphere, the Chilkat blanket plays an integral role
in illustrating, guiding, and asserting social structure.

an.thro.po.mor.phic adj [LL anthropomorphus of human form, fr. Gk anthropomorphos, fr. anthrop- + -morphos -morphous] (1827) 1: described or thought of as having a human form or human attributes <~ deities> 2: ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman things <~ supernaturalism> -- adv 

fe.tish also fe.tich n [F & Pg; F fetiche, fr. Pg feitico, fr. feitico artificial, false, fr. L facticius factitious] (1613) 1 a: an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner; broadly: a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence b: an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion: 

ovoid, a slightly bent rectangle with rounded corners.

formline, a continuous shape-defining line also referred to as a contour line.

zoo.mor.phic adj [ISV] (1872) 1: having the form of an animal <a ~ orchid> 2: of, relating to, or being a deity conceived of in animal form or with the attributes of an animal -- zoo.morph n