Northwest Coast Masks and Headdresses (Photo Diary)

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The people of the Northwest Coast, particularly those in the Northern and Central portions of this culture area, are well known for their ceremonial masks. Masks are made from wood, primarily cedar and occasionally maple, which is then painted with three primary colors: black or blue, red, and white.

These masks are both art objects and objects with spiritual significance. Masks represent the animals and creatures of the four dimensions of the cosmos: the Sky World, the Mortal World, the Undersea World, and the Spirit World. One of the common themes in the mythology of the Northwest Coast is one in which ancestors come down from the sky and then remove their animal or bird costumes.

When used in ceremonies, the masks take on the life and spirit of the spirits which they represent. Traditionally, masks were guarded and hidden away, and not shown until they appeared in the ceremonial dance. Kwakwaka’wakw chief Robert Joseph notes:

“It is never known which masks will be shown or which dances will take place until the event happens.”

Shown below are some of the ceremonial masks and headdresses of the Northwest Coast which are currently on display at the Portland Art Museum.

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Shown about are some of the ceremonial masks.

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Shown above are some ceremonial dance headdresses.