A People of Wealth, Luxury, and Generosity The Pacific Northwest Coast of North America is a land of dense forests and abundant seas that meet at an infinite shoreline of inlets, bays, and islands. The first nations that lived here were truly unique among the native peoples of the Americas. Coastal villages, nestled into thick forest and connected to each other by the endless waterways and sea, formed a complex network of trade and cultural tradition. The rich bounty of the seas and forests granted a relatively easy existence, with plenty of time for art and ritual. And it is countless generations of this comfortable existence and abundant environment that allowed these industrious and creative people to develop a sophisticated and refined aesthetic system—the most highly developed artistic style to emerge from any native culture north of Mexico.
For the first people of the Northwest Coast, the year was split in two parts. From late spring to early fall (less than half the year) they gathered and prepared food and materials from the forests, rivers, and sea—enough to carry them until the next year, with plenty left over for trade and generous giving. The remainder of the year—the long misty winter months—was a time of ritual and cultural tradition, in the form of artistic creation and elaborate celebration ceremonies. The most unusual of these ceremonies was the potlatch—a tradition that stands at the center of Northwest Coast culture, a tradition unlike any other in human history. A potlatch was a feast of several days duration, with hundreds of guests, many traveling long distances to attend. The host of the potlatch, after years of accumulating an abundance of valuable and prestigious objects, would lavish them upon his guests, often giving away everything he owned and sending his guests home in canoes filled with new-gained wealth.
The masks and other objects in this exhibition are, with a few noted exceptions, made by Kwakwaka'wakw artists. Almost all were made within the last 30 years, and all are the generous loan of a single anonymous private collector.
There are many distinct cultural groups native to the Northwest Coast. All share the tradition of the potlatch and have similar home and life styles, and many of their languages are closely related. However, each group has its own history and its own unique artistic style. A few of these cultures are the Tlingit, Chinook, Haida, Makah, and the many speakers of the Kwakwala language, who are collectively called the Kwakwaka'wakw (pronounced: "quah-quah-k'ya-wok")—more commonly known as the Kwakiutl or Kwaguilth. The Kwakwaka'wakw homeland is upper Vancouver Island and the ragged British Columbia coast to the east; dozens of traditional towns and villages once covered this region. Today's Kwakwaka'wakw live primarily in the larger towns on upper Vancouver Island; some still live in small villages at the water's edge, just as their ancestors did for generations.
Houses of wood, finely crafted canoes, clothing and fabrics of root and bark fiber, and decoratively carved vessels, tools, and art—working with wood and wood fibers is one of the greatest skills of the Pacific Northwest people, whose artistic traditions take the form of carved and painted wood. Intricate designs are carved into their tools, canoes, and storage boxes. For their homes they carve doors, posts, walls, and elaborate ceremonial screens. But perhaps the best expression of their refined artistic style and technique is found in their ceremonial masks.
Masks were traditionally used to identify the characters and animals in ritual dances and stories—dances, stories, and characters fixed by time and well known to all. Mask-makers are experts in cultural history and myth and are often also storytellers and dancers. Today's wood-carvers continue to make these traditional mask types for story and dance ceremonies as well as for the ever-expanding commercial art market. It is this commercial market, tourists and art collectors from around the world, which has helped maintain and expand this artistic tradition—a tradition that nearly died in the last century, after the governments of the United States and Canada outlawed the potlatch.