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Bella Coola Frontlet

This frontlet from another Northwest Coast group, the Tsimshian (CHIM-she-en), was once part of a full headdress worn by both men and women during a potlatch.
Tsimshian, Frontlet, c. 1820, wood, abalone, pigment, hessian, resin, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund and purchase through Art Quest 2002

Northwest Coast groups had a long oral tradition of retelling stories. The Kwakwaka'wakw, or Kwakiutl (kwa-key-UTL), used this sun mask in retelling their creation story during potlatch ceremonies.
Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl), Sun mask, c. 1860, wood, metal, pigment, cord, cloth, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Putnam Dana McMillian Fund and purchase through Art Quest 2003

Throughout the Northwest Coast region, rattles like this raven-shaped example were symbols of status as well as ceremonial objects.
Haida, Rattle, 19th-20th century, cedarwood, leather, abalone and haliotis shell, pigment, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund

key idea
A Spectacular Sight

Abundant natural resources and a temperate climate meant Northwest Coast peoples did not face a constant struggle for survival. During the winter months, especially, they had time to develop complex cultural, social, and artistic traditions. Ceremonies became important activities, and art objects were central to the ceremonies.

Frontlets like this Bella Coola example included imagery and designs considered property of a specific family. The right to use a certain image, song, story, or dance, or a particular family name or rank, was bestowed during ceremonies such as the potlatch. A potlatch was held to celebrate an important occasion–marriage, the naming of a child, or the mourning of a death. The word "potlatch" means "to give." At potlatches, family possessions were given away to the guests. Because wealth was measured by how much a family could give, not what they kept for themselves, distributing lots of gifts during a potlatch raised a family's social status.

Certain objects were central to the potlatch ceremony. This frontlet would have been worn on the forehead of a dancer as part of an outfit. The dancer's swaying movements, accompanied by music, caused the shiny shell inlays of teeth and eyes, the white ermine fur, and the graceful crown of sea lion whiskers (now missing) to flash and glow in the firelight, making for a dazzling performance. Fluffy eagle down, placed inside the ring of sea lion whiskers, drifted down as the dancer bobbed and tossed his head–a gesture of peace and friendship to those attending the ceremony.

A circle of sea lion whiskers originally crowned the rim of this headgear. Click here to see a Northwest Coast headdress (in the Brooklyn Museum) with its sea lion whiskers still intact.
September 2010