SunTotem Mask Sculpture, Montclair Art Museum

Jane Neill-Hancock

Wayne, United States

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Photo taken at the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair NJ. They have an extensive Native American exhibit which includes ancient and historic items and modern artwork from Native American artisans. Fortunately this was one exhibit where we were allowed to use our cameras, just could not use the flash.

For the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, winter was a time of dance and performance. The dramatic impact was enhanced by music, flickering firelight and shadows playing against plankhouse walls. Among Northwest Coast peoples, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Ojibwe, Makah, and Nuu-chah-nulth, masks were an essential part of important winter ceremonials, which re-enacted the adventures of hero-ancestors and spirit beings in the mythological past. The rights to these ritual dances were passed down in families as treasured privileges, and while the themes are similar, the ceremonies were complex and varied in detail from region to region. Some of these traditions are still maintained today.

Masks were carved by shamans or under their supervision and were worn in special dances to please the spirits. As intermediaries between people and spirits, shamans learned the wishes of game animals from visions and trips to the spirit world. Masks could also represent the shaman’s spiritual helpers, which he would try to influence in times of need. Sometimes these masks were hung in houses to ward off harmful spirits; masks were also occasionally placed with the dead or used in non-spiritual contexts for popular entertainment.

Their masks were an extension of their belief in totems. Totemism (derived from the root oode in the Ojibwe language, which referred to something kinship-related, c.f. odoodem, “his totem”) is a religious belief that is frequently associated with shamanistic religions. The totem is usually an animal or other natural figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan.

The word totem comes from the Ojibway word dodaem and means “brother/sister kin”. It is the archetypal symbol, animal or plant of hereditary clan affiliations. People from the same clan have the same clan totem and are considered immediate family. It is taboo to marry someone of the same clan.

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