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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
War Helmet Humanoid Animal
Spruce & Paint, 12 ¾ Length, c.1740-1800
War Helmet Humanoid Animal
War Helmet Humanoid Animal
War Helmet Humanoid Animal
War Helmet Humanoid Animal

Looking at this remarkable helmet, one is struck by the liveliness that grins out from within it. Despite such apparent gaiety, Tlingit carved wooden helmets were designed for a single purpose : protecting a warrior’s head from the blows of war clubs and the gashes of fighting daggers.

To serve this purpose, helmets were minimally hollowed out to create a thick dome to cover the top and sides of the head. Some writers refer to Tlingit clan hats with delicately carved, thin rims as "helmets," but this is a misnomer. The Tlingit language has two distinctly separate names for tribal headgear. Clan hats were carved of spruce roots or cedar bark, and often had mask-like sculptures of clan emblem creatures integrated into the carving, as did war helmets. There any similarity ended, as the delicately carved wooden rims of typical wooden clan hats offered precious little protection in a hand to hand axe fight.

War helmets were usually carved from spruce, a tough wood more dense than either cedar or alder, which were the usual choices for masks and clan hats. The density of spruce made for a heavier carving, more apt to stand up to the anticipated abuse of the object. The carving of war helmets also included an unexpected and little-known design characteristic: The grain, or long fibers of the wood structure (not to be confused with the pattern of the tree’s circular growth rings), was oriented from side to side, or ear to ear, rather than front to back, as would ordinarily be the case in a forehead mask or a clan hat. Running the grain from side to side made it more difficult to carve the form and the details of sculptural clan emblems but it made the helmet much less prone to cracking when struck by a frontal blow from an opponent. The life of the warrior was clearly of greater concern than the degree of effort required of the carver.

This obviously aged and combat-experienced helmet exhibits all of the characteristics alluded to above. It is further imbued with not only the spirit of its maker, but also with the spirit and energy of those who wore it and received the blows and gashes that have left their marks on this venerable artifact.

Helmets were originally made as the property of those who wore them in battle. Helmets which attained respect for their roles in fights that elevated and safeguarded the power of the clan were raised to the status of clan ownership. They became "a valued and esteemed object", known in the Tlingit language as ‘at.oow. The survival of this helmet, despite the obvious damage it sustained, suggests that it was retired from combat duty and had attained the elevated status of ‘at.oow.

Objects of ‘at.oow status were brought out on ceremonial occasions and displayed with others of their kind: clan hats, daggers, weapons and certain types of woven hats or garments including some Chilkat-style robes and tunics. Bringing out the ‘at.oow was and is intended to manifest the spirit presence of the ancestors who owned and used the objects in times past. At funerals and memorial services, the ‘at.oow are employed to assuage the grief of those who have experienced losses the community has come together to recognize and mourn.

Several characteristics of the carved details indicate that this work was executed early in the historic period, possibly prior to the physical arrival of European and American traders and explorers.

Trade goods, including iron and steel woodworking tools, arrived on the coast well before the appearance of Euro-American people themselves. The very first Spanish and English explorers noted the presence of ferrous-metal blades and tools, and heard the native names for these substances, indicating a long period of familiarity with these foreign materials.

Exhibited: Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme
Pinacothèque de Paris, 2008