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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Forehead Mask / Headpiece
Hardwood, Paint, Abalone Shell & Copper, 5 ¼” Height, c.1790-1820
Nishga Forehead Mask / Headpiece
Nishga Forehead Mask / Headpiece

In a culture in which wealth and cultural status were important family values, the display of one's clan and lineage origins on ceremonial occasions was a high priority, as was the sense of pride and place in history that went with it. Clan and family leaders wore sculptured headpieces that represented the crest symbols of their lineage.

Crests are the embodiments of one's clan and family history in a symbol of the creatures and ancestors who created that history. Headpieces might depict a single crest symbol, as does the subject work, or they might be more elaborate compositions with several crest emblem creatures or ancestors incorporated into main and subsidiary images. Clan crest headgear took many forms, including forehead masks of crest images, flared rim hats of wood with incorporated crest imagery or elaborate hats carved in the form of creatures bodies as if they were wrapped about the wearer's head, sometimes with subsidiary figures attached.

This headpiece is in form of a forehead mask which would be worn so that the carved image reposed on the forehead down to just above brow level. Leather ties extend around from each side of the mask that would secure it on the wearer's forehead. This compact sculpture appears to depict a bear of which the Grizzly and the Brown Bear were the crest of numerous First Nations lineages in differing language families.

Though no ears are present in the carving of this headgear, the image includes several other indications of a bear representation. The low, rounded nostrils and protruding tongue are common bear characteristics, and the placement of the copper and abalone shell inlays suggests the order of a bear's teeth. In addition, a piece of bear hide with the hair still attached is part of the forehead mask's means of attachment to the wearer.

The attribution of Nishga manufacture in this work is based on the style of the sculpture. The narrow, wide eyebrows and lips, small eyes and defined cheekbone structure all indicate a Nishga artist in the making of this early and sculpturally refined carving.

The tasteful use of abalone shell inlay in the eyes, teeth and nostrils indicate the high cultural status that this sculpture once enjoyed. Abalone shell was a rare commodity imported by trade from far to the south in California and Mexico, which raised their value and cultural status. Native abalone was abundant, but the comparatively small shells have a pale and irregular interior, making them less suitable for inlay.

The subtle ridges and hollows exhibit a great deal of masterful refinement, setting the work in this mask well above the average measure of craftsmanship, which is all the more remarkable considering the less sophisticated tools that would have been available and in use in this early period of historical time on the Northwest Coast.





Lt. George T. Emmons on the Nass River, British Columbia
Heye Foundation, Museum of the American Indian