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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Shaman’s Mask
Alder, Abalone Shell & Paint, 9” Height, c.1860-1880
Tlingit Shaman's Mask
Tlingit Shaman's Mask
Tlingit Shaman's Mask

Tlingit shamans were the healers of their culture, treating the spiritual causes of disease and divining the future for the appearance of upcoming events. Part of their occupational equipment was a set of masks, representing the shaman’s various helping spirits which were called on for assistance in matters of the spirit world. Mask sets of this type usually numbered eight, each with different identities.

The descendants of the shaman-owner identified the spirits of these masks at the time of Emmons’ acquisition prior to 1888 and the range of spirits represented gives some indication of the highly personal and specific nature of such images.

Frequently, these mask sets were not carved by the same maker. Old, damaged masks would be replaced, some would be retired and new ones might be added by successive generations of shamans. Some sets do include a majority of carvings by the same artist. This is the case with a group of six masks now in the American Museum of Natural History which include several examples by the same carver of this mask, an artist who worked in the area of Yakutat/Dry Bay on the coast of the Gulf of Alaska or possibly at a nearby village such as Hoonah near Icy Strait.

Referring to the related examples, one sees that this artist used a very similar eye form on each of his masks. The particular shape and proportions of any carvers' eyelid lines are a primary diagnostic feature,and these are distinctive enough in this example to justify a relational connection between this mask and the American Museum of Natural History set.

The carving of this mask suggests that it represents a bird of an unknown species. One mask of the American Museum of Natural History set has a similar downturned-beak-type nose and it was identified as the spirit of a puffin.

The spirit images came to the shaman in visions and dreams, so any bird, human, or other creature, dreamed of or actual, could become the subject of a shaman’s mask.

This mask features very large and prominent eyes, though that appears to have more to do with the carver’s style than the particular spirit being represented.

The small holes in the eyes may once have held small tufts of human hair, as can be found on certain other shaman’s masks and are a regular feature of this carver’s work. Holes this small would be of little to no use in terms of actually seeing out of the mask, and in fact most shaman’s masks have no eye holes, as they were only briefly worn in limited ritual situations. Other similar characteristics include the eyebrow forms, the relatively flat lips and the handling of the bridge of the nose/forehead area.

This carver surely made many more masks than these, as the range of sculptural forms exhibited in this single example, as well as the piece's overall refinement indicates an experienced artist.


Provenance: The Andy Warhol Collection
The Heye Foundation; Emmons

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