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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Dorsal Fin Headdress Finial
Wood, Paint, Abalone Shell & Human Hair, 10 ½” Height, c.1840-1860
Tlingit Dorsal Fin Headdress Finial

The orca, or killer whale, with its impressive tall black dorsal fin, is one of the most iconic clan emblems of the Northwest Coast, easily recognized on totem poles, house and screen paintings, as well as clan hats or other forms of ceremonial headgear.

In most sculptures, totem poles, clan hats or headgear, the dorsal fin must be carved from a separate piece of wood and attached to the main sculpture, which is carved with the grain (the long fibers of the wood), running perpendicular to the direction of the fin. This dorsal fin is one of these, made to attach to a separately carved whale sculpture.

The usual method of attachment was by means of a carved tenon at the base of the fin, which steadied itself in a matching mortise (a hollowed cavity) carved in the whale’s body. The length of the tenon on this fine early dorsal fin suggests that it most likely was made to fit a whale’s body that was carved as an elaborate headpiece or a canoe figure. A wooden clan hat or simple headpiece would not require such a long tenon, nor would there be room for one as they would be hollowed out quite thin. It may be that the whale’s body was formed as a sculptural figure that attached to a more elaborate headgear, or perhaps to the bow or stern of a ceremonial canoe, and was not hollowed out in the extreme fashion of the above-mentioned headpieces.

The dorsal fin is of a median size, and may have fitted a whale sculpture as long as three feet from head to tail. It appears to be of a size that could fit a headpiece of some type, but it is too small for a full sized totem pole. The humanoid head carved at the base of the fin has both human and whale-like qualities to its face, and may represent a transformation between the two.

Origin stories of the killer whale crest emblem differ between various coastal peoples, and have remained a part of the oral history of the areas where the killer whale crest is prominent. One such story from the Tsimshian includes a character called Gunarhnasimgyet, who rode the whale by clinging to its dorsal fin.

The refined carving of the face in this piece fin may have originated among either the southern Tlingit or Tsimshian, but perhaps is more in the style of Tsimshian artists of the early nineteenth century.

An early form of the blue-green paint pigment sourced from native mineral deposits was applied to the eyesockets and upper fin. This was a highly valued pigment that was reserved for the most prestigious ceremonial works. The finely executed inlay of iridescent abalone shell also elevates the visual impact and cultural status of this orphaned but important and memorable sculpture.

The hanks of human hair inset into the rear edge of the fin lend the impression of water cascading off the fin. The hair most likely was obtained from a respected female relative of the maker or owner, as it was considered a privilege to have one’s hair employed in this way.