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Thunderbird Transformation Mask

Arts of the Americas

Thunderbird is an ancestor of the 'Na̲mgis clan of the Kwakwa̲ka̲’wakw people, who say that thunder claps when he ruffles his feathers and lightning flashes when he blinks. Long ago, Thunderbird flew out of the heavens to assist a man who had been transformed into a halibut; when he finished helping, Thunderbird removed his headdress and winged cape and became human. During winter potlatch ceremonies, the wearer of a mask like this one opened and shut the beak, revealing the human form within.
CULTURE Kwakwaka'wakw
MEDIUM Cedar, pigment, leather, nails, metal plate
DATES 19th century
DIMENSIONS Open: 31 x 45 x 47 in. (78.7 x 114.3 x 119.4 cm) Closed: 20 1/2 x 17 x 29 1/2 in. (52.1 x 43.2 x 74.9 cm) 7/2012 new measurements when opened, 47" out from wall, 45" wide, 31 " height  (show scale)
COLLECTIONS Arts of the Americas
CREDIT LINE Museum Expedition 1908, Museum Collection Fund
PROVENANCE Prior to 1905, provenance not yet documented; 1905, acquired in Alert Bay, Canada from an unidentified member of the Gigilgam lineage of the ʼNa̱mǥis Nation by Charles Frederick Newcombe of Victoria, Canada; July 15, 1908, purchased in Victoria from Charles Frederick Newcombe by Stewart Culin for the Brooklyn Museum.
Provenance FAQ
CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION Transformation masks such as this Thunderbird belong to the sky world, which consists of Ancestral Beings that are transported to the heavens from where they can return as material beings in recognizable form such as human. The Kwakwaka’ wakw people say when this bird ruffles its feathers they cause thunder and when they blink their eyes lightning flashes. Each thunderbird is associated with a specific village group or lineage, a specific place of origin unique to each and its details are carefully guarded. Masks can be owned individually or by a family but rights are always inherent, flowing from one generation to the next. The Namgis people relate that this thunderbird flew out of the heavens to assist a man who had transformed into a large halibut. When finished assisting he removed his headdress and winged cape and sent them back to the sky world becoming human. The mask may be worn on the forehead with the dancer’s face showing or it may cover the face to indicate the duality of man and bird. The performer wears a full costume of representing the bird. The mask would be danced during a Winter Ceremony, called a Potlatch, where songs, dances and rituals are performed and gifts may be given. When not used such masks are wrapped carefully and hidden away. When worn and danced and closed the mask portrays a bird head with a large yellow beak. When open, the head and large beak divide, expand, and become a full-bodied bird with outstretched wings. Each wing contains a linear image of a sisiutl or lightning snake. At the center of the full-bodied bird is a human head. Above the head is a small seated figure and below it is still another bird. Opening and closing the mask would add a spectacular effect during the dances. When the mask was first collected it had cord riggings to open its parts. It was collected from the Gigilgam lineage of the Nimpkish. The mask is fragile but stable. There are scattered pigment losses. Red cedar ruff originally surrounded the mask when it was worn for performances.
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
CAPTION Namgis. Thunderbird Transformation Mask, 19th century. Cedar, pigment, leather, nails, metal plate, Open: 31 x 45 x 47 in. (78.7 x 114.3 x 119.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1908, Museum Collection Fund, 08.491.8902. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 08.491.8902_front_PS6.jpg)
IMAGE front, 08.491.8902_front_PS6.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2012
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