Skip Navigation

Thunderbird Transformation Mask

Arts of the Americas

On View: Arts of the Americas Galleries, 5th Floor
The Thunderbird is believed to be an Ancestral Sky Being of the Namgis clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw, who say that when this bird ruffles its feathers, it causes thunder and when it blinks its eyes, lightning flashes. The Namgis relate how Thunderbird flew out of the heavens to assist a man who had been transformed into a large halibut, and when his assistance was finished, Thunderbird removed his headdress and winged cape and became human. When this mask is worn and danced during Winter Ceremony potlatches, the wearer opens and shuts the beak, revealing a human form within. The rest of the performer’s body may be covered with a cape or feathers.


El Pájaro-Trueno se cree que es un Ser Celestial Ancestral del clan Namgis de los Kwakwaka’wakw, que dicen que cuando este pájaro se acicala las plumas, causa tormentas y cuando pestañea, el relámpago. Los Namgis relatan cómo Pájaro- Trueno voló desde los cielos para ayudar a un hombre que había sido convertido en un gran pez y cuando hubo terminado, Pájaro-Trueno se quito su tocado y capa alada y se volvió humano. Cuando esta máscara se lleva en la danza durante potlaches de Ceremonias de Invierno, el usuario abre y cierra el pico, revelando la forma humana en su interior. El resto del cuerpo del danzante puede estar cubierto por una capa o plumas.
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
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is on view in Arts of the Americas Galleries, 5th Floor
ACCESSION NUMBER 08.491.8902
CREDIT LINE Museum Expedition 1908, Museum Collection Fund
RIGHTS STATEMENT Creative Commons-BY
You may download and use Brooklyn Museum images of this three-dimensional work in accordance with a Creative Commons license. Fair use, as understood under the United States Copyright Act, may also apply.

Please include caption information from this page and credit the Brooklyn Museum. If you need a high resolution file, please contact reproductions@brooklynmuseum.org (charges apply).

For further information about copyright, we recommend resources at the United States Library of Congress, Cornell University, Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums, and Copyright Watch.

For more information about the Museum's rights project, including how rights types are assigned, please see our blog posts on copyright.

If you have any information regarding this work and rights to it, please contact copyright@brooklynmuseum.org.
CAPTION Namgis (Native American). 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
IMAGE detail, 08.491.8902_detail_PS6.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2012
"CUR" at the beginning of an image file name means that the image was created by a curatorial staff member. These study images may be digital point-and-shoot photographs, when we don\'t yet have high-quality studio photography, or they may be scans of older negatives, slides, or photographic prints, providing historical documentation of the object.
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 Kwak waka’ 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.
RECORD COMPLETENESS Best (91%)
Not every record you will find here is complete. More information is available for some works than for others, and some entries have been updated more recently. Records are frequently reviewed and revised, and we welcome any additional information you might have.