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Contemporary objects created by Indigenous people are helping us to grow our understanding of other cultures and build stronger links with communities around the world.

Two masks worn during a ceremonial dance by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community have been acquired for our collections. The carved cedar wood pieces were created by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Hereditary Chief Alan Hunt.

  • The Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, performed by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, performed by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

  • The Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, performed by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, performed by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

  • The Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, performed by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, performed by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

  • The Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, performed by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, performed by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

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On Tuesday 25 February 2020, members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Northwest Coast of Canada performed the Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh. This may only be the second time it has been performed outside The Big House, in Alert Bay, on Vancouver Island. The Atlakim is part of Hereditary Chief William Hawkins Box of Treasures and it is thanks to his kind permission this ceremony was able to be performed. Throughout the video below Hereditary Chief Alan Hunt and Patricia Nolie introduce each of the various sections. They tell the story of the Atlakim as well as providing broader insights into Kwakwaka’wakw ways of life.

This event, and a subsequent visit to the National Museums Collections Centre, led our Department of World Cultures to acquire two of the masks worn in the ceremony. They were chosen because of their significance within the Atlakim ceremony and their links to Scotland.

The masks

Xamsaliłalas (Grouse) is one of the key characters in the Atlakim ceremony and acts as a caller for the other spirits. The mask is made from western red cedar and decorated with acrylic paint, craft feathers and cotton. The white fabric at the top is the hood that goes over the back of the wearer's head.

White and red mask with straw and a white hood.

P̓alp̓alsk̕utamals (One-Side Moss Face) was chosen because its production reflects its use in a performance in Scotland. The moss used on the mask was purchased in Edinburgh. The mask is made from western red cedar and decorated with acrylic paint, cotton and moss.

Black, white and red mask with moss on half the face.

The masks were made specifically for the Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery. Its curator, James Clegg, described the show as exploring how “the environmental crisis we face today is bound up with a longer history of colonialism through the repression of Indigenous cultures, the loss of wisdom derived from animals and plants, and the industrial exploitation of people and resources”.

Alan Hunt, and Kwakwaka’wakw community members Terena Hunt, Corinne Hunt and Michelle George also visited the Kwakwaka’wakw collections at the National Museums Collections Centre in early 2020. They were able to describe how many of the historic masks in the collections would have been made and used.

  • The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

  • The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

  • The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

  • The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

  • The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

    The Pine’s Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, curated by James Clegg. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh. Photo: Sally Jubb.

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Masks were used in ceremonies as part of potlatch (gift giving feasts) to invoke spirits. Potlatch were banned in Canada between 1884–1951, reflecting a misunderstanding of Indigenous culture. Today, the carving of masks and the continuance of potlatch reflects resilience and revitalisation in Indigenous communities along the Northwest Coast of Canada.

red white and black mask with moss down one side.

Side view of the other red white and black mask with straw embellishment.

The Kwakwaka’wakw community visit to Scotland with these masks and their generous sharing of cultural knowledge was a special and significant event for all involved. This acquisition commemorates this visit as well as the historic performance of the Atlakim ceremony in Edinburgh and continues an ongoing relationship between National Museums Scotland and Kwakwaka’wakw communities.

The Atlakim ceremony was made possible thanks to the kind support of Canada Council for the Arts and the High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom.

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A version of this article first appeared in Explorer, our Member magazine.

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