Four-faced Hamat'sa Mask
- George Walkus, Kwakwaka'wakw, Canadian, about 1890 - about 1950
- Work Locations: British Columbia
- Active Dates: 1920s - 1930s
This mask was carved by George Walkus, an artist we know very little about. He was an active carver in the 1920s and 1930s. Walkus was a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw [KWALK-WALK-ya-WALK-wuh] Indian Tribe from Northern Vancouver Island and British Columbia. The Kwakwaka’wakw are known for their skillful wood carvings, particularly their masks and totem poles. Individual carvers often attempt to leave a personal mark on the objects they carve by creating slight variations to the traditional mask form. Because masks like this one were commissioned for a specific purpose and were meant to create a certain dramatic effect, the best carvers were highly sought after.
Masks are an important part of ritual dances and aid in telling the stories of the tribe. They often depict important animals and ancestral spirits. Masks like this one are worn during the dances of the Hamat’sa society, the highest ranking Kwakwaka’wakw dancing society. This mask represents the Crooked Beak of Heaven, or the Cannibal Spirit, who is an integral character in the Hamat’sa winter dances. The wide, flat mouth and curved beak distinguish this kind of mask. It is worn by members who appear during the society’s initiation ceremony. The dance revolves around a young initiate to the society who is kidnapped and taken into the woods by the Cannibal Spirit. The boy, on the verge of manhood, becomes wild and needs a series of songs and dances to tame him. The entire dance tells the story of his capture and return to the human world.
Winter dances are highly dramatic and are performed inside dimly lit structures around a central fire. George Walkus used a variety of techniques to enhance the theatrical effect of the mask. The colors, for example, had to be visible in the dim lighting. Walkus used bold blocks of red and black color and painted white around the eyes to reflect light from the ceremonial fire. Rhythmic designs draw the viewer’s eyes to certain parts of the mask—the characteristic curve of the largest bird’s beak, the prominent nostrils, and the beaks of the three smaller birds—and bring these areas to life. Walkus attached cedar-bark fringe to the bottom of the mask in order to camouflage the wearer. The fringe sways with the dancer as he crouches, jumps, and moves throughout the room. Sound is crucial to the drama of the mask’s appearance. Hidden inside is a series of strings that the dancer uses to open and close the beaks, creating a loud clapping noise. The movement and sound created by the beaks add surprise and drama to the ritual, emphasizing the voracious nature of the spirit. Walkus outlined each bird’s mouth with red, making the movement of the beak even more striking. The viewer sees only the external beauty of the mask, never realizing the complexity of its operation.
The Crooked Beak is the largest bird seen here and is recognized by the large arched beak. A crane sits on top of the Crooked Beak bird and has a slight raise to its beak. Two raven heads project from the back of the mask.
Cedar Bark Fibers
Below the mask is a shield made of bark fibers that come from the yellow cedar. This serves to camouflage the wearer during the dance. In addition, dancers wear a cape of shredded cedar bark that falls to their ankles, enhancing the effect of movement. Bark is also attached to the top of each bird creating a feather-like effect.
Walkus used traditional colors to paint the mask. Black serves as the primary color, red outlines the nostrils and lips, and white can be found in and around the eyes. Paint adds to the dramatic effect of the dance as light reflects off of the shiny mask.
Concealed somewhat in the mouths of the birds are strings that were used to move the birds’ beaks. The beaks can be snapped one at a time or all together. During the dance, viewers would not be able to see the intricate network of strings that was hidden inside the mask.
In Search of the Hamat'sa: A Tale of Headhunting (Preview)
This 5-minute video previews a longer 33-minute film about the Hamat'sa. Written, filmed, and produced by Aaron Glass, who wrote his dissertation on the Hamat'sa.
Tame Hamat'sa Dance
This video, from the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia, shows a short example of a hamat'sa dance.
Initiation of the Hamat'sa Dancer at a Potlach
Watch a slideshow of a Hamat’sa initiation ceremony.
This video from the 1970’s shows a Hamat’sa initiation ceremony.
Berlo, Janet Catherine. Native North American Art. New York: Oxford University, 1998.
This is a book giving an overview of regional Indian art discussing techniques, history, and motivation behind the works.
Shearar, Cheryl. Understanding Northwest Coast Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.
A step-by-step guide on the different crests and symbols used in Northwest coast art.
Boyd-Jones, Veda. Native Americans of the Northwest Coast. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001.
This is a great children’s book for ages 4-8, which gives an overview of Northwest coast Indians culture, history, and art.
McDermott, Gerald. Raven: a Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.
A lovely book appropriate for age 4 and up that tells the story of how Raven, the trickster, finds a way to bring light to the world.
McNutt, Nan. The Cedar Plank Mask: A Northwest Coast Indian Art Activity Book. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1997.
A fun activity book that introduces and allows children to explore different Northwest coast crafts. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.
The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.