Cultural Reverence: Kwakwaka'wakw Transformation Masks and the Seattle Seahawks

December 2014 - Historical Essay

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The Kwakwaka'wakw tribe of modern day Vancouver Island was once a hunter-gatherer, yet uniquely stationary, society of Native Americans. Due to the Pacific Northwest’s abundant resources and mild climate, the Kwakwaka'wakw were able to maintain a hunter-gatherer economy and yet, stay in one place. Vancouver Island features large rainforests populated with evergreen trees, allowing the Kwakwaka'wakw ample access to an abundance of wood. Elaborate carved items such as masks, totem poles, bowls, and rattles became the primary artistic expression of the Kwakwaka'wakw. Paramount to their culture for spiritual purposes is the carved wooden mask. In this paper, I will investigate the significance of Kwakwaka'wakw transformation masks through the examination of one mask in particular: the Eagle Mask that inspired the Seattle Seahawks football team symbol. The artistic and cultural presence of the Eagle Mask in Pacific Northwest society is an object of ritual to the Kwakwaka'wakw and a symbol of unity to the Seattle Seahawks fan base that serves as a landmark to cultural reverence and respect for the area’s heritage.

 

The Eagle Mask is a stylized eagle mask with reflective, mirrored eyes that is worn on the body of a male Kwakwaka'wakw dancer. Carved during the late 19th century, the mask protrudes roughly two feet from the dancer and features a yellow, red, and black color scheme. The mask is made of carved cedar and features two flaps that move up and down via a hinge mechanism on the top of the “head.” Typical of Kwakwaka'wakw transformation masks, strings run through the interior that allow the person wearing it to open the front facing façade and reveal an interior. The interior of the mask features a human face in a red, blue, and yellow color scheme.

 

Sadly, little is known about the specific uses of the Eagle Mask. The human face on the interior of the mask “illustrates the duality of human and animal forms” (Feder, 57). Collected notes on the mask state that a dancer would enter a ceremonial dance “hunched low with the mask on his back, firelight reflecting in the mask’s mirrored eyes. As the drum beat grew stronger, the dancer would spin rapidly, whipping open the mask to reveal the face inside. The face represents the eagle — or Thunderbird — coming to earth to take human form” (Burke). According to Franz Boas’ notes, made in the presence of Kwakwaka'wakw tribesmen in 1895, the mask differs only slightly from an illustration made at the same time called “Qo’loc” (Gunther, 123). The creature is a type of eagle that has a song associated with it, the words of which are “Do not let us drive him away the bird of our chief. The real Qo’loc who is sitting in the middle of our world” (Gunther, 123). The mask may also represent the lineage of a clan that lived in the area.

 

The mask is currently on loan to the University of Washington Burke museum to celebrate the role Kwakwaka'wakw art has played in shaping the history of Seattle’s National Football League team, the Seahawks. Established in 1974, The Seahawks are the only NFL franchise located in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks draw support from “a wide geographical area, including Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska, as well as Canadian fans in British Columbia and Alberta” (Prunty). At the time of the logo’s inception, Northwest Coast art including art from the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakwaka’wakw were the most readily recognized design styles of the region. In an attempt to unify a large demographic behind the team, the graphic designer, Marvin Oliver, chose to use traditional Kwakwaka’wakw symbols to create the Seahawks logo.

 

Use of traditional symbols in this manner calls into question whether or not the symbol was appropriated from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. The logo is not being used in a spiritual way, nor is it used in its traditional method, which includes an element of physical transformation. In addition, no known evidence exists to suggest that Oliver asked a member of the tribe for permission to use the likeness of the mask in this way. However, I argue that this use of the symbol is culturally permissible and acts as a gesture of cultural reverence rather than one of cultural appropriation.

 

My first piece of evidence in support of the use of the logo comes from the Burke Museum ceremony held on the 18th of November, 2014. Two members of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe, Andy Tanis Everson and George Me’las Taylor held a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw ceremony and dance to support the mask and logo, stating “when we found out that it’s truly Kwakwaka’wakw in origin we were very proud” and that “we could not think of better people to wear it than the Seahawks” (Drovetto). My second piece of evidence comes in the form of how the logo is used today. The Seahawks logo is not looked upon as a piece of art to be hung on a wall in a museum, it is meant to be experienced and used in the ceremony of the football games. The logo is used in the ritual of the game similar to the way the mask is used in ritual Kwakwaka’wakw dance. The Eagle Mask was never meant to be placed on a wall as art, it is meant to be used in ceremony as representation of a people, similar to the use of the logo. I defend the notion that the logo is an accurate use of the symbol and upholds the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe with reverence and honor.

 

The Eagle Mask and its modern re-imaging as the Seahawks logo serve as symbols of Pacific Northwest heritage. The artistic and cultural presence of the Eagle Mask in Pacific Northwest society is an object of ritual to the Kwakwaka'wakw and a symbol of unity to the Seattle Seahawks fan base that serves as a landmark to cultural reverence and respect for the area’s heritage. Organizations like the Burke Museum serve the Pacific Northwest community in an engaging and culturally relevant way that reminds current day inhabitants that they live in a place rich with Native American culture that is just as relevant today as it was centuries ago.

 

Bibliography

 

Holm, Bill. Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA. 1978. Print. Ref.

 

Feder, Norman. Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. Denver Art Museum Winter Quarterly, Denver, CO. 1962. Print. Pg. 57

 

Wright, Robin. Burke Museum Official Website. Searching for what inspired the Seattle Seahawks logo. http://burkemuseum.blogspot.com/2014/01/in-search-of-true-inspiration-for.html#.VGuNKfnF8rV. January 28, 2014. Web.

 

Gunther, Erna. Art in the Life of the Northwest Coast Indians. The Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR. 1966. Print. Pg. 123

 

Prunty, Brendan. NJ.com. Seahawks' 12th Man draws from all over Pacific Northwest, bringing diverse fan base to Super Bowl. http://www.nj.com/super-bowl/index.ssf/2014/01/seahawks_12th_man_super_bowl.html. January 26, 2014. Web.

 

Drovetto, Tony. Seahawks.com. Native mask that inspired Seahawks logo on display at University of Washington's Burke Museum. http://www.seahawks.com/news/articles/article-1/Native-mask-that-inspired-Seahawks-logo-on-display-at-University-of-Washingtons-Burke-Museum/c0d4dd9a-cfcd-43c6-b3a9-50eb103f1211. November 18, 2014. Web.

 

Blake Greene, 2016