Nuu-chah-nulth peoples
Mask, ca. 1778
Canada, British Columbia, Vancouver Island
Wood, paint, and human hair
10 × 7 ¼ × 5 ¾ in. (25.4 × 18.4 × 14.6 cm)
3-D Object/Sculpture
1973-07 DJ

Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston
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This mask and a large comb or carding implement (1973-06 DJ) in the Menil’s collection are two of the several hundred aboriginal works from Yuquot and neighboring villages that Captain James Cook (1728–1779) collected at the end of his well-documented third Pacific expedition (1776–79). A protected waterway rich with sea life and natural resources on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Nootka Sound had been the home of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht peoples for thousands of years. The initial designation of the region and its people as “Nootka” reportedly comes from the European crew’s misunderstanding the indigenous word for “go around.” Cook also generally referred to native peoples as Wakashians, a name derived from the local expression for approval or an agreement. The Mowachaht-Muchalaht peoples are one of the fourteen linguistically related First Nations that comprise Nuu-Chah-Nulth.


Following earlier European expeditions to the region, Cook and his crew aboard the Discovery and the Resolution arrived in Nootka Sound at the end of March 1778. In the published accounts of his encounter with the peoples native to the region, Cook described his reaction to masks like this one: 


“These consist of endless variety of carved wooden masks or visors, applied on the face, or to the upper part of the head or forehead. Some of these resemble human faces, furnished with hair, beards, and eyebrows; others, the heads of birds, particularly of eagles and quebrantahuesses [vultures]; and many, the heads of land and sea animals, such as wolves, deer, and porpoises, and others…But it may be concluded, that if travelers or voyagers, in an ignorant and credulous age, when many unnatural and marvelous things were supposed to exist…had seen a number of people decorated in this manner…they would readily have believed…that there existed a race of beings, partaking of the nature of man and beast…” (Cook, 1784, 306–07). 


Carved from Pacific red cedar, the mask was originally painted and had inlaid eyebrows of hide as described by Cook. There are remnants of long hair that extended from the ridge on the top of the forehead. The surface reveals the carver’s careful consideration of the wood grain to accentuate the attentive eyes and to animate the lips and mouth—almost as if it was blowing air or singing. This motif is comparable to masks and figural sculptures made by the nearby Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples that represent the ambivalent spirit-being Dzunukwa (also spelled Tsonoqua), but it may relate to the power of speech and the mythology of sea wind, which is more directly associated with the coastal village of Yuquot and Nootka Sound. Other masks collected in the region during the 18th century, as well as ornately carved axes that have handles terminating in a face with a stone blade protruding from the gaping mouth, possess similarly expressive features. The large carved interior posts of Yuquot Chief Maquinna’s home depicted in European drawings and prints from the 18th century also illustrate this motif.


Work cited:

Cook, James. A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean Undertaken by the Command of his Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere to Determine the Position and Extent of the West Side of North America and its Distance from Asia; and the Practicability of a Northern Passage to Europe, Vol. 2. (Dublin: H. Chamberlaine et al., 1784).