qpîálás šáwáçi (Bentwood Box)

About this object

History of use

On the Northwest Coast, boxes are important symbols of wealth, power and rank, as well as, functioning as containers for food and valuables. Large decorated boxes or chests were owned by the wealthy to hold the material trappings of rank and prestige.


According to Roloff, this chest was previously owned by a Salish family in Comox, but was thought to have originated in the area around Bella Bella.

Cultural context

storage; wealth; rank

Iconographic meaning

According to Duff, the imagery on boxes may be deliberately ambiguous to allow the owner to assign his own crest associations to the box. The crest figures on the box protect the items stored within. These protectors are said to inhabit the boxes on which they are portrayed. It may also be that the imagery on boxes is more complex than simple crest representations.

Specific techniques

Bentwood, or kerfed-corner, containers are constructed by a process unique to the Northwest Coast peoples. The carver begins with a single straight-grained plank of red cedar, or sometimes yellow cedar, spruce, or yew. The surface of the plank is finished with chisels, adzes, and knives; in earlier times, it was smoothed further with sandstone or dried sharkskin. Then three parallel kerfs, or grooves, are carved out at measured points across the width of the board, at right angles to the long edge. The kerfs, which will become three corners of the box, allow the board to be steamed until the wood fibres are softened, and then carefully bent to form a box with symmetrical sides. The final corner, as well as a fitted base, are joined and fastened with pegs (through drilled holes) or laced with spruce root or twisted cedar withes (branches). Storage boxes also have fitted lids of cedar, hollowed from the inside. Finally, painted compositions may be applied to the completed box and shallow carving added to bring the forms into relief. A well-made bentwood box is watertight. Historically, most boxes were used to store preserved foods and material goods; plain cooking boxes could be used to steam or boil food by adding water and heated stones.

Physical description

Bentwood box (a) and lid (b) with painted distributive designs on four sides, split symmetry on long sides. Heavy black form line with red and black detail. One long side has large central top ovoid with black eye shapes in ovoid and red crosshatching; alternating black and red crosshatched ovoids along bottom of eyebrows; red mouth with crosshatched split tongue, round nostrils with split-u crosshatching above. Salmon-trout head ovoids at top corners; double ovoids near bottom corners. At centre bottom are round eyes and leaf-shaped areas above on each side with crosshatched details. Second long side, top central ovoid, eyes surrounded by black crosshatched split u's, u-shaped nostrils with diagonal lines; heavy black eyebrows, mouth with 4 black incisors (?) and fine lines indicating teeth rows and series of curved lines out from corners of mouth. Profile faces pointing out on bottom sides of central ovoid; stylized hands below; centre bottom, black ovoids above curved black bands with round eye shapes on either side surrounded by ovoids and other shapes. One short side has very wide curving black bands with red outlined ovoids, split u's and round eye shape. Cross-hatched details. Second short side has wide curving black bands, red circled eye shape to right, red split u's at right centre, red outlined split u's at bottom, other ovoids and crosshatched detail. Two drilled holes at top of each long side. Box lashed at one corner; metal patch nailed with square nails at top. Lid is thick and carved from a single piece of wood; rounded edges.