ts’uu ging.uula guudang (Bentwood Chest)

About this object

History of use

Bentwood storage chests were the property of high ranking and wealthy individuals, and were often used to store family ceremonial regalia.

Narrative

Great bentwood chests were considered heirlooms, treasured within families and often passed down through the generations. This unique chest, with its projecting bear snout and paws, was collected in the 1870s by the Reverend W.H. Collison while he was a missionary at Old Massett. A photograph taken in the village in 1884 shows this same chest inside a Haida family’s lineage house.

Specific techniques

Bentwood, or kerfed-corner, containers are constructed by a process unique to the Northwest Coast Aboriginal 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

Rectangular bentwood box (part a) with lid (part b). The front is carved in high relief of a bear motif with a human figure in its mouth and eagle heads for eyes. The front is painted in blue, black and red in Northwest Coast stylized designs. The sides, back and lid are undecorated.