max̱inux̱w dłu’ kwikw dłuwa̱lax̱ag̱a̱mł (Whale Mask)

About this object

History of use

The rights to this Killer Whale and Eagle mask came to the ‘Namgis Nation as part of a dowry from the Hiłdzakw “Bella Bella" Nation. The mask depicts an ancient ancestral story about a man named Dła’wa who unexpectedly found his people facing starvation. Taking the situation upon himself, he calls on his spiritual power and transforms into a huge eagle. In his supernatural form, Dła’wa searches over the ocean and hunts for food. During his flight, he finds a pod of orcas. Dła’wa chooses the largest whale and captures it. The supernatural eagle returns to his people and distributes the catch to save his people from famine. After securing his tribe, Dła’wa decides to change back into human form. As a consequence of staying too long in supernatural form, he is unable to fully return to his human state. In the end, Dła’wa’s nose remains that of an eagle and would for the rest of his life. From this day forward Dła’wa takes the name Wikwiłba “Eagle-Beak Nose” that becomes one of the prominent chiefly names of the Hiłdzakw.
The mask is a długwe’ “treasure” belonging to the Dłuwalaxa “Returned from Heaven" ceremonies, now known to the Kwakwaka’wakw “Kwakwala speaking people” as Tła’sala “Peace Dances”. In these ceremonies, new initiates are taunted by lead veteran dancers called Hayalikila “Healers” to prove their spiritual power and worthiness to perform in these ceremonies. The initiate dancers in frustration quickly exit the ceremonial house and disappear. At this point they are believed to be abducted and taken into the heavens and bestowed with supernatural power. After much anticipation and drama, the initiates return as supernatural beings. Through their return and successful transformation, the new initiates prove themselves and are celebrated and accepted into the Dłuwalaxa.


The mask originally belonged to late Benjamin Alfred Sr. who held the ‘Namgis Tsitsał’walagama’yi “Famous Ones Clan” chiefly name Tłakwagila “Copper-Maker”. The chieftainship was transferred to Benjamin from his wife as part of her dowry. Benjamin’s wife Elizabeth (nee Innis) Tłatłakwidalaga ‘Copper-Making Woman” was the only daughter of Chief Fred Innis whose chiefly name was Kwamxalagalis I’nis “Avalanching all Over the World”, who was the eldest son of Head Gigal’gam “First Ones Clan” Kwikw “Eagle Chief ” or Xamagama’yi “True Chief”. In the ancient history of the clan, the grandson of the first ancestor who was the renowned Thunderbird named Kwanu’sila “Thunder-Maker”, marries a princess from the Hiłdzakw and receives many cultural treasures as dowry. Among these treasures were names, songs and dances and most important, the first copper ever owned by the ‘Namgis tribe named Gwała’gila “Causing Destitution”. Among the names from the powerful Hiłdzakw was Hamdzidi “Food Provider”, this name was eventually placed on Mrs. Benjamin Alfred. The name Hamdzidi is still considered one of the most prestigious chiefly names amongst the Bella Bella people today.

Iconographic meaning

The dramatic mask is carved in a Kwakwaka’wakw style and is possibly a later version of an original that came from the north. It is carved from multiple pieces of western red cedar and is hinged with leather and secured with iron nails and articulated with cotton twine rigging. The underlying paint job greatly resembles northern formline and the details on the back of the pectoral fins clearly indicate repainting. The little bird was often mistaken for a thunderbird; however, research indicates the story of a powerful eagle. The proud looking eagle sits on the large dorsal fin that is manipulated by the pull string that causes the bird to dive forward and plunge its head into a stylized hole that represents the blowhole. This tall straight dorsal fin identifies this mask as a Killer Whale and not a larger species of whale. This unique feature could be specific to the details of the origin story and may demonstrate the manner in which the much smaller bird used to kill the whale. In front of the blowhole is a decorative Bakwas “Wildman of the Woods”. To accompany the little woodman are small carved hands that project from the forefronts of the flippers. The tail is moveable and is connected with metal segments that allow it to waggle and flip up and down. The mouth is also moveable and manipulated by a draw string. The outer painting and addition of white and forest green is clearly more recent in comparison to the underlying flat natural pigment paint that is still visible on much of the mask.

Physical description

Killer whale mask with moveable dorsal fin, pectoral fins, tail and lower jaw. At the base of the dorsal fin is an eagle with outstretched wings. The bird is attached to rigging for movement. By the blow hole there is a carved face of Bak'was. Under the lower jaw of the whale is a face, and on the pectoral fins are protruding hands in dark and light green. The tail shaft is segmented. The tail fins have a painted ovoid design underneath and a facial design on top. The body is painted black with white lines and circles. The fins are painted with designs in red, green, black and white. The face is painted black with black eyebrows outlines in white, green around the eyes with incised white lines, white below the eye sockets, black and red nostrils with white rims, and red lips with Bak'was painted in white, black, green and red. The bird is painted white and black with red legs and eyes, a white beak with red edges, and its wings are black with white stripes on the underside and white with black and red dots of paint on the top side.