Bentwood Box

About this object

History of use

Bentwood container, a main storage unit on the Northwest Coast, varied in size, shape, and design depending upon the function each one served. Chests (length greater than height) and boxes (height greater than length) with two dimensional carved and/or painted designs of family crests, held family wealth such as blankets, coppers, and ceremonial paraphernalia. The crest figure, said to dwell within, protected the contents and by its display, stated family wealth and status. Decorated and undecorated boxes could be used for storing or dispensing food, to cook in, store tools, burial, etc. Those with design such as this type could contain foods and oils to be presented at feasts.

Cultural context


Iconographic meaning

Tongue, square ears, and claws suggest an animal, probably a bear which may represent a crest acquired through inheritance.

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

Square shaped, tall bentwood box with a carved design primary painting with red form lines and secondary black lines. Design elements fill entire space. The underside and corner are attached with small metal nails. Two of the sides depict a raven in profile with its mouth open and another raven ? head inside the beak. On top of the beak is a head of a frog with its tongue protruding. Below raven’s head are its talons, above is its wings. The opposite sides depict a bear ? with its tongue sticking out. On top of the nose is a bear cub ? with small nostrils and a protruding tongue. Below the head is the bear’s body. There is a metal patch on corner at bottom.