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Edward Curtis’ Photographs of Kwakwaka’wakw Ceremonial Dress and Masks (ca. 1914)

The Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw (or Kwakiutl) are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, covering the territory of British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the adjoining mainland, and on islands around Johnstone Strait and Queen Charlotte Strait. United by the common language of Kwak’wala, the broad group can be divided into 13 nations, each with its own clan structure and distinct histories. According to Kwakwaka’wakw folklore their ancestors (‘na’mima) came to a given spot — by way of land, sea, or underground — in the form of ancestral animals that upon arrival shed their animal appearance and became human.

The first documented contact with Westerners was in 1792 during the expedition led by English officer Captain George Vancouver, and was soon followed by colonies of Europeans settling on Canada’s West Coast. As was often the way, with settlers came disease and the Kwakwaka’wakw population dropped by up to 75% between 1830 and 1880. Their distinctive ideas about wealth — that status came not from how much you owned but how much you were able to give away — came to the particular attention of the US anthropologist Franz Boas, who wrote extensively on their elaborate gift-giving ceremonies known as “potlach”. The ceremonial practice was also a particular target of Christian missionaries who saw it as a major obstacle to their “civilising” mission, and the Canadian government banned the practise in 1885 (although the act was soon amended, proving impossible to enforce).

The photographs of the ceremonial dress and masks of the Kwakwaka’wakw presented here are the creation of American photographer and ethnologist Edward Curtis (1868–1952), famous for his work with Native American people. Part of a project funded by banking magnate J.P. Morgan, these photographs are from the collection held at the Library of Congress, and contain many images not published in Curtis’ enormous twenty-volume The North American Indian. In 2015, Taschen produced their epic 768-page The North American Indian: The Complete Portfolios, which gathers Curtis’ entire American Indian portfolio into one publication.

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