Hereditary Chief Noel Pootlass holds up the original raven mask while carver Skip Saunders follows with the replica he carved himself.

Ceremonial mask makes journey for a meaningful visit home

Representatives from the Seattle Art Museum journeyed to Nuxalk territory and issued an apology during a potlatch.

Representatives from the Seattle Art Museum journeyed to Nuxalk territory and issued an apology during a potlatch held by Hereditary Chief Charles Nelson on September 27, 2014. With them they brought the ceremonial raven forehead mask which had been previously the centre of a controversial Super Bowl wager between the Seattle Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum.

Due to the concern of Nuxalk Nation members, the raven mask was withdrawn from the Super Bowl bet. Despite the conflict with the museum, the relationship now moves in a positive direction. Gifts were presented to the Acwsalcta School on behalf of the museum, including art supplies, books and games. There is also open discussion that the mask will be displayed at the school in the future.

Using the pictures and dimensions the museum gave to Wally Webber, Skip Saunders was able to carve a replica of the mask. Elders, hereditary chiefs and community members welcomed both masks and witnessed the past coming together with the present.

Historically, masks and other ceremonial items were confiscated by authorities during the Potlatch Ban in 1885. Anyone taking part in a potlatch was threatened with imprisonment. The original forehead mask was created around 1880 and it is unclear how it left the Bella Coola Valley. It was donated to the Seattle Art Museum by John H. Hauberg in 1991.

In an interview with Karen Anderson, she stated that “some masks were taken from graves or taken as collateral.” The mystery surrounding how the mask left Bella Coola highlights the importance of the raven mask coming home. Other Nuxalk masks and items remain in museums and private collections worldwide and their sacredness and importance is not forgotten.

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