Rendered fat was a mainstay in the diet of all peoples of the Northwest Coast. The fat of candlefish, or various sea mammals was rendered in large canoes or chests, which were filled with water and red-hot coals in order to bring the water to a boil. The resulting rendered oil was an amber, clear liquid at room temperature, and a solid when cold. This oil was used to preserve berries and meat, along with flavoring different foods. When used as a condiment, diners would commonly dip dried or roasted fish and boiled potatoes into the oil-filled dishes such as these.
This oil dish is made of bentwood, in a process similar to that of larger bentwood chests. A sheet of wood, in the case of smaller bowls usually yew, alder or maple, was steamed until it was pliable enough of bend. The final corner of the bowl has been sewn together around a fitted-together rabbet joint. On bentwood bowls, such as this, the joined end is always located at the back, and not at the front of the bowl. Pegs have been used to attach the sides to the wooden base. This base is most likely red cedar, which was almost exclusively used for bowl bottoms. The bulging sides, hollowed out on the inside, along with the curved rim, are characteristic of such wooden bowls.
This bowl depicts a woman wearing a labret, an accessory that extended the lower lip. In Tlingit culture, a woman of high-status would have her lip pierced as an infant or once she hit puberty, gradually enlarging the piercing by inserting a larger and larger labret. The face shown on this bowl, therefore, is unquestionably the face of a high-ranking lady. Furthermore, the formal realism of her face suggests that this is dish is, in-part, a portrait of a once living woman.
The depicted woman’s eyes have been set with what appears to be abalone shell, which was also often used to decorate masks and rattles. Although the bowl has been saturated by oil, vestiges of the red paint used to tint the inside of her lips still remain. Carved formlines on the side and back contrast with the sculptural nature of the bowl’s front. The sides of the dish suggest a stylized human face in profile, along with human hands, while the carved formlines on the back suggest crouching legs and the woman’s backside.
Suggested further reading:
Bill Holm. Spirit and Ancestor. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.
Susan A. Kaplan and Kristin J. Barsness. Raven’s Journey: The World of Alaska’s Native People. Philadelphia: University Museum, 1986.