Carved Masks



Weeping Man Mask (NA1242)

Tlingit, from Klukwan, Alaska

Wood (possibly cedar), hide, fur, brass buttons, wool, pigment, resin, shell

Height: 25 cm; Width: 18 cm; Depth: 15 cm

Collected by George Byron Gordon from Louis Shotridge in 1905

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology


Object Label

A Tlingit artist carved this male human mask from a single piece of wood and embellished it with shell teeth, brass pupils, wooden lips, fur facial hair, and animal skin eye sockets. The wearer pulls strings tied to facial features to change the mask’s expression. For example, the upper lip strings open the mouth, the eyebrow strings open the eyes, and the upper eyelid strings close the eyes. The bold blue-green, red, and black colors echo Tlingit face paintings for special occasions[1].

Performers at funeral potlatches may have worn this mask as they sang for the deceased. The opening and closing eyes mimic crying, and the mouth moves for sounds of grieving.[2] The mask also may have belonged to a shaman, as its movable features can make a slack mouth and half-closed eyes, the typical drowned expression of a shaman mask[3]. The opening and closing eyes and mouth represent how shamans transition between life and death, the physical and spiritual worlds.

The mask has as many possible origins as it does possible purposes. It is unknown how the seller, Tlingit nobleman Louis Shotridge, acquired it from his home community of Klukwan, Alaska. It could have been a potlatch object he purchased from a clan, discarded paraphernalia he relieved of a shaman who converted to Christianity, or a work he bought from an artist who made it only for sale.


Wall Text: Masks

Northwest coast masks are most important for potlatches and shaman rituals.

A potlatch is an elaborate days-long event one clan hosts for another in honor of a death, birth, marriage, new house, or other milestone. It involves feasts, gifts, song, dance, and special heirlooms brought out only for such an occasion. Performers wear masks while they act out stories of their clan’s past, as masks are only one piece of a multi-sensory experience [4].

A mask enhances a shaman’s power as it enhances a potlatch performance. Shamans mediate between humans and spirits by curing illness and rooting out witchcraft, assisted by spirits of the dead called yek[5][6]. Shamans own several masks, ideally eight, that represent their human or animal yek. They don masks to transform into these beings during rituals, and sing and dance to direct their power[7] Death themes abound their art, not only because shamans interact with spirits, but because they mystically die and are reborn when they become shamans[8].

It is difficult to differentiate shaman and potlatch masks because clan crest art displayed at potlatches uses similar motifs to shamanic art. Shamans from high-status families incorporate crests, symbols of their clan, into sacred tools to display secular and spiritual power[9].




Aaron Glass, ed. “Catalogue of the Exhibition.” In Objects of exchange: social and material transformation on the late nineteenth-century Northwest Coast : selections from the American Museum of Natural History, 91-210. New York: Bard Center, 2011.

Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

Jonaitis, Aldona. “Sacred Art and Spiritual Power.” In The Anthropology of Art: a reader, edited by Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins, 358-373. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

Kaplan, Susan A., Kristin J. Barsness, and Adria H. Katz, eds. Raven’s journey: the world of Alaska’s native people. Philadelphia: University Museum Press, 1986.

Mulburn, Maureen. “Louis Shotridge and the Objects of Everlasting Esteem.” In Raven’s journey: the world of Alaska’s native people, edited by Susan A. Kaplan, Kristin J. Barsness, and Adria H. Katz, n.p. Philadelphia: University Museum Press, 1986.

Wardwell, Allen. Tangible visions: Northwest Coast Indian shamanism and its art. New York: Monacelli, 1996.

[1] Aldona Jonaitis. Art of the Northwest Coast. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 131.

[2] Susan A. Kaplan, Kristin J. Barsness, and Adria H. Katz. Raven’s journey: the world of Alaska’s native people. (Philadelphia: University Museum Press, 1986), 205.

[3] Allen Wardwell. Tangible visions: Northwest Coast Indian shamanism and its art. (New York: Monacelli, 1996), 18.

[4] Jonaitis. Art of the Northwest Coast, 129.

[5] Aldona Jonaitis, “Sacred Art and Spiritual Power,” in The anthropology of art: a reader, ed. Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 358-359.

[6] Wardwell. Tangible visions, 18.

[7] Joanitis, “Sacred Art,” 358.

[8] Wardwell, Tangible Visions, 17.

[9] Ibid., 7


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