Oil Dishes



Oil Dish


Tlingit, Juneau, Alaska, 1932

10.5x31x14.5 cm

Wood, paint, beads


All peoples of the Northwest Coast depended on rendered fat as a mainstay of their diet. The most prized source of oil was candlefish, however sea mammals, including seals, sea lions and whales, were also used. Their fat 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 the oil was used as a condiment, it would be served in dishes such as these. Diners would commonly dip dried or roasted fish and boiled potatoes into the oil for flavoring.

Many oil dishes were of simple form, but others were more elaborately carved into the forms of humans or animals. There were two common types of animal-shaped oil dishes: some were hollowed-out versions of the animal, while others, such as this one, were smooth round bowls with added appendages. The frog depicted on this oil dish rests on his stomach, his legs flat along his sides. This arrangement was common of Northern coastal dishes; the people of the Southern coast usually made dishes which stood on four stumpy legs. Regardless of the leg positioning, these bowls almost always featured a “realist” portrayal of the animal, as opposed to highly stylized portrayals that are wholly unique to the Northwest coast.

The glossy sheen of this dish is due to years of oil permeating through the wood. This oil has almost washed away the original paint; however, vestiges of black on the body and red accents on the lips can still be distinguished. Small beads have been inset into the rim of the dish as extra decoration.

-Elliott Brooks

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.


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