Written by: Micaela Knox, public relations intern

To read the first part of this two part series, please click here.

Welcome back to the second look at cultural masks in the museum!

How was your Halloween? Were there as many spirits lurking as you imagined there to be?

Today we are going to take a look at a mask from a Native American tradition that captures spirits in its very being.


Unidentified Native American Artist, Pacific Northwest Coast, Tsimshian culture, Naxnox Mask, about 1875-18885, wood, pigment, David T. Owsley Collection, L1993.027.000.

Tsimshian NaxNox Spirits

Along the northwestern shores of Canada, a group of native peoples dominate the evil spirits in their lives through not only imitation, but encapsulation.

Traditional Tsimshian culture had a strong belief in the multiple spirits and supernatural entities that influence human nature. These spirits and their powers are referred to as NaxNox, and they may materialize through a human, an object or a dance called halait.

The Gitsontk were Tsimshian men who manifested the supernatural powers of the naxnox. A Gitsontk would receive his name as an adult from the house of their matrilineal families. The name often represented a literal negative characteristic, action or identity present in the Tsimshian society; family members would hand down names like names like “Choking While Eating,” “Deaf,” “Headache” and “Crazy Person,” all representing chaotic spirits.

With these names, the Gitsontk took the full responsibility of representing the spirits and controlling the qualities spirits caught in the name. By controlling the spirits, the Gitsontk could ensure social order.

Masks, like the one in DOMA’s Edmund F. Petty Gallery of Native American Art, were created to help contain the chaotic spirits. The Gitsontk would craft their masks, some with movable jaws or appendages, and compose songs with their supernatural ability. The men were no longer themselves when they wore their masks and performed halait during feasts or rituals, but transformed into the spirit that they control.

Naxnox mask with moveable jaw. Image property of The Seattle Art Museum.

In some performances, the Gitsontk, wearing their masks and possessed by their spirits, would terrorize the attendees at their tribe’s annual feasts, insulting their chiefs, and in some cases, mimic stabbing the chiefs with trick knives. In another performance, as reported by C.F. Newcombe, a performer named “White Man” carried a whiskey bottle. He poured drinks for the chiefs, and when he ran out of liquor, rolled in a barrel of whiskey.

Intruders who threatened to expose the Gitsontks’ processes as trickery or illusion were subjected to death. Gitsontks who failed a ritual would either immediately commit suicide or also be put to death, showing that these traditions were not simple child’s play, but a serious and righteous act carried out for the betterment of their communities.

The naxnox masks bore exaggerated features to help easily identify the chaotic powers they contained. We do not know what spirits the mask in the DOMA collection are supposed to be. What are the polychromatic pigments, with the stark, angry red and bold blacks supposed to say? Obviously it is an adult male human, but what negative attributes is it supposed to be?


Comment what you think below! And remember, don’t mess with spirits unless you have the credentials!