Lesson 17: Harnessing Spirits: Pacific Northwest Arts, United States and Canada

Summary and Objectives. A study of selected works of art from the Pacific Northwest will introduce students to the symbolism, materials, and uses of masks, and serve as inspiration for artmaking. Another activity focuses on students’ discussion of the potlatch with its distribution of gifts. Students will

  • Explore the uses and visual forms of masks in the Pacific Northwest (United States and Canada) through visual analyses and artmaking activities.
  • Analyze the potlatch as a means of exchanging wealth and expressing status through discussion and oral language activities.
  • Express their interpretation of the concept of transformation through the making of masks.


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Lesson 17: Pacific Northwest Arts Lesson Plan (PDF, 556 KB)

Background Information

Background Information

Included among the arts of this region of the United States and Canada is a vast array of forms—among them wooden masks and containers, woven baskets and hats, horn bowls and spoons, and argillite (a type of stone) figures adorned with images of animals, humans, and spirits. A long history of interaction among Native American groups, including the Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit, contributed to the sharing of artistic ideas and images. Many art forms represented spirit beings and were made for their most important ceremonial occasion, the potlatch.

A potlatch is held to celebrate major events in the lives of individuals and groups (bestowing a name on an infant, initiation, marriage, death, passing on of a title), at the same time as it affirms lineage and the authority of high-ranking members of the community. It offers a major impetus for the production of art forms, conspicuously displayed and bestowed upon guests as thank-you-for-being-in-attendance gifts. The event, which can last several days, begins with a welcome by the host’s representative, is followed by honoring the ancestors, and continues with feasting, music, dance, oration, and storytelling. These are reenacted as dance or drama, or told with masks and other visual props that depict animals and lineage crests.

When Europeans first arrived on the Northwest Coast in the 1700s, the potlatch was a well-established tradition, but its continuance was soon threatened. Along with newly acquired wealth from trade with Russian, Spanish, English, and American fur traders, came conflict and disease. Missionaries and government authorities disapproved of many traditions and tried to end the potlatch observance, finally outlawing it in 1884. It was not until 1934 in Canada, and in 1951 in the United States that the governments repealed the laws. This once again made legal what had been practiced secretly in the intervening years.


About the Artist

By the early 1900s many Northwest Coast Indian traditions had been lost under government suppression of both daily and ceremonial life. Art continued to survive, though, in part because of tourist interest in carved wood, silver, gold, and stone. When the potlatch ban ended, artists created works not only for sale but also for ceremonial use in their own communities. Today artists still learn from each other as they share and develop their own styles. Many are trained in non-Native schools and produce work of both tradition-based and contemporary styles.

Suggested Activities

1. Four from the Pacific Northwest

Students will use the images (Handout PACIFIC NORTHWEST ARTS) for a variety of visual literacy activities.

Activity. Have students study the images, looking for similarities and differences among the objects from the Pacific Northwest that are displayed in this section of Harnessing Spirits. They will note the animal imagery, the use of wood, and the choice of shell for the eyes in two of the pieces, etc. The availability of materials, of course, determines their use and additional materials here include fabric, fiber, and walrus whiskers.

What animals do they see depicted on these objects? The animals are identified as follows: (a: orca whale headdress, b: raven rattle; c: wolf, dog or bear; d: white owl frontlet headdress)

Activity. Discuss the form and use of these objects. The masks and headdresses are worn at potlatches and other important events. The smaller frontlet headdresses function as important chiefly status symbols and the face-covering masks often display the transformation of animals into humans and back into animals. These masks are known as transformation masks.

Activity. Students can make their own transformation masks. Each mask will consist of three parts: two symmetrical sides representing the chosen animal and one complete representation of a human face comprising the center. When finished each of the two sides will be attached at their outer edges to the background center human face. The construction must allow for the two parts of the front mask to open and to close (small pieces of Velcro serve as convenient attaching mechanisms when glued to the base full mask and correspondingly to both half-masks.

Before students select the animal for their masks, they should consider the traits and abilities of the animals and the story they want to tell. Will theirs be an animal that comes to help them, or one they would like to become?

They should think about the colors they will use (many groups in the Pacific Northwest use only black, red, and cream in their designs, others black, red-brown, and green), the size of the mask (will it cover the face or be more like a frontlet headdress?), and its shape. As they construct the masks they should incorporate techniques to help modify the shape by cutting, tearing and scoring the paper, and by curling and folding parts of it. Remember the mask needs to be “readable,” both open and closed.

Artists manipulate designs to fit the shape of an object on which they are painting. Therefore it is common, when looking at examples of Northwest Coast art, to see shapes that are distorted and split. Students should have several opportunities to look at books addressing arts of the region to see examples of pieces displaying this characteristic. They will then be ready to experiment on their own, drawing within a shape the many separated segments of a figure (animal or human) often placed in unexpected juxtapositions to fit the space. Masks often incorporate this feature.

Students can utilize the basic shapes that are used as design elements in this region. The ovoid is a rounded rectangle often used to portray eyes, joints, and sometimes nostrils and ears. The U-form, resembling a thick letter “U” with ends tapering to sharp points, is used for body contours, tails, and ears.


2. Four from the Pacific Northwest

A major component of the potlatch is the distribution of gifts to guests. By the host giving away valuable property, he is demonstrating his wealth (though it probably has taken a long time to accumulate the quantities he needs to give to the large number of invited guests) and it is with this wealth that a person gains social status. Elevated status generates respect from others and acknowledgment of the person’s leadership. The recipients, in acknowledging the host’s role and accepting his gifts, will in turn want to be recognized for their own importance, and reciprocate with potlatches at a later date.

Activity. Lead the students in a discussion about how we gain status, receive respect, and accumulate wealth. And then consider how we share our wealth—with whom and under what circumstances? (For many Northwest Coast Indians, the wealthiest people are those who not only accumulate the most, but also give it all away in a potlatch, as a sign of their ability to do so.) Does art figure in our acquisition or retention of status and wealth? Do we value respect? How can we gain respect in our society? Do we ever give people gifts hoping to gain their respect?

“We are rich by measure of how much we give, not by what we gain” (Joseph 2005, 29).
“When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. It was given to us by our Creator, to be our way of doing things, we who are Indians. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy. Every people on earth is given something. This was given to us” (ibid., 59).
“The gifts are a way of thanking people for witnessing the events of the potlatch” (ibid., 82).

Useful Reading

Alfred, Agnes
2004 Paddling to Where I Stand. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia: UBC Press.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, Diane
1997 Potlatch: a Tsimshian Celebration.  New York: Holiday House. *

Joseph, Robert, ed.
2005 Listening to Our Ancestors. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution in Association with National Geographic.

McDermott, Gerald
1993 Raven—A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest. New York: Voyager Books, Harcourt, Inc. *


* Children’s books

Photograph Captions

A. Headdress, killer whale, Haida peoples, British Columbia, Canada. 19th century. Wood, pigment, fiber. H: 68.58 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.4284

B. Rattle, Tlingit peoples, Alaska. 19th–early 20th century. Wood, pigment, seeds. H: 30.5 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Dorothy M. Cordry in memory of Donald B. Cordry. X84.715

C. Mask, Tsimshian peoples, British Columbia, Canada. 19th century. Wood, shells. L: 22 cm. Fowler
Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.4267

D. Frontlet headdress, while owl, Nisga’a peoples, British Columbia, Canada. 19th century. Leather, vegetable fiber, walrus whiskers, wood, shell, paint, flannel. L: 20.3 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.4024

Notes to the Teacher

This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the third section of the exhibition called Art and Power. In this gallery works are introduced that serve to define and assert power. See “Unit Three—Art and Power” for an introductory statement on the unit, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.

Images of objects to be shown to students may be printed as handouts (from within each lesson), viewed online at the Intersections web link http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu, or downloaded from the curriculum page on our website.

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