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Northwest Coast

Objects Collection Notes
(George Heye’s Legacy)
Arctic / Subarctic Contemporary Art

For more than 10,000 years, Native peoples of the Northwest Coast have enriched their communities by exchange. From Yakutat Bay in Alaska to the Columbia River in Washington state, Native fishermen and sea hunters traveled north and south by water and east into the interior over mountain passes to trade commodities such as oolichan oil, dentalium shells, copper, and mountain goat wool. In a region of great natural resources, this economy enabled Northwest Coast peoples to develop comfortable and sophisticated societies marked by social ranking, elaborate ceremonial life, and spectacular art created to celebrate the history and prestige of families, clans, and lineages. At feasts, or potlatches—a word from the region’s trading jargon—the status of chiefly families was confirmed by their generosity to their guests. Through lavish gifts of staples and luxuries—including, eventually, non-Native trade goods—communities shared their wealth and maintained social balance.

Encountering the Russians, French, Spanish, English, and Americans who arrived in the 18th century, experienced Native traders were quick to exchange local sea otter and other furs for guns, iron tools, and new materials used to create innovative styles of ceremonial regalia. As the fur trade declined and tourism began to increase, Native people produced objects to appeal to foreign tastes. Miniature versions of the giant totem poles that had captured the imagination of visitors to the coast, argillite carvings, and other new arts entered a collectors’ market, and Northwest Coast artists became known and admired in countries far from their homes.

George Heye’s Legacy: The Northwest Coast

Heye bought his first Northwest Coast object—a Tlingit shaman’s rattle—from a Los Angeles curio dealer in 1904. When he died in 1957, Heye had amassed some 27,000 objects from the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Among them were a series of Kwakwaka´wakw ceremonial masks, rattles, and regalia confiscated in 1921 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police following a potlatch at Village Island, British Columbia. These traditional gift-giving ceremonies were banned by Canadian authorities from 1884 until the law was repealed in 1951. During a 1922 collecting trip to Vancouver Island, Heye purchased 35 of the 450 confiscated items for $291. In 1926, he acquired an additional 11 objects from the wife of the Canadian Mountie who had assisted in prosecuting the participants of the 1921 potlatch.

The National Museum of the American Indian has since returned objects to the Kwakwaka´wakw, who formally requested the repatriation in 1985. These pieces are now part of the collections of the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, and the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre in Cape Mudge, both in British Columbia. Click here to read more...

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Map of the Northwest Coast
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