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Chief's headdress

Hiłamas (Willie Seaweed or Smoky Top, ´Nak´waxda´xw Kwakwaka´wakw, 1873–1967), gikiwe´ (chief’s headdress)
ca. 1949
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Cedar wood, paint, velveteen
50 x 22 cm
Purchased from Wilhelm Helmer

Willie Seaweed, Smoky Top, was born about 1873 and was 94 years old when he passed away. He came from Blunden Harbour, a very isolated Kwakwaka´wakw village. This isolation allowed his tribe to be very cultural and traditional.

As well as being a high-ranking chief, Chief Seaweed was unquestionably one of the best Kwakwaka´wakw carvers ever. He gave life to his masks by making them fit so beautifully to the faces of people who wore and danced them. For example, the distance between each eye would be measured to match the dancer’s face. He created perfect circles with a compass and drew straight lines with a straightedge.1 He would sand down a finished form and paint it white, then add other colors like black and red to create a clean and exact product. His legacy is still seen everywhere on totem poles, masks, and other paraphernalia. It is fitting then that one of his masterpieces is this chief’s headdress he made for himself of a killer whale and two ravens.

I did not know Chief Smoky Top well, for he was already 66 years old when I was born. But I danced one of the masks in the Atlakim forest kingdom legend. This is one of the most striking sets of dance masks ever created, carved by Willie Seaweed. The fit was perfect, the vision clear, the style profound. It was inspirational. I would for the brief moment become the figure I represented, to transcend to another consciousness, to play out in some small way the meaning, purpose, intent, and value of Kwakwaka´wakw cosmology and worldview.

—Chief Robert Joseph (Kwakwaka´wakw), hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation

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The period spanning Willie Seaweed’s lifetime brought innumerable changes to the Kwakwaka´wakw world. By the late 1870s, various settlers in British Columbia—including missionaries, Indian agents, teachers, and cannery owners—joined forces to convince Canada that the potlatch, with its dramatic dances and lavish distribution of wealth, was an impediment to the conversion and assimilation of the province’s First Nations. In 1884, the revised Indian Act officially prohibited the ceremony and its accompanying festivities. By the mid-1920s, the potlatch had been forced underground.2

Yet some Kwakwaka´wakw chiefs—including Willie Seaweed—kept their traditions alive, in part by modifying artistic and ceremonial practice in order to evade the letter of the law. They kept carving masks and other regalia. By selling a good number of carvings on the curio market or to museums, families may have displaced attention from the fact that they were also passing hereditary rights to the next generation via the objects that make those rights manifest. They also kept dancing, but they adapted the hereditary prerogatives to public demonstrations of “cultural heritage” that were allowed—even encouraged—by the authorities. In 1951, the potlatch prohibition was dropped, and Kwakwaka´wakw families slowly brought the potlatch back into the light of day, much to the astonishment of anthropologists and government officials. Around the same time, large new museum exhibitions and catalogues in British Columbia began featuring Seaweed’s distinctive artwork, which quickly gained a prominent reputation in the emerging Northwest Coast art world and helped redefine the canon of Kwakwaka´wakw art in the 20th century.

Through his leadership as a hereditary chief, his flexibility in the face of colonial restriction, and his singular vision and creativity as an artist, Willie Seaweed was central to the survival of Kwakwaka´wakw culture. Like the two ravens on his headdress, he looked back to the Kwakwaka´wakw past and at the same time forward to an intercultural future in British Columbia. His efforts helped establish some of the conditions for the 21st-century cultural and political sovereignty movements in Canada.

—Aaron Glass, American Museum of Natural History and Bard Graduate Center, New York

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  1. Holm, Smoky-Top, 35.
  2. For thorough background on the potlatch prohibition, see Cole and Chaikin, An Iron Hand upon the People. For Kwakwaka´wakw perspectives, see Sewid-Smith, Prosecution or Persecution; Webster, “From colonization to repatriation”; and the film Potlatch! A Strict Law Bids Us Dance.
  • Cole, Douglas, and Ira Chaikin. An Iron Hand upon the People: The Law against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1990.
  • Holm, Bill. Smoky-Top: The Art and Times of Willie Seaweed. Seattle: University of Washington, 1983.
  • Potlatch! A Strict Law Bids Us Dance. Movie directed by Dennis Wheeler and produced by the U'mista Cultural Society, Alert Bay BC, 1975.
  • Sewid-Smith, Daisy. Prosecution or Persecution. Cape Mudge BC: Nu-yum-balees Society, 1979.
  • Webster, Gloria Cranmer. “From colonization to repatriation.” In Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives, Gerald McMaster and Lee-Ann Martin, ed. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1992.

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