20.2^THE AMERICAS^454^466^,,^5408^5539%
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No one knows for sure when humans first occupied the double continent of the Americas or where those people came from. The most widely accepted theory is that sometime before 12,000 years ago—and possibly as early as 30,000 years ago—migrating peoples crossed over a now-submerged land bridge linking Siberia with Alaska, then gradually pushed southward, seeking hospitable places in which to dwell. Firm evidence of human presence at the tip of South America has recently been dated to about 12,500 years ago, indicating that by then both continents were populated, if only sparsely.

By 3000 B.C.E., we can identify developed cultures in three important centers: the Northwest Coast of North America, the fertile plateaus and coastal lowlands of Mesoamerica, and the Pacific Coast of South America. During the ensuing centuries, peoples in these and other territories created rich and sophisticated artistic expressions. Their early art has sometimes been called “pre-Columbian,” meaning that it was created before Columbus' voyages to the Americas. The term acknowledges that the arrival of Europeans changed everything, and that the civilizations of the Americas were interrupted as decisively as if they had been hit by a meteor. Yet it is best to approach them on their own terms and not to think of them as “before” something else. After all, they did not think of themselves as coming “before” anything but, rather, after their many predecessors, whose achievements they knew and admired.


“Mesoamerica” describes a region that extends from north of the Valley of Mexico (the location of present-day Mexico City) through the western portion of modern Honduras. Mesoamerica is a cultural and historical designation as well as a geographical one, for the civilizations that arose in this region shared many features, including the cultivation of corn, the building of pyramids, a 260-day ritual calendar, similar deities, an important ritual ball game, and a belief in the role of human blood in sustaining the gods and the universe. Mesoamerican peoples themselves were conscious of their common cultural background. Thus, the Aztecs, who were the most powerful culture in the region at the time of the Spanish conquests of the early 16th century, collected and admired jade sculptures by the Olmec, whose civilization had flourished over two thousand years earlier.

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Olmec civilization, which flourished between about 1500 and 300 B.C.E., is often called the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, for it seems to have institutionalized the features that mark later civilizations of the region. The principal Olmec centers were concentrated in a small region on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, but the influence of Olmec culture extended over a much broader area. Chapter 11 illustrated one of the colossal stone heads carved by Olmec sculptors (see 11.9). Chapter 2 included a finely worked Olmec jade depicting a shaman (see 2.37). Olmec leaders may have derived their power by claiming ability as shamans. Rulers in later Mesoamerican societies were also expected to have privileged access to the sacred realm.

A few centuries after the decline of the Olmecs, the city of Teotihuacán, located to the northeast of present-day Mexico City, began its rise to prominence. At its height, between 350 and 650 C.E., Teotihuacán was one of the largest cities in the world. Laid out in a grid pattern with streets at right angles, the city covered 9 square miles and had a population of around 200,000. Teotihuacán exerted great influence over the rest of Mesoamerica, though whether this was through trade or through conquest we do not know.

The heart of the city was its ceremonial center, a complex of pyramids and temples lining a 3-mile-long thoroughfare known as the Avenue of the Dead. To the Aztecs, who arrived in the region long after Teotihuacán had been abandoned, it seemed hardly possible that humans were capable of such wonders. They viewed the city as a sacred site where the gods had created the universe, and it was they who named its largest structure the Pyramid of the Sun (20.7). Made of stone and brick, the Pyramid of the Sun rises to a height of over 210 feet. A temple originally stood at its summit. Like the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia, Mesoamerican pyramids were symbolically understood as mountains. Excavations have discovered a tunnel leading to a natural cave containing a spring directly beneath the center of the Pyramid of the Sun. Perhaps it was this womblike source of water and life that was considered sacred by the city's original inhabitants.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán, Mexico. 50–200 C.E.

2.37 Olmec jade figure

11.9 Olmec colossal head

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11.4 Maya figurine

11.2 Sarcophagus of Lord Pacal

Farther north along the Avenue of the Dead is a large sunken plaza surrounded by temple platforms. The focal point of this complex, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, gives us our first look at a deity shared by many of the Mesoamerican civilizations (20.8). The Olmec pantheon included a feathered serpent, although its exact meaning is unclear. To the Aztecs, the feathered serpent was Quetzalcoatl, the god of windstorms that bring rain. Here, representations of the deity—its aggressive head emerging from a collar of feathers—alternate with the more abstract figure of the god of rain, distinguished by his goggle eyes. Rain, water, and the wind that brought them were essential to the agricultural societies of Mesoamerica.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent, the Ciudadela, Teotihuacán, Mexico. 2nd century C.E.

One of the most fascinating of all Mesoamerican civilizations was that of the Maya, which arose in the southeastern portion of Mesoamerica, primarily in the Yucatán Peninsula and present-day Guatemala. Mayan culture began to form around 1000 B.C.E., probably under the influence of the Olmecs. The Maya themselves come into focus just after the final decline of Olmec civilization around 300 B.C.E. Mayan civilization flourished most spectacularly between 250 and 900 C.E. It was still in existence when the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, however, and speakers of Mayan languages live in the region today.

Among their other accomplishments (including astronomy, biology, and the mathematical concept of zero), the Maya developed the most sophisticated version of the Mesoamerican calendar and the most advanced of the region's many writing systems. Scholars began to crack the code of Mayan writing in the 1960s, and since then the steady deciphering of inscriptions has provided new insights into Mayan civilization, in the process overturning much of what earlier scholars assumed.

The Maya were not a single state but a culture with many centers, each ruled by a hereditary lord and an elite class of nobles. Warfare between the centers was common, and its purpose was not conquest but capture: Prisoners of war were needed for the human sacrifices that were thought necessary to sustain the gods and maintain the universe. The official and ceremonial architecture of the Maya was meant to impress, and it does (20.9). The photograph illustrated here shows the structures known as the Palace and the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, in the Chiapas region of Mexico. The royal dynasty of Palenque was founded in 431 C.E. and rose to prominence under Lord Pacal, who died in 683 C.E. Pacal was buried in a small chamber deep beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions. The carved lid of his sarcophagus is illustrated in Chapter 11 (see 11.2).

Palace and Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico. Maya, 7th century C.E.
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The Palace probably served as an administrative and ceremonial center. Set on a raised terrace, it is constructed on two levels around three courtyards. Like the Temple of the Inscriptions athe pyramid, the buildings of the Palace take the form of long, many-chambered galleries. The square pillars of their open porches support massive stone ceilings with corbelled vaulting. (To review corbelling, see page 294.)

A series of murals discovered at Bonampak, in Mexico, help us imagine the kinds of ceremonies that took place in Mayan palaces (20.10). Painted in 800 C.E., the original murals are today badly faded and crumbling, and we appreciate them best in this careful copy that restores their original colors. The murals depict events surrounding the presentation of an heir to the throne. In the upper band, nobles and lords gather. We can see four of the lords clearly in this view, with their white capes and feather-crowned headdresses. Vertical panels of writing next to them record their names. The assembly continues around the wall to the right and culminates with a view of the young heir himself (not visible here). In the lowest band, a colorful and evidently noisy procession winds around the walls against a vivid blue background. The jaguar pelts, finely woven textiles, abundant jewelry, and feathered ornaments of the Maya have not survived, but this mural and others like it allow us to restore a sense of color and pageantry to the deserted ruins we study today.

East wall, Room 1, Bonampak, Mexico. Maya, 800 C.E. Polychromed stucco. Copy by Felipe Dávalos and Kees Grotenberg.
Courtesy Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville.
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The first scholars to study the Maya believed that their art was primarily sacred and depicted cosmic events such as stories of the gods. Thanks to our understanding of Mayan writing, we now realize that Mayan art is almost entirely concerned with history. Like the murals at Bonampak, it memorializes rulers and portrays important moments of their reigns. Preeminent among Mayan arts are narrative stone relief carvings such as this lintel from a building in Yaxchilan, in Mexico (20.11). The scene is the second in a sequence of three compositions that portray a royal bloodletting ceremony. Bloodletting was a central Mayan practice, and almost every ritually important occasion was marked by it. Lady Xoc, the principal wife of Lord Shield Jaguar, is seated at the lower right. The previous panel showed her pulling a thorn-lined rope through her tongue in the presence of Shield Jaguar himself. Here, she experiences the hallucinatory vision that was the ceremony's purpose. From the bowl of blood and ritual implements on the floor before her there rises the Vision Serpent. A warrior, possibly one of Shield Jaguar's ancestors, issues from its gaping jaws. Dated with the Mayan equivalent of October 23, 681 C.E., the ceremony probably marked the accession of Shield Jaguar as ruler. Bloodletting and the visions it produced seem to have been the Mayan rulers' way of communicating with the spirits and gods. This communication was their privilege, their duty, and the source of their power.

Lintel 25 (The Vision of Lady Xoc), Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico. Maya, 725 C.E. Limestone, 513/16″ × 34″ × 4″.
The British Museum, London.
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4.14 Aztec feather shield

The last Mesoamerican empire to arise before the arrival of European conquerors was built by the Aztecs. According to their own legends, the Aztecs migrated into the Valley of Mexico during the 13th century C.E. from their previous home near the mythical Lake Aztlan (hence Aztec). They settled finally on an island in Lake Tezcoco, and there they began to construct their capital, Tenochtitlán. Tenochtitlán grew to be a magnificent city, built on a cluster of islands connected by canals and linked by long causeways to cities on the surrounding shores. Massive pyramids and temple platforms towered over the ritual precincts, and in the market squares goods from all over Mesoamerica changed hands. By 1500 Aztec power reached its height, and much of central Mexico paid them tribute.

Almost nothing remains of Tenochtitlán. Spanish conquerors razed its pyramids, and Mexico City has since been built on the same site. Aztec books were consigned to the fire, and their arts in precious metals were melted down for gold and silver. Yet the Spaniards were deeply impressed by the arts they found, and many objects were sent back to Europe. The mask illustrated here (20.12) was probably made by Mixtec artists living in Tenochtitlán. Mixtec artists also made gold and silver objects for the Aztecs, who greatly admired their work. (For Diego Rivera's re-creation of a Mixtec artistic community, see 7.4.) Mosaic of turquoise painstakingly applied in minute squares follows every curve of the face. Pearl shell serves for teeth and eyes. Such a mask would have been worn in one of the numerous ceremonies of song and dance that were central to Aztec life. Masks had a long history in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs collected jade masks carved by the Olmecs and in Teotihuacán. Maya artists also carved ritual masks of jade.

Ritual mask. Aztec, early 16th century C.E. Turquoise, pearl shell.
The British Museum, London.

Featherwork was greatly prized in Mesoamerica, and a specialized group of weavers in Tenochtitlán produced featherwork headdresses, cloaks, and other garments exclusively for nobles and high officials. The ceremonial shield here (20.13) shows their vivid sense of design and color. The heraldic coyote depicted in blue feathers edged in gold is the Aztec god of war. From his mouth issues the symbol for “water burning,” an Aztec term for war. Rich in metaphors, Aztec speech also referred to warfare as “the song of the shields” and “flowers of the heart upon the plain.” Feather shields such as this were part of the lavish dance costumes worn by warriors in ritual recreations of the warfare of the gods.

Ceremonial shield. Aztec, early 16th century. Feather mosaic and gold on wicker base, diameter 27½″.
Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna.
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South and Central America

Like Mesoamerica to the north, the region of the central Andes on the Pacific Coast of South America provided a setting in which numerous cultures developed. Pyramids, temple platforms, and other monuments have been found dating to the third millennium B.C.E., making them the oldest works of architecture in the Americas, contemporary with the pyramids of Egypt. Textiles of astonishing intricacy have also been found from this time.

Among the first South American peoples to leave a substantial record of art are the Moche, who dominated a large coastal area at the northern end of the central Andes during the first six centuries C.E. The Moche were exceptional potters and goldsmiths. Tens of thousands of Moche ceramics have been found, for one of their great innovations was the use of molds for mass production.

Kneeling warriors are a standard subject of Moche ceramic art (20.14). The large ear ornaments and elaborate headdress capped with a crescent-shaped element are typical of the costume on these figures. The warrior carries a shield and a war club; the heads of two more war clubs protrude from his headdress. His beaked nose probably links him to the barn owl, which was regarded as a warrior animal for its fierce and accurate nocturnal hunting abilities. Much of the finest Moche pottery takes the form of stirrup vessels, so called after the U-shaped spout (here attached to the warrior's back). The innovative spout pours well, can be carried easily, and minimizes evaporation. Yet such elaborate vessels cannot have been primarily practical.

Stirrup vessel. Moche, 200–500 C.E. Earthenware with cream slip, height 9⅛″.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

One of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world is the Inca city of Machu Picchu, in Peru (20.15). Beginning around 1430 and moving with amazing swiftness, the Incas created the largest empire of its time in the world. By 1500 Inca rule extended for some 3,400 miles along the Pacific Coast. Incan textiles are some of the finest in the long tradition of South American fiber work (see 12.10). Incan artists also excelled in sculptures and other objects of silver and gold. But the most original Incan genius expressed itself in stonework. Over 20,000 miles of stone-paved roads were built to speed communication and travel across the far-flung empire. Massive masonry walls of Incan buildings were constructed of large blocks of granite patiently shaped through abrasion until they fit together perfectly with no mortar.

Machu Picchu, Peru. Inca, 15th–16th centuries.
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Machu Picchu is set high in the Andes Mountains overlooking a hairpin turn in the Urubamba River thousands of feet below. Builders leveled off the site to create a small plateau and constructed terraces for houses and agriculture. Also visible at Machu Picchu is the wholly distinctive Incan sensitivity to the natural landscape. At the northern end of Machu Picchu, for example, a free-standing boulder was carved to resemble the silhouette of a peak that can be seen beyond it in the distance. Elsewhere a rounded building known as the Observatory accommodates a huge boulder into its walls and interior. Part of the boulder is subtly sculpted to create a staircase and chamber. The Inca believed stones and people to be equally alive and capable of changing into one another. This attitude seems to have resulted in their unique approach of relating architecture to its setting.

We end this section with an object made of the material that proved to be the Americas' undoing, gold (20.16). Fashioned of a gold and copper alloy called tumbaga, this pendant figure was made by artists of the Tairona culture, which flourished in northern Colombia after about 1000 C.E. The Tairona belong to the cultural region of Central America, which extends from the southern part of present-day Honduras into northwestern Colombia, where a mountain range called the Cordillera Oriental forms a natural boundary. The knowledge of extracting and working gold was first developed to the south, in Peru. Over generations it spread northward, with the goldsmith's art becoming increasingly refined and technically advanced.

Pendant depicting a ruler. Tairona culture, 1000–1300 C.E. Copper and gold alloy, height 2¾″.
Museu Barbier-Mueller d'Art Precolombí, Barcelona.

12.10 Inca tunic

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Cast using the lost-wax technique, the pendant here portrays a ruler. He is probably also a shaman, and the birds that unfold like wings from either side of his head are the spirit alter egos that give him access to the other world. Tairona smiths added copper to the gold to lower its melting point and create a harder, more durable object. After casting, the pendant was bathed in acids that removed the outermost layer of copper particles, leaving the impression of solid gold. The taste for ornaments in precious metals spread from Central America northward into Mesoamerica. There the finest artists in precious metals were the Mixtec, who supplied the Aztecs with their legendary and now lost works. Earlier cultures such as the Olmecs and the Maya had preferred jade.

North America

It might be expected that those of us who live in North America would have a clear picture of the history of art on our own continent, since we are, after all, right here where it happened. Unfortunately, we do not. In general, the ancient arts of North America are much less available to us than those of many other parts of the world—partly because the early inhabitants seem to have made their artifacts from perishable materials such as wood and fiber. Partly it is due to the absence of large urban centers. Patterns of life developed differently in the North.

Many arts of later North American peoples—Indians, as we have come to call them—are arts of daily life: portable objects such as baskets, clothing, and tools imbued with meanings that go far beyond their practical functions. In Chapter 12, we used as an example of such arts a basket from the Pomo of California (see 12.9). Pomo thought links the basket to the story of the sun's journey across the sky, and a flaw woven purposefully into the basket provides a way for spirits to enter and leave. The basket is thus connected to the sacred realm and to ritual. And yet it is also a basket.

The first clearly identifiable culture group of North America populated an area known as the Eastern Woodlands—in parts of what are now Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—starting about 700 B.C.E. Several Eastern Woodlands cultures are known collectively as the “mound builders,” because they created earthworks, some of them burial mounds, in geometric forms or in the shapes of animals. The Serpent Mound in Ohio, illustrated in Chapter 11, is the most famous of the mounds still visible (see 11.23). Among the arts of daily life that have come down to us from early Eastern Woodlands cultures are pipes carved of stone (20.17). The pipe illustrated here was excavated in 1901 from an Adena burial mound. Like the Moche warrior earlier (see 20.14), the figure wears a crescent-shaped head ornament and large ornaments called ear spools. The gently rounded musculature and slightly bent knees convey a sense of movement and life.

Effigy pipe. Adena culture, 500–200 B.C.E. Stone, height 8″.
Ohio Historical Society, Columbus.

Tobacco was considered a sacred substance by many North American peoples. First domesticated in the Andes around 3000 B.C.E., it made its way north by way of Mexico some two thousand years later. In North America, smoking tobacco became viewed as a form of prayer. The rising smoke faded into the other world, bidding its spirits to come witness or sanction human events. Interestingly, whereas knowledge of tobacco arrived from the South, the stone pipe itself is a North American invention.


11.23 Sepent Mound

12.9 Pomo basket

Europeans arriving in America introduced such new materials as glass beads, and Indian beadwork became justifiably famous. An older Indian art, however, is quillwork (20.18). Quills from porcupine or birds were softened by soaking, then dyed to produce a palette of colors and worked into a surface of deerskin or birch bark. The quillwork on the tabbed deerskin bag illustrated here portrays a thunderbird, a sky deity recognized by many Indian peoples. The thunderbird rises over a horizontal band that signifies earth. Below, two reptiles abstracted to diagonal lines are denizens of a symbolic underworld. The three levels of existence—sky, earth, and underworld—are summarized with great economy of means.

Tabbed skin bag. Ottowa(?) culture. Eastern Great Lakes, c. 1790. Black-dyed deerskin, porcupine quills, silk binding, hair tassels, tin cones; length 20½″.
Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown.
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Whereas Eastern Woodlands culture was based in a settled way of life, the Plains culture that formed to the west was nomadic, organized around the herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains. European explorers' greatest although accidental contribution to Plains culture was undoubtedly the horse, which was brought to America by Spanish colonists and spread throughout Indian cultures over the course of the 18th century.

Buffalo hides provided not only clothing but also shelter in the form of covering for tents, tipis (also spelled “tepees”). Hides provided a surface on which Plains men recorded their exploits as warriors (20.19). Drawn by Lakota warriors, the images here record a battle between the Lakota and the Crow, depicted with the vivid recall of participants. Such a hide would have been worn around the shoulders as a robe. Other garments such as shirts and leggings were also painted. Clearly visible are the feathered headdresses that were a distinctive feature of Plains costume. Headdresses were made from the tail feathers of eagles, which were identified with the thunderbird. Some offered protective spiritual power; others were merely finery. Only a proven warrior was permitted to wear one in battle, however.

Hide painted with scenes of warfare. Lakota culture, North or South Dakota, c. 1880. Horsehide and pigments, branded; 8′2″ × 7′9″.
New York State Historical Association, Fenimore House Museum, Cooperstown.
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Urban life was not entirely absent from North America. The people known to archaeologists as the Anasazi,1 who lived in the southwestern part of the continent, created ambitious communal dwelling sites. One such dwelling at Mesa Verde, in Colorado, has become known as Cliff Palace (20.20). The Anasazi had been present in the region from the first several centuries B.C.E. Around the 12th century C.E., they began clustering their buildings in protected sites on the undersides of cliffs. A complex system of handholds and footholds made access difficult. (Modern tourists have been provided an easier way in.) This arrangement allowed the Anasazi to ward off invaders and maintain a peaceful community life.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Colo. Anasazi culture, c. 1200 C.E.

Cliff Palace, dated to about 1200 C.E., has more than two hundred rooms organized in apartment-house style, most of them living quarters but some at the back meant for storage. In addition, there are twenty-three kivas—large, round chambers, mostly underground and originally roofed, used for religious or other ceremonial purposes. The structures are of stone or adobe with timber, and so harmonious is the overall plan that many scholars believe a single architect must have been in charge. Cliff Palace was occupied for about a hundred years before being mysteriously abandoned in the early 14th century.


12.1 Martínez, Jar

The Anasazi's neighbors in the Southwest were a people we know only as the Mogollon culture, which flourished in the Mimbres Valley of what is now New Mexico between the 3rd and 12th centuries C.E. Today the word Mimbres is associated with a type of ceramic vessel developed about 1000 C.E. Mimbres jars and bowls were decorated with geometric designs or with stylized figures of animals or humans. Often, these motifs appeared as paired figures (20.21). Although Mimbres ceramics were probably used in households in some way, most examples that have come down to us have been recovered from burials. As grave goods the vessels often seem to have been ritually “killed,” either by shattering or, as here, by being pierced with a hole. The act draws a parallel with the human body, which is a vessel for a soul. In death, the vessel is broken and the soul released.

Bowl with Mountain Sheep. Mimbres culture, c. 1100 C.E. Painted pottery, diameter 10½″.
Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
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Masks and masking played important roles in some Indian cultures. The Pueblo cultures of the Southwest acknowledge numerous supernatural beings called kachina (from the Hopi katsina). Danced by maskers, kachina enter into the community at important times to bring blessings. They may appear, for example, early in the year as auspicious presences so that rain will follow for the new crops. Later, after a successful growing season, they dance at harvest ceremonies. Over two hundred kachina have been identified, each with its own name, mask, character, dance movements, and powers.

Hopi and Zuni Indians make doll-size versions of kachina as educational playthings so that children may learn to identify and understand the numerous spirits (20.22). The kachina themselves often presented the dolls to the young members of the community during their appearances. The doll here portrays a kachina named tamtam kushokta. The spirit wears a white Hopi blanket around its waist and a coyote mask. A spectator who witnessed kachina maskers dancing in 1907 wrote, “In their right hands they carried a tortoise-shell rattle, which they shook with vigor when they danced, and in the left hand, a bundle of prayer sticks, tied up in corn husk, with a kind of handle attached by which it was held.”2 These handheld objects are faithfully represented on the doll. Kachina dolls were believed to contain some of the power of the spirit they represented. Early in the 20th century, admirers managed to purchase or commission kachina dolls, but that move caused great unease among the Zuni, who believed that letting the dolls out of the community would result in crop failures or other disasters. Selling the dolls to outsiders was a crime subject to severe punishment, although it seems that some were indeed sold.

Kachina doll. Zuni culture, before 1903. Wood, pigments, hair, fur hide, cotton, wool, yucca; height 19″.
The Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Contact often led to cultural borrowing among Indian groups, as indeed it has with peoples all over the world throughout history. The Navajo people arrived in the Southwest between 1200 and 1500 C.E., after a long migration from their original lands in Alaska. Although they never quite adopted the settled life of their new Pueblo neighbors, they did adapt aspects of Pueblo arts and religious beliefs to their own use, including the practice of making spirit beings manifest through masks (20.23). As the photograph here shows, Navajo spirit masks resemble Kachina, and indeed scholars believe that the two sets of deities may be distantly linked. The Navajo, however, call their spirits Yei, Holy People. Spirit masks such as this one might have appeared at the climax of a particularly elaborate healing ceremony, during which their powers had been invoked through a sand painting such as the one we looked at in Chapter 2 (see 2.36).

Edward S. Curtis. Navajo Zahadolzha Masker, from Volume 1 of The North American Indian. Photograph. 1907.
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Masks are also danced by many peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including the Kwakiutl, who live along the southern coast of British Columbia. The flamboyant Kwakiutl mask illustrated here is Crooked Beak, one of the four mythical Cannibal Birds who live at the north end of the world and eat human flesh (20.24). During the winter, the four monsters ritually invade the human community. They kidnap young men of noble families and turn them into cannibals. This kidnapping and transformation take place within the larger ceremony of potlatch, in which a host generously feeds guests from numerous villages over the course of many days. On the final day, the elders of the gathering ritually cure the young man of his cannibalism. The four Cannibal Bird masks dance as part of this ritual, after which they are banished for another year.

Johnnie Davis. Crooked Beak. 19th century. Wood, red cedar bark, cord, leather, and paint; length 35¼″.
Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria.

The long beak is hinged, and a skillful dancer can make it open and snap menacingly shut. Cannibal Bird masks are carved to this day, both for use and to be sold to collectors. Their tremendous formal variety shows how much room for creativity and individual expression an artist actually has within forms that are too often thought of as unchanging and “traditional.”