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Bella Coola Peoples, Frontlet Headdress, Late 19th century, Carved wooden mask, (NOMA) New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana

This three-dimensional headdress was created by the Bella Coola Peoples, also known as the Nuxalk, in the late 19th century. “They are among Canada’s 634 recognized First Nations of Indigenous peoples. They have long inhabited the Pacific coast of what is now the province of British Columbia” (NOMA, 2020, para. 1). The Nuxalk people are renowned carvers; their mask-making tradition incorporates physical representations of beings that are supernatural and have animal features of certain species like wolves, ravens, killer whales, and owls that are native to the tribe’s home region.

I would call the form of power, power of belief, or spiritual power that is serving the Nuxalk people because they wore the masks (referred to as masking) in sacred ceremonial dances that would reenact myths, shamanistic healing, and to represent high ranking ancestors. In the late 19th century, the masks were no longer called masking because they no longer wore them to take on a mythical identity; instead, they were referred to as Frontlet Headdresses and were worn by high-ranking individuals to convey a story. The Frontlet Headdresses often represented birds. They had a dance ritual where they would take the carved and tethered bird and shake it out of the crown of the headdress; this would cause the carved bird to swirl and drift around the audience and the dancer. The message the art is trying to convey is spiritual, sacred, tells a story, and to identify high-ranking individuals.

The materials used in creating the headdresses were chosen because they were organic and sustainable materials that were easily attainable, like ferrous metal, walrus whiskers, woven cedar bark, ermine pelts, and red Haliotis shells. The supernatural animal-like features of the headdresses would be the symbolism and, depending on what the headdress was being used for, such as in a sacred ceremonial dance, shamanistic healing, or identifying a high-ranking individual, would determine what the message and symbolism represented. The artist’s intentions were not to create a headdress for artistic purposes; it was created because it is a part of their culture. However, it was created with power in mind and to be a physical representation of that power.

Shannon Munoz


Bella Coola Peoples. (Late 19th century). Frontlet Headdress [Image]. NOMA New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana. https://noma.org/bella-coola-headdress/ (Links to an external site.)

NOMA New Orleans Museum of Art. (2020, April 13). Object Lesson: Frontlet Headdress of the Bella Coola Peoples. https://noma.org/bella-coola-headdress/ (Links to an external site.)

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