Ceremonial belt (Kwakwaka’wakw)

Ceremonial belt (Kwakwaka’wakw), late 19th century, wood, cotton, paint, and iron (Field Museum, Chicago), an ARCHES video. Special thanks to Aaron Glass, the Bard Graduate Center, the U’mista Cultural Centre, and Corrine Hunt

Additional resources:

U’mista Cultural Centre

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] I’m in the Bard Graduate Center at the Story Box Exhibition, with Aaron Glass, the curator of the exhibition, looking at a ceremonial belt.

Dr. Aaron Glass: [0:15] This belt, made in the late 19th century by a Kwakwaka‘wakw artist, people who were formerly known as Kwakiutl, was worn ceremonially in dance or in potlatch ceremonies.

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] The potlatch was an extremely important complex of ceremonies that is central to life in the Northwest Coast.

Dr. Glass: [0:34] Just the wearing of belts would have signaled the privileges that the dancer would have inherited from either their parents or through marriage exchange. Both the two serpent heads and the human head are signaled by these spiraling horns on the top of their heads, common on the Sisiutł motifs.

[0:52] The Sisiutł is a two-headed sea monster. In stories of the Sisiutł, contact with its blood would turn a person to stone. One of the contexts in which you see Sisiutł motifs danced are in the Hawinallał, a warrior’s dance. For warriors, the fact that the Sisiutł turns you to stone protects the warrior from arrows of his enemies.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] You said that the face in the center was human. It does not immediately strike me as fully human, in part because of the horns but also because of the blue spots, the blue eyes. That face, along with the serpents, feel terrifying.

Dr. Glass: [1:27] You do often see both the humanoid face and the serpent heads in Sisiutł motifs, with rows of sharp teeth, with grimacing faces. The menacing quality may be tied both to the supernatural powers of the Sisiutł, they were powerful and dangerous, and to the military prowess of the warriors.

[1:47] It’s hard to interpret what the middle humanoid face on Sisiutł representations indicates. Possibly a relationship with the human wearer of this particular belt, possibly with humanoid ancestors who had encounters with actual Sisiutł in the sea. We don’t know.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] There are three units of wood, each attached together by cloth, which wrap around. The colors are gorgeous. There’s that vibrant blue, the blacks, and the reds, all highlighted against the natural tones of the wood that really offsets the added color.

Dr. Glass: [2:17] The treatment of this belt is characteristic of similar kinds of objects we see in the late 19th century; many of which were painted with black, red, and blue. In this case, I believe, all of these pigments were commercially manufactured.

Dr. Zucker: [2:31] I think that we have this prejudice to want pre-industrial when we look at Native American art. But of course, Native American art, like every other people’s art, is transformed and evolves constantly. The belt is surrounded by a small black-and-white photograph.

Dr. Glass: [2:48] This photograph was published in 1897 in Franz Boas’s groundbreaking ethnographic volume “The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians.” The Story Box exhibition is the story of that book and the work that Franz Boas did with his Indigenous collaborator, George Hunt, to write that book.

[3:08] In the book, we see what’s captioned as a “Dance of the Chief of the Haa’nalino Clan.” We now know that this man’s name was Gwayułalas. This dance occurred in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Dr. Zucker: [3:24] That’s quite a distance from where this man lived. He lived in Fort Rupert, which is on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, in Canada. Here he is, displaying this ceremonial bow. Behind that in the photograph, you can see the belt. But you don’t see the context in which this was photographed. It looks as if this man is standing on a hill with the sky in back of him.

Dr. Glass: [3:47] The original photograph showed the immediate context. We clearly see Gwayułalas performing in front of his Kwakwaka‘wakw compatriots in front of the Leather and Shoe Trades building at the Chicago World’s Fair.

[4:01] Gwayułalas was one member of about 20 Kwakwaka‘wakw who were hired to perform at the Chicago World’s Fair by Franz Boas. Boas, in turn, hired his collaborator, George Hunt. Hunt assembled the troupe, primarily from his own family and social contacts in and around Fort Rupert.

[4:21] The troupe members were paid to be at the fair. They demonstrated dances, sang songs, made crafts which they sold to fairgoers. They lived on the fairgrounds for about seven months. While they were there, they worked closely with both Franz Boas and George Hunt to record a lot of their traditional culture.

Dr. Zucker: [4:38] That seems so deeply uncomfortable to me. I hope we would never do such a thing again, that is, put people on display as if they were objects.

Dr. Glass: [4:48] One of the things our exhibition raises is how much agency did they have in their exhibition. We know they were paid. They went voluntarily.

[4:56] But at that time, the potlatch and the ceremonial dances that they were doing at the fair were outlawed in Canada as part of the Canadian government’s prohibition of the potlatch and part of federal efforts to assimilate Indigenous peoples into modern Canadian society.

Dr. Zucker: [5:15] Imagine having the central features of your culture outlawed.

Dr. Glass: [5:19] By the end of the 19th century, when this group of 20 Kwakwaka‘wakw decided to live at the Chicago World’s Fair for 1893, the potlatch ban had already been in effect for over a decade, and people were starting to be arrested for participating in dances and ceremonies.

Dr. Zucker: [5:35] So performing in the United States, where the potlatch was not illegal, could be seen as a form of resistance.

Dr. Glass: [5:40] They found ways to do it, despite the prohibition, and making artwork and performing dances at the Chicago World’s Fair was one of those strategies.

[5:48] By 1951, when the potlatch ban was dropped, the Kwakwaka‘wakw were among the first First Nations of the Northwest Coast to bring the potlatch back out into the public.

Dr. Zucker: [5:58] As Corrine Hunt has put so beautifully, the work that Boas did with her great-grandfather, George Hunt, became a repository of knowledge, imperfect but nevertheless important, that helped people overcome the disruption that was a result of the prohibitions that had been imposed by Canada.

Dr. Glass: [6:14] Part of the story of The Story Box is the role of that book for Kwakwaka‘wakw today. Our team of anthropologists is working with community members to do the work of cultural and linguistic revitalization.

Dr. Zucker: [6:27] And to give a careful, more nuanced context for objects like this.

Dr. Glass: [6:31] In the book, Boas does not mention the Chicago World’s Fair as a context for dances, for the display of this regalia, for the production of the photograph that became the bookplate.

Dr. Zucker: [6:42] It’s interesting to think about what Franz Boas’ motivation was in literally erasing everything around it so that the illusion is maintained, [that] this was shot in British Columbia.

Dr. Glass: [6:52] The photographic documentation becomes a kind of authentic ethnographic illustration for Boas that belies a very complicated history of photographic production, of performance for money — outside of ceremonial contexts — of art display and use. That’s much more complicated than we would imagine just reading Boas’ book.

Dr. Zucker: [7:15] It seems to me that Boas was intent on making sure that these people were represented in a pre-industrial context, ignoring the fact that they were members of the modern world. They were using industrial pigments. They were in Chicago. All of that had to be erased in order to satisfy our appetite for the authentic.

Dr. Glass: [7:34] Despite his efforts to physically erase the fairground context from this plate, a close examination reveals that under his regalia, Gwayułalas is wearing Western trousers and a Western shirt, even at the same time as they were keeping their cultural traditions alive.

Dr. Zucker: [7:52] First Nations in the Northwest had come into contact with Europeans centuries before. The Russians and the British had made contact as early as the late 18th century. What this really reveals is how fragile the illusions that we try to maintain really are.

[8:07] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Aaron Glass and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Ceremonial belt (Kwakwaka’wakw)," in Smarthistory, July 29, 2020, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/ceremonial-belt-kwakwakawakw/.