Bentwood Boxes of the Northwest Coast peoples

Three Bentwood Boxes (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska): Bentwood box (Tlingit), 19th century, 15.69 x 15 x 19.75 inches (box), 16.94 x 16 x 4.19 inches (lid); Bentwood box (Haida), 19th century, 17.75 x 16.3 x 23.4 inches (box), Hydaburg, Alaska; Bentwood box (Haida), 19th century, 18.13 x 17.38 x 23. 65 inches (box), 19.88 x 17.88 x 4 inches (lid) Kasaan, Alaska

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Bentwood boxes

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Key points

  • The Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast have long created storage boxes from the wood of local cedar trees. These bentwood boxes require significant time and skill to construct and are considered precious to the families that create, use, and preserve them across generations. 
  • The boxes can vary in size, but are consistently made from three pieces of wood that fit snugly together: the bottom, sides, and lid. The boxes are meant to be mobile and can hold food or clan items, such as regalia, blankets, or at.óowu (something special to the clan). Designs on the boxes may include the matrilineal family’s clan crest and complement other types of embellishments such as abalone shells or copper.
  • European and Anglo-American newcomers began to arrive in the area in the 18th century, prompting substantial changes to the lives of Indigenous people and nations. Along with bringing disease and misconceptions about the practices of Native peoples, the newcomers’ presence led to increased tourism and burgeoning industries that drew heavily on local resources and provided new jobs. In this context, many Indigenous people relocated, including the move of Haida people from the village of Old Kasaan to New Kassan in the early 20th century. Families took their boxes with them when they moved.

Go deeper

Learn more about the Totem Heritage Center

Learn about the Northwest Coast Village Project

More to think about

What is most striking to you about the bentwood boxes? Why? 

Pause the video at 2:41, 2:45, and 2:28 to look closely at the three different boxes and their designs. What similarities and differences do you observe among them? 

Do you have containers in your family or culture that hold important objects? What do they look like? Who makes them and how are they made? What do they hold and why? Is there any significance to their materials or designs? Share about your traditions with others in your class. 

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