Whale Rider Mask


Aug. 19, 2015

At the Nuyambalees Cultural Centre at Cape Mudge on Quadra Island, British Columbia, Canada

(NOTE: Because it is extremely important to differentiate my viewpoints from those of my sources, I have bolded my  first person attributions.)


Welcome to the Nuyumbalees Cultural Center. Visitors can walk across the street and picnic here with a view across the water to Campbell River on Vancouver Island.
Welcome to the Nuyumbalees Cultural Center. Visitors can walk across the street and picnic here with a view across the water to Campbell River on Vancouver Island.


Three totem poles greet visitors to the Nuyambalees Cultural Center in Cape Mudge on Quadra Island.
Three totem poles greet visitors to the Nuyambalees Cultural Center in Cape Mudge on Quadra Island.

I have visited Nuyambalees many times over the last double decade because their Sacred Potlatch Collection is available no where else in the world, on or off line. The objects are on loan from private Kwakwaka’wakw families, and all the regalia are pretty much subject to actual family need. If a ceremony needs something in the museum, ceremony has priority over public display.

Because the objects are privately owned, no photographs are allowed, no online representations are posted, and there is, of course, no catalog of the collection. Jodi Simkin, the Executive Director explained to me that the owners feel that to photograph is to take a ceremonial object out of its context; it is to attempt to appropriate the image for a personal agenda rather than the intent of the artist. 

Sketching is allowed; I feel that is because drawing shows a spiritual commitment on the part of the viewer to look deeply into the soul of the object.

The road to Nuyambalees is simply a pilgrimage that must be made, an essential quest for anyone studying the lifeways and art of the Kwakwaka’wakw.

I am here at the Cultural Centre today to view some recently “almost repatriated” objects from the Canadian Museum of History. “Almost” means these totem poles and other objects are actually owned by the Cape Mudge families, but they were confiscated by the Canadian government in 1929. They  are “legally” on loan from the Canadian Museum of History, which means that Nuyambalees had to cover the $30,000 price of shipping.

As often happens, I viewed the new displays and then wandered off deeper into the museum. The way I like to interview a museum is to first browse and read signage and then to find myself looking deeply at one object.

I read about it, look at it, then I sketch it and write about it, trying to think about what I see.

Today, I ended up in front of The Whale Rider Mask. Carved of cedar, it is a compelling black arc of whale body lined with sixteen individual, squared off teeth. The high-rising fin slices through the air of the museum as if it were the Salish Sea. In the center of the mask is Whale Rider, a blue-green man with patterns of red and blue dots. This mask would have been worn on the dancer’s head and been integrated into the pattern of dances, songs, masks, and stories at a potlatch ceremony. The design is clean and elegant with no wasted moves. Its very simplicity tells me it is the work of a master carver.

My sketch of The Whale Rider Mask
My sketch of The Whale Rider Mask



Detail of The Whale Rider Mask by Peter J. Jensen
Sketched detail of The Whale Rider Mask (center and lower) by Peter J. Jensen.


Owned by John Dick, The Whale Rider Mask  is one of a kind; no other mask similar to it has ever been located.

This particular mask was one of seven artifacts repatriated from the National Museum of the American Indian, items that had been confiscated by Indian Agent W. M. Halliday from Alert Bay in 1911 under the then legal auspices of the Canadian government. Those devastating but now obsolete laws systematically worked to dismember the economic powerhouse of the potlatch system by outlawing potlaches and confiscating the fantastically beautiful and priceless ceremonial objects and regalia. Less legally, Indian Agent Halliday turned around and sold the objects on the open market to collectors such as George G. Heye who purchased 35 items for $291; he paid $5.00 for The Whale Rider Mask. George Heye began the National Museum of the American Indian on the foundation of hundreds of objects and boxes of human remains he “collected.”

As part of the signage for each item, the Nuyambalees curators have chosen to include the original price paid by a collector. I wondered about this, but it seems to me that the whole act of confiscation and re-sale is so morally outrageous that there are hardly words to articulate that outrage. I read the posting of the obscene price as a kind of historical brand, a scarlet letter burned again and again on the conscienceless hide of the government, its agents, and the so-called “art” and “artifact” collectors.

The Whale Rider Mask itself, like any great work of art, holds its own in time and space. As a ceremonial object, it had a life and intent of its own. Now, those glory days are pretty much irretrievably gone, and it lives inside the grave solemnity of the Nuyambalees Cultural Centre. But as an art object that anyone with an aesthetic bone in their body could love, it glows with an inner life all its own.

Fine in design, perfect in execution, The Whale Rider Mask soars alone through the dim museum light, worth any journey to arrive at this place and to see it with your own eyes.

This video is The Killer Whale Story told in the Liq’wala language. It was originally recorded in the book Assu of Cape Mudge: Recollections of a Coastal Indian Chief by Harry Assu and Joy Inglis. Further credits are listed or told in the video itself.

6 Replies to “Whale Rider Mask”

  1. This post helps me understand the deep spirituality of native peoples, which we saw visiting the Glenbow Museum (where they DID allow pictures) in Calgary. Thank you for posting the video as well, beautiful images to match the story.

  2. This is so unique. It is a headdress, not a mask. The whale dancer’s head and face could be seen below it. Usually, orca dancers dance around the fire flapping the side fins and raising the dorsal fin anonymously. With this (odd) whale rider’s piece, the dancer can be seen, as if under a long baseball cap. I wonder at the Haida and Kwak waka walk stories that speak of mostly boys being initiated by riding a big canoe out to jump from its bow onto the backs of orcas where their gray saddles are and grabbing the big dorsal fin and trying to stay on as long as they can like rodeo bull riders. This whale rider headdress is so special–both in its spare, sideless form and its reference to this dangerous riding.

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