Alderwood gull mask

British Museum

British Museum

This wooden mask is decorated with flicker feathers. It also has a rattle of small limpet shells inside, which sounded when dancing. It would have been used in the winter ceremonial. Gulls herald plentiful food, since they announce the arrival of herring in the spring by shrieking, wheeling and diving over fish shoals.

A number of bird masks were collected during Captain Cook's voyage in 1778 from the Mowachaht (a division of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth) in British Columbia. According to the accounts of the voyage, a performance was enacted on one occasion with a bird mask that seemed to produce its own song. It was recorded that:

'[A Native] today put up before his face an image of a bird's head & offered it for sale, at the same time shaking it up and down, while another person sitting by him applyed a small whistle to his Belly so as to collect the air by drawing the Skin round it & immitated in some measure the whistling of a bird; this being supposed to be done by some Contrivance raised the Value of it so much in the Eye of one of our collectors of Curiosities, that he immediately offered a very large price for it which was as quickly accepted...'

This was the first Northwest Coast mask to be published, in the 1784 posthumous account of Captain Cook's third voyage.

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  • Title: Alderwood gull mask
  • Physical Dimensions: Length: 37.00cm; Width: 15.00cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: carved; inlaid
  • Registration number: Am,NWC.55
  • Place: Found/Acquired North America
  • Peoples: Made by Nuu-chah-nulth
  • Other information: Cultural rights may apply.
  • Material: wood; talc; spruce gum; mica; feather; sinew; limpet shell
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by Banks, Joseph. Collected by Cook, James