Puppetry was an integral part of the lives of the people of the First Nations who lived in Canada for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. As with other ancient cultures around the world, masks, puppets and puppetry were used in religious ceremonies, rituals and dances.
In New France (the territory that extended from Newfoundland to the Canadian prairies and Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, including all the Great Lakes of North America), the first known record of a European describing an Aboriginal “puppet” dates from around 1655. A Jesuit writes about having seen an Iroquois shaman using a figure in the form of a squirrel animated by strings of plant fiber. The Iroquois people have inhabited the areas of Ontario and upstate New York for well over 4,000 years.
Kwakwaka’wakw, People of the Potlatch
The Kwakwaka’wakw, the Kwak’wala-speaking people, are traditional inhabitants of the coastal areas of northeastern Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. There are now eighteen tribes whose territory reaches from northern Vancouver Island, southeast to the middle of the island and includes smaller islands and inlets of Smith Sound, Queen Charlotte Strait and Johnstone Strait.
Since a time beyond memory, the Kwakwaka‘wakw have been hosting potlatches. Potlatching continues to play a central and unifying role in community life today. The potlatch ceremony marks important occasions in the lives of the Kwakwaka’wakw – the naming of children, marriage, transferring rights and privileges and mourning the dead. Many people believe that a rich and powerful person is someone who has a lot. The Kwakwaka‘wakw believe that a rich and powerful person is someone who gives the most away. In fact the English translation of potlatch is “to give.” Therefore, the more gifts that are given by the host of the potlatch, the higher the status is achieved by the host.
The Potlatch is a Time for Pride and Joy
The potlatch is a time for displaying the masks and dances owned by the Chief or host giving the potlatch. It is also a time for joy. In the words of Elder Anges Axu Alfred, “When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are [Kwakwaka‘wakw]. Everyone on earth is given something. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy.” The songs, stories, dances and ceremonial objects honor the salmon, cedar trees, animals, rivers and all those things that help to sustain the Kwakwaka’wakw physically and spiritually.
Transformation masks were worn by dancers during ceremonies. The masks symbolize wealth and status in addition to being a connection to ancestors in the clans. The masks manifest transformation, usually an animal changing into a mythical being or one animal becoming another. Masks can reveal spiritual and personal transformation. Dancers would pull strings to open and move the mask—in effect, animating it. The definition of a puppet is an object that is animated or manipulated by a person by the use of their hands, arms or control devices like strings or rods. With this definition the animation of Transformation Masks could conceivably be considered as puppetry.
Baleen Whale Mask
The above mask was likely worn by a Kwakwa̲ka̲’wakw chief to demonstrate his prestige and to celebrate the bounty of the sea during winter potlatch ceremonies. Whales and other marine animals were a part of the diet. Whale hunting required courage, physical strength and technical knowledge. The heavy mask was worn along the chief’s back. While he danced he would use interior cords to manipulate the fins, mouth and tail to mimic swimming and diving. In the past, the privilege of performing with a mask was passed down through the generations. Today, tribe members perform the whale dance.
The above picture is the Thunderbird Mask closed which shows the beak. Thunderbird is an ancestor of the ‘Na̲mgis clan of the Kwakwa̲ka̲’wakw people. They say that thunder claps when he ruffles his feathers. Lightning flashes when he blinks.
When the Thunderbird Mask is opened, it reveals a human face flanked on either side by two lightning snakes called sisiutl. There is another bird below it along with a small figure in black above it.
This is a close up picture of the small figure in black that is at the top of the mask. Long ago in order to assist a man who had been transformed into a halibut, Thunderbird flew out of the heavens. After he helped the man, Thunderbird removed his headdress and winged cape and became human. During winter potlatch ceremonies, the dancer wearing this mask would open and shut the beak to reveal the human form within. Even though it is a mask, the wearer can animate it by opening and closing the beak which could qualify as a type of puppetry.
Canadian Museum of History