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The Story of the Masks
Introductions The Potlatch The Masks Site Index
Click to see the T'seka Animal Masks Click to see the T'seka Mythical Creature Masks Click to see the T'lasala Animal Masks Click to see the T'lasala Mythical Creature Masks
Did you know...
Potlatches formerly lasted four or more days and would have featured one, but not both, ceremonies during the potlatch.
The Masks at U'mista - An overview of the collection
In the old days the sea and the Ta'sala were traditionally separate ceremonies and performed at different times in the Big House or Gukwdzi. Eventually these two ceremonies were combined but as separate portions of the modern potlatch. Today, thesea, (Red Cedar Bark Ceremony) and the Ta'sala or Peace Dance take place in a one full day from late morning to late evening ceremony. The most important is the sea, and is considered a sacred ceremony. Red cedar bark on a mask or costume identifies the sea.

The sea, a series of staged dramatic performances, describes the experience of our ancestors. The stories are the history that tells how the Kwakwaka'wakw met supernatural beings at the beginning of the world and how the world was transformed into the shape it is today. The stories are expressed in dance and are the proudest possessions of the Kwakwaka'wakw.

Each dancer must turn around to the left before each dance is presented and again upon completion of their dance as they leave the earthen Gukwdzi floor. This is to represent the connection to the spirit world of our ancestors. The hereditary rights and privileges to the dances and the masks that accompany them are a way of proving family histories and traditions. Dancing is an obligation, a way to carry out responsibilities of the Kwakwaka'wakw.

Potlatches formerly lasted four or more days and would have featured one, but not both, ceremonies during the potlatch.

The second ceremonial series, called the Ta'sala or Peace Dance Ceremony, is presented in the second part of the Potlatch after the sea. The cedar bark headbands are removed and the speaker announces "La'man's lixalil" Which means, "lets roll over the house" (from the t'sea to the ta'sala); now the Chiefs' dances start. It is not possible to translate the word Ta'sala into English most likely because the word came originally from the northern tribes from which the dance was obtained. The Ta'sala is widespread and is used among the Tsimshian, the Tlingit and the Haida. It is said that when two Chiefs have argued, their disagreement can be quickly resolved by performing this dance.

Unlike the sea or Red Cedar Bark Ceremony, where a dancer must always turn counter-clockwise upon entering or leaving, the dancers in the Ta'sala simply walk off the dance floor. The Ta'sala is less solemn than the T'sea. The most serious dance of the Ta'sala is the Hoyikalal, which is danced by the younger brother of the Hamat'sa of the host family. The Hoyikalal is a man who belongs to the highest order of the Ta'sala and has the same status as the Hamat'sa. He may wear a Chilkat or button blanket and carry a raven rattle.

During the Ta'sala many dancers wear the same button blankets that they wore in the sea ceremony. At the beginning of the sea, one of the dancers will go out the front door after being teased by the attendants. An attendant will then be sent out to look for him. Soon the attendant comes back with the dancer's headdress and says that the dancer cannot be found, instead there is a dlugwe' or treasure in the form of a magic creature or supernatural being. Eventually a dancer will enter the house wearing the mask of the dlugwe'. Individuals have the rights to particular dlugwe' masks, dances and songs. Eagles, Thunderbirds, Dzunu'was, Suns, Moons and others are represented in the sea ceremony. A few, such as the Dzunu'wa and the Bak'was who are creatures of the forest, are part of the sea as well as the Ta'sala.
Some of the masks on display at U'mista
The masks at U'mista have been returned to the Kwakwaka'wakw after an extremely long absence.
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