Large and elaborately carved bowls of this type were made to contain and distribute feast foods to high-ranking guests at a function commonly known today as the potlatch. Potlatch is an anglicized version of a word from the Nuu-chah-nulth language from western Vancouver Island. Among the Tlingit, from whom this impressive bowl originated, such gatherings are known as “Koo.exx”, and in the distant past would have lasted as long as a week or more. During this time, families of the host clan would serve guests great feasts day after day in large cedar planked ceremonial houses. Guests were also witness to ceremonial transfers of traditional names and cultural privileges such as the ownership of dances, masks and ceremonial regalia. In a society of purely oral record keeping, bearing witness to social transfers, marriages and inheritances was extremely important, and the generosity of hosts toward their guests served as a form of payment.
Carved round or oval bowls of this size are extremely rare, and the handful that have survived all appear to date from the 18th century. The fine design and relief carving on this example are very sure and firmly executed, while the adaptation of the design to the full circumference of the bowl indicates the hand of a well practiced master. The vessel exhibits excellent preservation of the red and black pigments on the primary and secondary formline elements, and a very early blue-green pigment derived from native celadonite or glaucomite iron in the relief carved or tertiary areas.
The beautiful flaring shape of this bowl interacts gracefully with the painted and carved design on its surface. The sculptural humanoid face is carved in classic early Tlingit style, including such features as wide, bold eyebrows, straight lips and large eyes. The very wide, deeply undercut rim of the bowl has an elegantly curved form that elegantly reflects the bulge of the sides below. Inset in the rim are white discs of opercula, a prized material harvested from the interior of the red turban snail.
Feast foods commonly served in bowls of this type would include boiled fish and roots, smoked fish, seaweed and wild berries. Individual servings would be passed from the large bowl to smaller bowls brought by guests. To quote from Tlingit author Nora Dauenhauer (Dauenhauer, Richard and Marks, Nora. Haa Tuwunaagu Yis: For Healing Our Spirit. Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature, Vol. 2.Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990., pg. 65) “In joyous scramble imitating the feeding frenzy of birds, the guests transfer the berries from the host’s delivery bowl into their own… When the serving bow is emptied, the group of guests join in a shout while lifting the bowl up high”.