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Front view of an exquisitely painted bentwood box from the Tsimshian First Nations | Donald Ellis Gallery
Short side of a Tsimshian bentwood box with exceptional painted formline | Donald Ellis Gallery
Back side of a superb bentwood box with symmetrically painted design | Donald Ellis Gallery
Short side of a superbly painted bentwood box with symmetric design | Donald Ellis Gallery

Chief's Chest

Tsimshian
Northern British Columbia

ca. 1840-1860

wood, paint

height: 17"
width: 29 ½"
depth: 17 ¾"

Inventory # N4377

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RELATED EXAMPLES

University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Cat. Nos. Nb3.1454 and A8211 – See: McClelland Bill and Duffek, Karen. The Transforming Image. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000, pg. 170, pl. 6.27A and pg. 171, pl. 6.28 A for two chests identified as Heiltsuk

Canadian Museum of Civilization, Cat. Nos. VII-D-278 and VII-EE-29 – See: Ibid, pg. 170 pl. 6.27B and pg. 171 pl. 6.28C (Heiltsuk)

Field Museum, Cat. No. 51988 – See: Ibid, pg. 171, pl. 6.28B (Bella Bella)

Before the introduction of nails by Euro-Americans, the First Nations peoples of the Northwest Coast employed a remarkable technique for the construction of wooden boxes and chests. Bentwood containers are manufactured from a single plank of wood that is first tooled with an adze until smooth and flat. Fine grooves are then cut across the grain at the location of the three corners, and a rabbet joint is cut at one end. The plank is steamed to soften the wood fibers and then bent at the grooves. The plank ends are either sewn with root fiber or fastened with wooden pegs. The bottoms were attached separately with pegs.

Large painted and carved chests like the superb example illustrated here were used to store and protect ceremonial objects and hereditary dance accoutrement of family lineage chiefs. The masks, rattles, carved frontlets and woven or painted robes contained in these chests were brought into public view only on important ritual occasions. Large chests also served as stately seating for house and lineage chiefs, and other important guests at feasts and potlatches. According to Indigenous belief, the carved and painted designs acted to protect the chests contents. Here we see an elegantly rendered image of a bear, signifying this revered animal as the chests guardian.