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An extraordinary puppet with elaborate face paint, hair and clothing made of canvas | Donald Ellis Gallery

Puppet

Heiltsuk (Bella Bella)
Central British Columbia

ca. 1870

wood, canvas, hair, black, red and blue paint

height: 23 ¼"

Inventory # CN3245

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Puppet-like figures were frequently employed in the Heiltsuk cradle dance known as the xa’api, in which a carved image was used to represent a child. The figure might appear to sit up within a wooden cradle operated by strings concealed from viewers. They may also have been used to represent one or another spirit that would appear at the time of a dance performance.

The central coast of British Columbia seems to be the source of most of these puppets. This would include the Coast Tsimshian, the Nuxalk and the Kwakwaka’wakw, who spoke a language closely related to the Heiltsuk, and from whom they inherited a number of important cultural practices.

The narrow, elongated eye form seen here may indicate a trance-like state, a common feature of Heiltsuk winter dances. Whatever the meaning, the overall impression of the facial features and brightly painted surface creates a dramatic impact for the viewer of this engaging, mysterious figure.