Puppet-like figures were frequently employed in the Heiltsuk ritual performance known as the xa’api, or cradle dance, 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 rituals.
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.