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Large Sun Mask with elaborate painted designs and eyes inlaid with mirror - Donald Ellis Gallery

Sun Mask

Northern Vancouver Island, BC

ca. 1880

wood, paint, mirror

height: 23 ¼"

Inventory # N2298


donated to the U’mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, BC

Almost one hundred years ago, Chief Cranmer of the Kwakwakaʼwakw Nation of Alert Bay hosted the largest potlatch recorded in the history of British Columbia in defiance of the Indian Act. The potlatch was the primary occasion for negotiating rank, rights, kinship, privileges, and inheritances. From 1885 to 1951 the Canadian government banned the celebration of these great gift-giving feasts, part of a wider effort to assimilate the Indigenous population through the forceful repression of language and cultural practices codified by law. 

In perhaps the most infamous instance of colonial expropriation in Canada, the federal government arrested approximately 45 participants, seized and sold around 750 items from the Cranmer Potlach to museums around the globe. First acquired by the Museum of the American Indian in New York, this Sun Mask later found its way to France, where it remained in the collection of the renowned anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Although the Indian Act was partially reformed in 1951, a number of seized works remain in museums and private collections. In 2017, the leading academic Marie Mauzé identified the Sun Mask taken from the Cranmer Potlatch while cataloguing a group of Northwest Coast works of art at Christie’s in Paris. Following several years of negotiation, Donald Ellis facilitated the return of this extraordinary Sun Mask from the Cranmer Potlatch to U'mista Cultural Centre, a First Nations museum in Alert Bay, in 2019. U’mista, which means ‘the return of something important,’ was established 40 years ago to house repatriated potlatch objects. It is now an important educational centre whose mission is to preserve Kwakwakaʼwakw cultural heritage.

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