"I'm never more gratified than when I'm able to make something for our ceremonies, and to see it danced."
—Kevin Cranmer, Kwakwaka'wakw artist
A group of roughly 20 tribes that share a common language, the Kwakwaka'wakw are famous for the depth and complexity of their ceremonial dances and songs, which dramatize their connections to the supernatural world. After 1885, when the Canadian government outlawed the "potlatch" gift-giving ceremony and its attendant dances and songs, the Kwakwaka'wakw maintained these traditions in secret until they became legal again.
These dances and songs fostered one of the richest traditions of mask-making in Native North America, maintained during the prohibition by master artists like Mungo Martin and Willie Seaweed. Each carved and painted wood mask represents one of the dozens of characters in Kwakwaka'wakw mythology. These flamboyant and unrestrained designs are also applied in miniature on bracelets, pendants, and boxes.
After learning to carve at age 12, Kevin Cranmer studied under Kwakwaka'wakw master artist Tony Hunt. Cranmer carves miniature pendants based on Kwakwaka'wakw ceremonial masks, as well as many full-sized masks for use in ceremonial dances. He has been inducted into the prestigious Hamat'sa dance society, giving him the right to perform that dance at potlatches.
"In the old days, and still today, when a chief is going to potlatch and if he needs something to be made for that special day, it's a real honor to be asked as an artist to make that object. And you always try to do your best work, because you want to represent that chief, his standing, and his family well. And it's a reflection of the people who taught you.
"Looking back on it now, I realize that you learn from these masters more than how to carve monumental sculpture, you learn how to conduct yourself. One of my uncles once said that you should conduct yourself as though the old people are still here."
Lloyd Wadhams (1938–1992) made Kwakwaka'wakw art throughout his life, and was known for his bold, cleanly incised lines and deep carving style. Wadhams preferred silver as a medium because it was easier to produce and more lucrative than woodcarving. His family's thunderbird crest appears most often in his work, signifying their ancient kinship to this supernatural spirit figure.
Among his most famous commissions was a chalice he carved for Pope John Paul II's 1984 visit to Ottawa. In spite of his success at marketing his work, Wadhams kept a low profile, avoiding the media and letting recognition find him.
Dan Wallace is a hereditary chief among his Ligwilda'xw tribe of Kwakwaka'wakw, but he also has Haida ancestry, and he brings the artistic styles of both peoples into his work.
"I try to incorporate an ancestor's figure or face on all of my pieces, because I want to remind myself that I wouldn't have this art today if it weren't for my ancestors.
"My grandmother told me that one of her uncles was the first to introduce metalwork to my grandfather's village. He did engraving on silver dollars and made a living from it, and he also contributed to the ceremonies, making sure that people, especially all the grandmothers, walked around proud, wearing wide bracelets.
"Today when we adorn somebody with jewelry—our grandmothers or our mothers—we're raising their status and their wealth in a visual sense. It's building us back up."