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Supernatural Serpent

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On Exhibit posts

On display in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, this colorful headdress from the Museum’s collection represents a supernatural serpent, most likely a lightning snake. For the Nuu-chah-nulth people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, a headdress like this one would be part of the regalia worn by ceremonial dancers who have inherited the privilege of taking the role of this creature.

Lighting Snake Mask
Catalog no. 16/1900 
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Lightning snakes resonate with whaling, an activity that was a vital part of the traditional culture of the Nuu-chah-nulth people, in what is now the west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. Lightning snakes assist Thunderbird, a different supernatural creature who hunts whales, by stunning the whales before Thunderbird attacks.

“Thunderbird shoots the lightning snakes down from the sky world, echoing Nuu-chah-nulth endeavors from their whaling canoes,” says Peter Whiteley, curator in the Division of Anthropology.

Lightning snake mask 360
A 360 degree view of the lightning snake headdress.

The Museum’s collection also includes a significant Nuu-chah-nulth hat acquired in 1899, woven from cedar bark, spruce root, and marine grass, that depicts scenes of successful whale hunting by canoe. The headdress was purchased for the Museum by Fillip Jacobsen, a Norwegian trader, in 1897, the first year of the Museum’s Jesup North Pacific Expedition, along with several others. 

In addition to being on display in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, this headdress is part of the newest addition to the Museum’s oldest gallery: the Digital Totem. Visitors can use this interactive installation to browse maps of Northwest Coast communities, hear from First Nations community members, create soundscapes from Northwest Coast nature sounds and music, and examine items in the collection through 360-degree rotations like the one above.